I saw my old man cry once. It was my grandpa’s funeral. I was part of the six pallbearers. Three on each side of the coffin. I remember thinking the sarcophagus was a little too heavy. Had Grandpa carried his coffee fortunes with him or was it his big heart doing a number on us? My Grandpa was a good man and you could feel his good nature when you were in his presence because it radiated off him like a radioactive metal. We placed the coffin on a designated table with his photo on a cleared patch in his vast coffee shamba. If you’ve been to Murang’a you know it’s picturesque; evergreen with tracts and tracts of coffee and banana plantations. You also know how the landscape is like. Dipping like a waterfall.
My dad was standing away from the clearance; stiff and rigid as if his spine was made of a metal rod. He was clad in khaki chinos, leather boots, a black blazer and on his head a big brown god-papa to finish his Mt. Kenya Mafia look. He called me in a flat voice that didn’t betray his forlorn emotions and asked me if I was ok and I kept quiet because I looked into his eyes and saw a broken man. He removed his god-papa and covered his face and started hiccupping. I wanted to tell him it was going to be ok but how do you tell your father it’s going to be ok? He then removed the god-papa from his face and it was stained with tears. A crying man’s face is an ugly face. You don’t want to see a man cry, a man is the pivot in a home, the buck stops with him, he takes responsibility for his family and tears do little to communicate that.
He probably thought his tears made me see him as less of man and he broke away from my sight and dissolved into the coffee bushes. I knew he had gone to let loose, cry some more. Perhaps cry out loudly and ask the gods why they had forsaken him. Why they had taken away this man he had looked up to all his life. A man who had seen him through the good and bad days. The very same man who was there propping him up when he was asking for my mom’s hand in marriage. A man he had come to see as a hero, an invincible pillar. How could death defeat such a man? He felt betrayed, haunted by his father’s absence. His world was shifting and crashing beneath his brown leather boots.
He didn’t know it but I respected him more for those tears. Those tears brought a lot of clarity in my life because we’re living in times when it’s very confusing to be a man. We grew up in a world where our mothers were submissive and being the head of the family meant the man’s word was the law but now we’re becoming young men in a changing world that demands flexibility, a world where women are more empowered than our mothers and aunties were. We’re becoming young men who are torn between being modern men and being the traditionalists we grew up seeing our fathers, brothers and uncles be. Those tears told me it’s okay to be confused and it’s okay not to have all the answers.
It hit me that Grandpa had gone after my big sister—she’s the Caroline Mutoko of our family when she’s speaking about men her every sentence drips of feminism—she read the eulogy in English and the sister that follows me—I always say she should have been born the boy because she acts on impulse and adrenaline when I have to take time and rationalize things before acting. Our mouths and dental formula are identical, so every time I look in the mirror I see her and every time she looks in the mirror she sees me, so we can never really be separated. She read the eulogy in Swahili and a husky master of ceremony built like a yak, with a cream blazer that had black patches on the elbows, called our family to pay our respects and my face got hot. Pain stabbed my stomach and I winced and started sobbing and my identical mouth sister came in to comfort me, her hand on my shoulder—velvety and fever-hot only to burst into tears as well.
Guys, this is very difficult to write because I’m reliving all these emotions again but I won’t tell you I’m overwhelmed because I’m an African man. I will instead tell you I’m writing this on a Sunday evening and I have been reading Stieg Larsson’s, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest and watching Maisha Magic East all day and I haven’t had anything to eat, except kibanda fries and those don’t really count as food. So let me put together something to eat and control my sniffles and I’ll be right back.
The next time I cried was when I came home and found my dad seated on the sofa in his white vest looking dilapidated; a plethora of medicine bottles on the table assembled like potions in an apothecary and someone who looked like a doctor checking his blood pressure. I asked him what was wrong and he told me he wasn’t feeling very well and I knew things were tits up because our fathers are proud men, men who will stand and say everything is okay even when they’re staring at their graves. Our fathers don’t tell anyone, leave alone their sons, that they’re not feeling good unless they’re at the very edge of the cliff.
That day he was diagnosed with diabetes and admitted to hospital and I saw him shrink like a balloon that had been pricked by a needle. I saw his clothes refuse to fit him—it’s funny how the head looks larger as if it grows as your weight ebbs from your body. “Everything will be ok,” I remembered telling him but there was a voice in the back of my head that kept creeping its cold fingers up my spine whenever I was alone. “What if everything won’t be ok?” “Who will take accountability and responsibility for our family?” “All those moments you refused to share with him, how will you live with that weighing on your shoulders?” And it was on those nights that I would burst into tears and heave painfully and because mothers are mothers and they often feel the pain of a child, my mom would knock on my door and ask me if everything was ok. And I would say everything was fine not daring to open the door, not allowing her to see my face, full of tears and mucus because a crying man’s face is an ugly face.
My dad bounced back. Three months in and his protruding belly was gleaming and you couldn’t tell he was the frail thin man on that hospital bed at Nairobi women’s who had shaken all of us to the very core. Except for my mom who was dauntless the entire time. Funny that I have never seen her cry. She’s a lioness. A headstrong woman even though you might not see it by looking at her. If my dad is the pillar she is the cornerstone that holds that pillar.
Men cry in different forms. Some men cry through violence. Some cry with a bottle of alcohol and a cigarette stuck in-between their lips. Others cry by hopping into their cars and taking a long drive on the southern bypass. Somewhere with a lot of road and few cars. Some cry by waking up in a strange woman’s bed. But real mean don’t hide their tears in violence, binge drinking, drugs or strange woman’s beds. Real men cry and let things out of their chest. Because real men are flesh and bone—human beings and not steel robots.
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