I’ve never seen my father cry. This is surprising because he’s not one of those “boys don’t cry” sorts and never scolded us for tears. With four small boys running around the house, he saw ours almost daily as we grew up, most often for scraped knees or easily forgotten boyhood tragedies. To him, tears were to sadness what laughter was to mirth—each held an important part in the yin and yang of the emotional spectrum.
But I thought I saw him cry once.
It was the day of my grandmother’s funeral. I only remember snippets of who she was, but I remember that when four boys ran to her cupboard and dumped cereal onto the floor to pick out only the tastiest pieces while leaving the rest for her to clean up, she laughed deeply and sincerely. Given the chance, she’d probably let us do it everyday right into our teenage years and laugh the same way. This was the woman who raised my dad, so his smiles and chuckles were just as readily available though he wisely kept the cereal out of reach, or bought Corn Flakes.
I was young at the time but understood from the exchanges between adults that her death “came suddenly” and the “tests they did were the wrong ones” and that my grandmother was “a great woman” “in a happier place now.” As luck would have it, I was told it was the same place that my dog was, so I asked no further questions. He’d been a fine dog, so they could care for each other and in my mind that seemed ideal.
My father had taken the news of her passing well and he retained his usual stoic demeanor throughout the ceremony. Even afterwards, as a soft drizzle fell upon the dark procession and he and his brothers walked the coffin out of the hearse to watch it lowered solemnly into the ground, his shoulders were high; he was strong, silent and pensive, and his lip never quivered. His sons were not so strong. We all cried. We didn’t even know why, but in the mind of a young boy, if everyone else is in tears, then you should be too.
When we arrived home afterwards, we all ran inside to avoid the raindrops—except my father. He strolled slowly from the car and entered casually. He stood thoughtfully at the kitchen counter wearing his most formal attire, looked outside over the gardens he was so fond of and slowly poured himself a cup of coffee. “Well,” he said sliding his feet into his dirty rubber boots, “I think I’ll take a walk in the garden and see what has to be done.” Mother nodded and her eyes spoke volumes of understanding.
I watched dad from the window. He held his bright red coffee mug in perfect balance in one hand and a shovel as walking stick in the other, as was his morning custom. He would putter through the gardens making mental notes as to which flowers were doing well and which needed extra attention. But on that day, he slowly walked about the garden as the rain silently fell, sipping his coffee until the cup hung empty by his side; his purpose seemed different to the eyes of a young boy so used to watching his father walk among flowers. For hours, he moved about the blooms until he finally stopped, put his mug down and began to dig.
I had no idea what he was digging for—the potatoes were in the other garden. But I felt that even if he found the biggest potatoes, he would keep digging for something else.
When he finally returned to the house, he must have seen the perplexed look on my six-year-old face.
“Mom has a patch of Sweet Williams in her garden. They’re not doing well. They’ll do better here.” He said, removing his muddy boots. He placed the empty coffee mug on the counter and looked out the window onto the gardens sighing deeply, “…she loved those flowers.”
Thinking back to that afternoon, watching the slow but steady motions of my father as he dug and removed heavy clumps of soggy earth to find a perfect spot for his mother’s favorite flowers, it was hard to tell if it was rain that streamed down his cheeks, or tears. In similar circumstances, as a boy or man, mine would surely be tears.