Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Long Stare

I saw it recently in the eyes of a young boy.
The long stare.
Every single one of us guys wants to be noticed and recognized by older guys.  I contend that a significant part of growing up is being seen as a man by other men.  At some point, we want to be welcomed into manhood by other men.
Ideally, this comes from our Dads, but sometimes that’s not possible.  In such situations, it falls to other men we look up to.  (Aside: I’d love to say that by age 56, this innate desire is gone…but in at least one 56-year-old guy’s case, that would not be true. )  In those settings, there is a huge, pressing need for men to recognize this desire in younger men.  And don’t miss the reality that we will find it somewhere.  Sports, bullying, gang membership, the local bar,…somewhere.  Again, us guys WILL keep looking until we find that validation & welcome.  Personally, I’m SO VERY thankful for older men along the way who filled this need in me after age 15 when my Dad died suddenly.
One guy in particular did this for me in a very big way.  But that’s getting ahead of our story.  Back to the young boy...
He came from a VERY bad family situation.  No Dad present at all, and a Mom who had her own troubles prior to being killed in a car wreck.  This boy was adopted by a couple in his extended family.  He came to live in a small town in southwest Alabama.  The adoptive family are great folks; hard-working country folks, very connected to all of their children, including the new adopted son.  They are faithful to their Lord and thus to their local church.
Shortly after moving to his new home, this boy met a retired teacher & a semi-retired farmer.  (Does one ever really “retire” from farming?  I have my doubts.)  They smiled at him & talked to him.  The semi-retired farmer would smile at him, talk to him, and give him a piece of peppermint or some other sort of candy.
I’m told the boy would get out of the car on Sunday mornings looking around for “Mr. Jimmy & Mrs. Mona.”  Can’t you see it?  I can.  A young boy who was abandoned & cast aside for the first few years of his life…who has been adopted into a great home…befriending a couple who were 60+ years older than he…and coming to REALLY enjoy his chats with Mr. Jimmy.
That welcome to manhood mentioned above?  He found it.  In the smile of a 70+ year old man of not many words.
Which brings us back to the long stare.
Just a few weeks ago, the faith the preacher speaks of in the boy’s church became sight for Mr. Jimmy.  It had become sight for Mrs. Mona a couple of years earlier.
So there we were, standing awkwardly around the chapel in the funeral home chatting about all sorts of random topics, which is what we do at funeral homes.  Death is MUCH too vivid for us to ponder, let alone talk about.  After all, the death of someone we know & love reminds us all of our own mortality.
The boy walked in with his adoptive Dad.  He walked straight to the open casket bearing the earthly remains of Mr. Jimmy.  And he stood there, staring.  He leaned on the casket much like guys lean on a fence when discussing the weather or college football or politics.
And he stared.
For a long time, he just stood there, leaning on his elderly friend’s casket and just stared.  No bogus theological musings as happen at such times & places, no deep questions for his Dad, no idle chatter.  Just the stare.
Only God knows the boy’s thoughts.  But I can imagine some of them.
“So this is what death looks like”
“This is why the preacher & my parents always talk about faith & Heaven”
“Wonder if anyone in this room desires Mr. Jimmy to smile one more time as much as I do, even though he doesn’t have a piece of candy right now”
And perhaps even something like this: “Now who’s going to talk to boys like me & welcome me and give me the manly legitimacy we all desire?”
His folks chatted with the rest of us a bit.  After some time went by, the boy walked over & leaned again as if chatting with a friendly neighbor and just stared again for another long while.
If I could’ve pulled it off without making people look away awkwardly, I’d have done the same thing.  One other guy in the room that night would’ve also.  Mr. Jimmy welcomed us & gave us manly legitimacy over the past three & a half decades.  He was always “Mr. Jimmy” to most, and “Daddy” to his two beloved daughters, and “Papa” to his treasured grandchildren…But to us two, he was our father-in-law whom we both love & adore.  As the boy was chasing his memories, I was chasing mine.
Guys, what younger man—or not-so younger man, for that matter!—is looking to you for validation as a guy?  If you’re a boy’s Dad, I’ll answer the question for you decisively: your son!  If, like me, your son is grown & out of the house, that may still actually be the answer.  If you’re not a boy’s Dad—or even if you are—look around.  We have an enormous crisis in America right now that cuts across racial & economic boundaries, in that we Dads are either asleep at the switch  or are not present in our sons’ lives.  Who do you have regular contact with who needs your acknowledgement?  Who needs you to notice them & talk to them?
And who will fix the long stare when you pass into eternity?
Thanks, Papa, for loving on William & me and for welcoming us into your family.  Thanks for showing us how to be men, for we both have needed that for years now for different reasons.  Thanks for the smiles & laughs & memories & stories.  Thanks for raising your baby girls the way you did, for they are now the wives William & I have loved for 30+ years now.  Thanks for growing in your faith such that you hit the finish line running.  Thanks for loving us.  See you soon!  By the way, say “Hello” to my Dad, will you?  In a BIG way, you helped fill the giant crater in my life created by his own faith becoming sight.  The boy?  I can nearly guarantee that decades from now he’ll still recall you & your impact on his life.  I like to imagine him as a grown man seeking out younger men of whatever age and building into and encouraging them just like you did for him.  On behalf of all us lost boys, thanks for that.

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