To love something that’s vulnerable and utterly dependent, some skin needs to be in the game. If you didn’t know, men are 90% armor, their skin and underbelly tucked away in safe obscurity. But for men to love, and love in a pitying kind of way, their soft underside has to be exposed. That’s the only way.
This, more than any other reason, is why my Dad refused, flat-out refused, to get another dog. Dogs have a way in with him. He bathes them, disciplines them, lets them sleep next to him. And dogs gravitate toward him, as if they know instinctively where the heaviest connection resides. I know from stories that my Dad lost a dog when he was younger and I’ve pieced together that this was a trauma he wanted desperately to avoid if he could.
But there were his young children who begged him for a dog, Junior, and he complied. While Junior was in the periphery of my childhood, he was more central to my Dad than he ever let on. He disciplined him, fed him, and bathed him when none of us would. When Junior got old, it was my Dad who took the emotional brunt of it all. While my sister and I disengaged to protect ourselves, my Dad continued to bathe him until Junior’s fur became thin. In the last years, my Dad moved him from our house (out of sight out of mind, for us at least) to his place of work which had a great big lot for Junior to spend his final days running around, enjoying the extra space…just getting to be a dog. My Dad was with him when he died.
In retrospect, I understand now how hard this was for him. But my sister and I were young and soon we were on his case about getting another. No, he said, they stink up the house, they get fur everywhere, they’re just too much of a hassle. His armor was on again, I think, and for all the excuses and flat refusals, what he was really saying was that he couldn’t bear the sliding feeling that ended in a helpless sort of hurt. That pitying love, again.
Instead of waiting for a yes, my sister just went ahead and got a dog, a Cairn terrier she named Dodger, correctly wagering that once he was unavoidably in our family, he’d have to be accepted despite the stink and the mess he made. My Dad’s attitude was predictable. He pretended not to care, distanced himself physically, emotionally from the pup. But we all knew what was happening. Dogs have a way in with him like a straight injection to the heart. It wasn’t long before my sister’s dog became his, a choice the dog seems to have made as well. They’re inseparable even when they sleep.
The underbelly, exposed again, shows us what kind of man he is. Despite the inevitable hurt, he’s given in to the reluctant love of a dependent and vulnerable, pitiful sort of thing.
I bring this up on Father’s Day because his mother is dying. My grandmother spent a lifetime keeping an arm’s distance away from her sons, not out of any animosity, but out of her own brand of love. She would not be a burden. Her sons, my Dad included, were raised to be heads of families, and she would not, after the years spent raising them to be such, undermine them by being an intrusion. So she kept her distance and resolved to live her last days alone to free her sons from a superfluous concern. This was her love, and you and I may not understand it, but its love all the same.
Despite her best efforts though, she lost her ability to walk late last year and with it, her independence, which meant everything to her. She had no choice but to relent. When my parents moved her closer to where they work, I thought of Junior and how the inevitability of decay, of sorrow and eventual loss was not only invited closer, but embraced as that hard mantle of responsibility.
But I can tell you, for my Dad, it’s more than obligation; it’s an innate capacity to absorb and then to endure the fierce intensity of another being’s nakedness. We speak of our fathers in good ways today. My Daddy is so brave or my Daddy so strong or this, that and the other. And while some fathers rush the field of battle, or run into burning buildings, “heroes” so to speak, it’s another thing entirely to watch your father plunge wholly and completely into a gap impossibly dark and deep.
To go out loved is what we want, but maybe we don’t understand what it takes. This requires an otherness that we can’t completely control, someone else to be there at your bedside willing to wash you, bear the stench of death, and confront their own pain, to see you as human still. The dignity you thought you lost is restored in the way they change your bedpan. And while the pain of it is dispersed across all who loved you, someone has to be the cradle that bears the heaviest load, someone who won’t leave.
Quietly, this makes my Dad a hero. To show this kind of love, a pitiful kind of love, not intense like romance, or nurturing like a parent to child, but an enduring one, means that dignity is served in the most ignominious of moments, and death is cheated of its most dehumanizing sting.
For men to love like this, they are exposed, their skin in the open. They’re speared for it, he’s bearing the brunt, believe me, but he’s not going anywhere.
This is how to die loved, and we may not understand yet,
But it’s love all the same.