Chapter 2 reprinted from Love, Loss, and Awakening
My childhood was molded during the turbulent Vietnam War and Cold War years. Without our knowledge, our elders were preparing us for conflict. I would watch Combat, The Man from Uncle, and other attitude-indoctrination TV shows with my dad. My friends and I would play war with our fake submachine guns,
using clods of dirt, nicknamed dirt bombs, as hand grenades. I still recall my secret-agent attaché case, with cap-exploding locks if you opened them without the secret code, and the concealed knife that came out of the side for a quick kill. We would stalk our backyards, home construction sites, and the remaining woods, for that was our own Hollywood backstage lot for WWII and Eastern Europe. We would choose sides, and our wars and espionage played out in our
imaginations. The dead bodies hadn’t started arriving, and TV didn’t expose the truths of war until 1968, so it was still all fiction to us.
My dad experienced war in reality. He was a 30-caliber machine gunner in Korea, and spent the last year of the war on the front lines. He saw limited action, but what he saw was enough to know he needed to prepare me to survive as a soldier if I was going to Vietnam. My dad prepared me silently, either because he didn’t want to relive the memories or because men didn’t share their horrors
back in the ’60s and early ’70s but kept them inside. Thank the Divine I never had to put the lessons of television and my elders to use, and the Vietnam War ended before I graduated high school. And then, 9/11 fell upon us all, young and old.
On the evening of 9/11, I walked from 42nd and 10th Avenue to the Queens-Long Island border. I arrived home around nine o’clock that night. My family waited for me before sitting down to dinner. A new existence for the entire country was unfolding, and for the first time, Dad clearly verbalized his lessons on the harsh
realities of war. He unveiled several of his war stories to my sons and thus
indirectly to me. He shared memories of artillery barrages and bullets landing just inches in front of him. He described how, during a mortar barrage, you clawed yourself into the dirt, thankful you’d heard the projectile’s whistle and final explosion, which meant you weren’t dead and your conversation with G-d could continue. As we ate, my thirteen-year-old son complained about something that was trivial compared to the continued suffering the country would awaken to the next morning. Within seconds of Evan’s finishing his complaint, Dad lost hold of his usually jovial, sweet temperament and unleashed hell’s fury on him. What was going through his imagination was that his grandsons were likely
to be the next cannon fodder. “Don’t you ever complain, never complain—complainers die.”
He told us what happened to men in combat who complain: They were given duties that reduced their likelihood of survival to a few percentage points. Dad composed himself and then explained how to survive. This lesson was only a few minutes in length, because that was all he could bear, but it meant the potential survival of generations. My dad drummed similar teachings into me to prepare
me for war in the jungles of Vietnam. Back in the 1960s, men didn’t show emotions or explain much. The TV program All in the Family, which was to change the rigid, insecure American male ethos, hadn’t been born yet. It was hammered into us that we had to be tough and never, ever cry. Success in life was based on overcoming or fending off the male dominance of other men in war, in business,
or on the street. If someone bullied or punched you, you had to punch him back harder so he saw stars and never messed with you again. If you went head over heels on your Schwinn Stingray bike as you jumped a curb, you composed yourself quickly—no tears. You scurried back onto your bike as if nothing had happened, unless a friend praised you for surviving that “cool” flip. And you’d be a “Silver-Star hero” till the next cool thing happened that day.
Our fathers were teaching us how not to die; we just didn’t know it. My best friend’s dad served in WWII and never spoke about it. The “crazy” man down the block was shell-shocked from his WWII experience, an example of those who’d survived and failed when they came home. He had a bomb shelter in his backyard, and his house was overgrown as if he still lived in the jungles he’d fought in. Men who had to be tough considered PTSD a failure, and those
who exhibited its symptoms were vilified.
The first time I ever saw my dad cry was when Grandma died. I was in my early twenties by then. I can’t remember seeing Dad cry any other time until much later in life. I was told he’d cried when we put our dog to sleep, but he hid those tears from me. He thought I’d have to survive war, and crying was simply not permitted. I can’t recall crying as a kid either, but have many other memories. Mom wept for us, for Dad and my two brothers—she was our outlet for emotions forbidden to males.
That was my life until cancer entered it. My son, Evan, and I were driving home from a college-hunting visit to Union College, as Evan was to graduate from high school the following year. My wife, Hope, and her father went to a doctor because Hope’s misdiagnosed urinary-tract infection wasn’t getting better. Cancer wasn’t on either of our minds, so it didn’t dawn on us that I should join her at the doctor’s. My cell phone rang, and I heard Hope crying hysterically.
“Pull over,” she said. “I’ve got something to tell you.” Then she instantly changed my forty-something years of stoic male life, my future, and how I accepted it, forever. “I may have cancer,” Hope said.
My son and I looked at each other, hugged, and both started to cry with her. For decades it was ingrained in me never to show tears. Now they flowed and flowed as Evan and I cried together. For several days the tears never stopped, as each doctor visit got more ominous. Stage 3C cancer was the first diagnosis; we wouldn’t know if it was stage 4 until after the surgery. We went from doctor to doctor, and I cried in their offices, in our home, and everywhere else I went. Decades of bottled-up emotions let go like a failed dike that unleashed torrents of water on unsuspecting villagers. I didn’t think about my tears, but instinctively let them flow for the first time in my life. Tears, once forbidden by our processing to survive the world’s horrors, now became necessary to survive a different type of war—the war to keep my wife alive and for me to not bottle up my emotions anymore out of fear of rebuke.
I now cry at everything. I welcome it as a newfound dear friend. I cry at the
movies, at TV shows, and on happy occasions as well as sad. I cry when I see an old friend, and cry over the daily grind at work. I’m crying as I write this, here in Lenny’s Bagels in midtown New York, and couldn’t care less who sees the tears stream down my cheeks. I wear my tears as a badge of honor for having learned to reveal my emotions to the world. And, like many other widows and widowers, I still cry almost every day for my departed best friend. It is our friends, family, and new lovers who must learn to accept us when the tears begin to stream in fond reflection of the past.