A Real Man

A Short Personal Memoir by Luke Nelson

12/1/21

A thick fog hangs over the tree-laden hills and clings to the grass fields. I can see my grandfather, “Pa,” within the haze. He is nothing more than a silhouette of a man. The fog is dark and menacing but in a beautiful sort of way, though I know Pa is not paying attention to the brooding mystery of morning mist. My grandfather isn’t that type of man. No, Pa is the type of man who wakes up early every morning and eats unflavored oatmeal and straight black coffee. He’s the type of man to find contentment in working his fields and shearing his sheep. He’s the type of man to come in every evening from a day’s work, covered head-to-toe in mud, and not go immediately to the shower. Rather, he goes straight for the whiskey bottle. 

Hard whiskey. Plain oatmeal. Black coffee. I don’t know how my grandfather does it. I was ten the first time Pa offered me a sip of his drink. It was a cold winter evening, and he was sitting outside on his front porch watching the sun set over his fields. He held out the glass towards me. It seemed to sparkle in the evening sun, with ornate little carvings neatly etched into the sides. The light brown liquid swirled down at the bottom.

“You want a sip?” he asked.

As a child, you always accept when an adult offers you a sip of their drink. It’s a sign that they think you’re mature enough to get just one taste of the dangerous allure of alcohol. In my case, it felt like a rightful ascent into manhood.

I took a swig from the glass. The whiskey burned my throat and seared my eyes. My head throbbed as the sour taste lingered in my mouth. I could only cringe at its bitterness. 

“That’s disgusting!” I exclaimed.

Pa let out a loud cackle, clapped me on the back, and said in his gruff New Zealand accent, “Aw, come on, mate. You just suck it up and drink it! Whiskey’s for real men!”

A real man’s drink. Oatmeal and black coffee were a real man’s breakfast. And, according to Pa, farming was a real man’s work. And a real man doesn’t notice such a thing as fog. He doesn’t notice the way it can hide a world. He doesn’t notice the way it clings to your skin, pulling you deeper and deeper into its uncertain depths. You can do anything in a fog. You can be anybody you want because nobody can see you. Your world is nothing more than the 20-yard radius around you. But a real man is impartial to the opportunities fog offers. He does not let his guard down. He does not let out his true emotions. In such a gray and hidden world, he remains a real man: stoic, brave, and, thus, strong.

But what do you do when the real man finally succumbs to the fog? What do you do when the mist closes in so tight that his barriers are broken through? What do you do when a real man is sitting at the end of your bed crying?

My father is almost as much of a real man as his father. The difference is that he puts strawberries on top of his oatmeal. The difference is that after a sweltering day’s work in our tiny Los Angeles garden, he opts for beer instead of whiskey. The difference is that my father is a gardener, not a farmer. His work requires a sentimentality and appreciation for beauty that Pa’s work lacks. The way he crafts those bushes matter. The way the colors blend matters. 

But, like Pa, my father has built his walls strong. He does not notice the fog when we drive to school in the morning. He does not notice its foreboding silence. He does not crack when it pushes against our windows.

But last summer, it finally got to him. My father sat at the end of my bed, his eyes brimming with tears. He choked as he informed me that Pa was dying. The man who had spent his whole life hacking through the New Zealand Bush and hunting wild boar was now tied to an ICU bed in an entanglement of tubes and ventilators. His immortal apathy had been reminded of the very mortal body it resided in. 

As my father sat at the foot of my bed crying, I could not look him in the eyes. I had nothing to say to him and no way to comfort him. I remained silent, simply nodding at my father’s newfound ability to verbally express sentimentality. I didn’t dare tell him that I love him as much as he loves Pa. I didn’t dare tell him that I don’t take my family for granted and that I will be heartbroken the day he passes on. I didn’t tell him these things because I’ve been taught to take my whiskey hard. I’ve been taught to stay silent and let it burn my throat. And I’ve been taught to ignore the fog. 

So I sat still as my father stood from my bed and walked from the room, hopeless and defeated, dejected and alone, and I said nothing. 

Because that’s what a real man does.

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