Content note: suicide.
When I showed my husband what I had written here about him, I watched his face carefully as he read. We were eating breakfast at a cheap café at the local market, our daughter in the high chair beside us, flinging water at the window and babbling away. I waited for the verdict.
He finished reading and looked up at me. His eyes were sparkling. He said that he didn’t really recognise the man I was describing, didn’t realise that I saw him in that light. But, he added, “I’m so happy you see me that way. I try every day to be that man for you.”
Masculinity and all that comes with it is a heavy topic, a heavily politicised topic, one that can make people, or at least some men, defensive and on edge, leading them to break the tension with an inappropriate joke or comment. I’ve never seen my husband do that, though. He has become intolerant of the casual misogyny that passes as “humour” in Australian society.
Because of this and so much more, to me, he is a real man. What a loaded sentence, right? A ‘real man’.
What damage has been done with those words, what wounds have been inflicted on sweet boys whose joy for life and love of others was seen as a shameful weakness. I hate the term because of its poisonous power to destroy, but I also use it and qualify it by adding that a ‘real man’ is any man who is, as Brené Brown described, ‘wholehearted’.
A ‘real man’ is fully human, or at least fumbling their way to vulnerability and authenticity. He inhabits himself, his emotions, his past and his soul as much as possible.
My husband looks the way society says a real man should; tall (6’2”), broad-shouldered, powerfully muscular in the arms and chest, strong brooding features and a walk that suggests nonchalant confidence yet quietness of spirit. He is taciturn, sometimes to the point of rudeness, pragmatic, parses his words carefully and yet is quick to smile and offer a polite greeting. Half his torso is covered in intricate Polynesian tattoos that highlight his pride in his heritage, and they only exaggerate what does not need exaggerating. He is a tradesman; a carpenter. He is athletic, and his hands are as ‘manly’ as you can imagine.
These are not the things that make him a ‘real man’. Maybe both because of and in spite of all this, he is often the very antithesis of the stereotype he represents, and even after fifteen years of being his closest friend and confidante, I am still surprised that he doesn’t seem to succumb to that insecurity that plagues men, that whispers, you don’t have what it takes. Or if he does, he doesn’t react to that by acting out, drowning his pain with beer or hurting those he loves.
Because of this freedom, he writes poetry and shares it. He loudly proclaims his love for his wife and child on a worksite, power drills in the foreground and wood chips flying. Although not a perfect man by any definition, he avoids violence and has only given in to the impulse to shout or slam a door on rare occasions. He is not overly sensitive and defensive when conversations probe deep. He openly speaks about his love for his parents, me, our child.
What a beautiful thing it is to behold a man who is allowed to fumble his way to wholeheartedness, to become human. Patriarchy demands such an exacting price from both boys and girls, men and women, and it breaks my heart to see beautiful men, with so much to offer, shut down and become empty husks of anger or silence or insecurity. I guess my husband won the lottery in terms of appearance and demeanour, because, not having to justify his manliness through his physicality (not that other men should), he has been lucky enough to move beyond that and explore his humanity.
This freedom did, however, come at a high price. It was only seven days before his sixteenth birthday that his best friend hung himself on a tree at their favourite park. My husband found him, scrambled to cut him down, failed until another friend arrived, held Matty in his arms until the ambulance took over. Seven days later my husband turned sixteen, and two weeks later his other friend drowned while surfing.
He was forced to confront mortality at an age where we are so impressionable and malleable that it amazes me every day that he survived and didn’t take his own life in the years following. That’s not for lack of trying. The spectre of depression and suicidal behaviour haunted him for years.
In a song he wrote recently, he reflects, “I ain’t even bitter no more, because it made me who I am.” The pain he experienced during that time, and in the years to come, refined something in him. It tore him apart, it cleaved him in two and almost ended with his name on a gravestone, but like the late Leonard Cohen says, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
Although now, at 32, he is a beautiful, open and brave man, it was difficult to become that man, and he, like so many other men (and women) spent a long time avoiding the work of facing, accepting and healing the wounds of his youth. He was so adept at hiding his true feelings that apart from me, his girlfriend at the time, almost no one knew about what had happened with his friends. He only told his parents five years ago. He used alcohol and drugs to avoid his pain, and his inability to deal with what had happened culminated, years later, in a particularly heartbreaking event, his affair.
As with all things of the heart, it is not simple cause and effect, and it is definitely not an excuse. It is an attempt to outline how our expectations of masculinity have become so toxic that he was completely without the ability to identify, accept, share or deal with his emotions for a very, very long time. He would have perpetually remained, emotionally anyway, that sixteen-year-old, full of mute despair and hopelessness, if he had not been given the ultimatum: make peace with yourself and your past or lose me forever. He chose me, and this is why I write this piece today.
He is only a ‘real man’ in my eyes because he stopped making excuses and did the hard work of coming face to face with his deepest, most painful wounds, and weekly couples’ and individual counselling saved both him and our marriage two years ago.
The ability to look inside himself and share his authentic self with me, the world and others did not come easy, but I am eternally grateful and fully aware of the gift of this man. I strive every day to love him and not flinch or look away when he does do that thing that ‘real men’ aren’t meant to: be emotional, be himself, be human.