I know my father is a very emotional man. It has taken a long time to lean this, and I am still learning it. I've learned this through time, small gains in wisdom, the words of my mother and maybe from being a dad myself. His emotion shows. It shows large, but rarely on his sleeve. You could say still waters run deep, but the river's current is swift.
There are times when you can't or don't want to show that emotion, let it direct your steps. No one knows this better than any Black man growing up and living in the United States. No one knows this better than a Black father who does not want his children infected even more deeply than the hurt of the racial politics of the sandbox. It's not easy. It is basic for survival. Sometimes, it just comes in handy.
Sometimes, it is nice to not seem so frightened when you are frightened. Sometimes, it makes sense to let everyone else think things are okay when they are not. Sometimes it makes sense to tell yourself and your body that things are okay when they are not.
One evening, at the dinner table, things were not okay. Mom was choking on a piece of meat. Panic. The four of us children sat in stunned, paralyzed terror—a tacit ohmygod, ohmygod, oh... Mom: well, she was choking.
Our hearts were racing, eyes wide, our forks still, no click or clank. Father calmly put down his utensils, got up and walked to the side of mother's chair. He helped her to rise from her chair, got behind her and performed a Heimlich maneuver.
Done, he calmly returned to his seat. So did mother. We all sat, quietly, not quite as if nothing happened, but in a quiet that filled the void of what would have been a collective hysteria.
Just as he had not jumped up like some rescuing hero, like so many men, waiting to see if the cameras where rolling or at least someone was going to identify him as the savior, he did not wait for or want any fawning gratitude or a honey-you-saved-me-my-hero-man-so-superior. He did not treat her like a child. He did not milk the trauma. Is life lessons taught him that doing so was never a good thing.
I think what he would have wanted to say is, “Kids, make SURE you chew your food properly,” but after that event, he really didn't need to.
Maybe that evening, mom and dad shared some thoughts and feelings about the evening's event. I don't know. I am sure that father made sure that it was more about digestion than “saving.” I am sure that both of them were more concerned about the four of us kids. For us kids, it was another of those false lessons that perpetuated illusions of immortality and that even the most scary things can be taken care of by mom and dad.
I know that night was not the only time in his life that my father had to double check his emotions, capturing the energy from the dire urgency while, at the same time, not letting the wildness of that energy derail the solution. He has had to do that with other emotions, as well, for the tears of sorrow and joy, holding his tongue and fists against people who have deserved more than just a tongue lashing or more than a simple slap upside the head.
He does not yell. He does not hit. He will if he has to, on the rare life occasion when such things are truly necessary. (He grew up in a neighborhood where you had to know how to fight.) I am wondering how well I have learned any of those lessons. Sometimes those lessons show more than my emotions. Once in a while, the lesson is lost, and my emotions get the better of me—but not too many people see this. People wonder why I seem so solemn.
So, as I write this, I feel like maybe I have told you more than my family wants you to know. But it is easier today to write this than to write of the events of the past two days that, for some reason, reminded me of this story, about love, anger, fear, how love defeats fear and anger, and of the limitations that our mortal selves put on the infinite capacity of love.
Maybe I can tell today's story soon. Maybe after I have lived a little more of it—or maybe today's story is short enough so that it will achieve the emotional space for telling, a space where I will not jump up in hysteria, begging for attention, a righteous hero.
The only thing I know that fits in today's string of words is that some levels of anger require a lot of love to muster, and hopefully some wisdom lets the love win.
Keep listening. When I learn today's lesson (or think I have), I'll let you know.