My dad was a “real man.” He drank Budweiser by the six-pack and his favorite brand of whiskey was Early Times. He could curse up a storm (and often did). He hunted, fished, hid adult magazines under his mattress, and smoked Swisher Sweets. As far as I know, he rarely wore cologne, but he had a scent about him that I will never forget. The smell wasn’t alcohol or cigars or fish. It is hard to describe other than to say that to me it was the smell of pure masculinity. I still remember holding onto my dad for the last time after he died, breathing in that scent beneath the weight of all of the memories of the man, that “real man” who was no longer real, my dad who I would always try to measure up to.
In the early years of my life, my dad worked as a carpenter. He could build pretty much anything and had a basement full of tools to do it with. I remember spending countless hours alone in that musty basement trying to imagine the vibration of a circular saw in my hand as it ripped through a 2 x 4, the smell of the sawdust and the echoing thud as the discarded piece fell to the ground. In most cases, my dad worked alone. I don’t remember too many occasions in which he worked on jobs with other men. He did however have a helper—my older brother who was five years older than me. Through the years, my dad taught my brother much of what he knew about carpentry and being a man. They spent a lot of time together on those jobs—measuring, sawing, hammering, problem-solving, talking. Thirty years later, my recollections of their relationship are probably slanted more toward the ideal. My brother’s story is his own to tell.
While my dad and brother were working, I was usually left behind—little kids get in the way. As I grew a little older and realized that my brother was being paid for the work he was doing, I began to ask if I could help too. In order to quiet me, my dad came up with a compromise. I would stay at home and he would pay me to ‘stay out of the way’. I’m sure, in my dad’s mind, this was a win-win situation—I would get money and he wouldn’t have an obnoxious kid bugging him while he worked. This worked for quite a while, then as I grew older I began to ask to go along again. By this time, I realized that I was at an older age than my brother was when he first started working with my dad. Finally, he started allowing me to come along to jobs with them, but my responsibilities were to still basically stay out of the way. I was to pick up tools and clean up when things were finished. It seemed that there was no time to teach me to use those cool power tools or how to measure a piece of wood to ensure that it fit where it belonged.
After a year or so, my dad’s health declined and he was forced to find other means to provide for his family. My brother got older and moved on to his own jobs. I was left behind once more.
The feeling of not being quite ‘man enough’ to help my dad has haunted me for my entire life. The feeling of not quite being important enough to spend time with him. The feeling of being paid to ‘stay out of the way’. All of this left me with insecurities and shame that I pushed deep inside. Besides the obvious shame of having to call my father-in-law each time something went wrong around the house or with a car, my issues were much deeper. Based on my perceptions of what a “real man” was, I fell short. Throughout my life, I rarely had guy friends—I never felt secure enough that I would fit in. When I had struggles in my life, I would handle them on my own or simply pretend they didn’t exist.
Eventually I came to a point in which I realized that I could not handle the struggles of my life on my own—that they were unmanageable. They were so far-reaching that I could no longer stuff them down or pretend that they were not there. Though it has not been an easy path, by the grace of God, my life has changed. I now know that I have a Father who is always there and who wants me to be with Him. I have a Father who loves me and there is nothing that I can do that will make Him love me less. I also know that I need to be in a community of men as I travel this journey. Men who I can depend upon, and who can depend upon me in good times and bad. Once he showed me this, God flooded my life with opportunities to form authentic relationships with men who are also on this journey. He has given me community in which I can take off my mask and talk about my insecurities and shame with other men who will not judge me—only listen and love me. He has given me a community of men who are willing to teach me the things that I really want to learn—how to use those power tools and even smoke a cigar. The most important thing that He has shown me is that they also want to learn from me, because I am a real man, too.