Male Grief & my Pop

For the purposes of this post, I would like to briefly introduce myself. My name is Chase O’Brien. I am a thirty-six year old father of a teenage girl and a seven year-old boy, as well as the step-father to a remarkable young man who is everything I wish I had been at his age; mature, steady handed, hardworking, thrifty and confident. I am married, and recently my step-son made me a grandfather, and I have chosen the moniker “Pappy” for my young grandson to eventually call me. On the surface, you would never look at me and think anything remarkable. I am handsome in a traditional sense, with a square jaw, a deep cleft chin, piercing blue eyes and a stern countenance. I have broad shoulders and a deep bass voice. People tend to pay attention when I focus on them. Life has been easy for me to maneuver, as I was born with better than average intelligence and express myself well.

Externally, I was born into this world a Texan with more than fifty percent Irish blood. The combination is a potent one, with a streak of stubborn independence bred into me during my childhood and adolescence in Texas, that mythical land of cowboys, self-made men with iron wills and iron fists, wildcatters, entrepreneurs, outlaws and opportunists. The Irish in me has lent me the drive of the underdog and a fire of temper that can be staggering even to myself and has led me to woe on more occasions than I can truly count.

I have made my way in this world among the tradesmen of America, that class of men who still harken back to a time when things were much more simple, and equally regrettable. It can be a rough environment to carve a path through, filled with characters of great heart and even greater prejudices. Men, and even women, willing to risk life and limb to carve out their piece of the American dream, rough of tongue and calloused of hand, sweat inevitably staining the band of their cap. We wear these symbols of labor as a sort of calling card to those around us, defiantly proclaiming that our degree is written on the scars of our knuckles in an ink made of blood, rather than parchment and ink. Our graduation ceremonies were more survival of long night shifts than pomp and circumstance.

I say these things to give you a sense of who I am, and the paths that I have walked. I haven’t taken the path less traveled, no. Rather I have taken a well worn path but stained it with my own particular brand of bullheadedness and violence of personality, leaving in my wake both dear friends and bitter enemies.

All of this amounts to little and distinguishes me none. I am simply a man, like many before me, trying to blaze a path for those that count on me in what can be a cold and unforgiving world. I expected no quarter and gave none. I felt life owed me nothing more than what I was able to snatch from it.

I have cheated and lied. I have given when I had little, and shared when I have had none. I have made grave mistakes and had strokes of brilliant luck.

In other words, I’m a human being, fallible and occasionally dependable, mostly willing to help and never too mean spirited. Call it faith, call it Karma, call it what you will…I led the best life I knew how, and felt the scales were basically balanced. That intricate web of the unknown that causes us all pause, pertaining to consequence of action, held me as tightly as any of you reading this. I felt in my soul that one day, I would stand before my maker to be judged, and that influenced who I am.

Remarkably unremarkable, I was.

One area where I was more fortunate than some others was in the arena of role models. Unlike some men and women, I grew up with an example to follow, or a benchmark to reach for. Not my father, no; that’s a messy story for another post. I refer rather to my maternal grandfather, Tom Lowder.

“Pop”, as he was known to me, was born in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1922. Wichita Falls, in those days, was experiencing a boom in oil refinery and drilling, as well as retail and goods production. Pop came into a world on the cusp of national tragedy, as the Great Depression was on the near horizon. His family wasn’t educated or high in society, and at a very young age, his father committed suicide. As one of the youngest in the Lowder clan, his older brothers had already left home to strike out on their own paths to fortune or ruin, and when one older brother committed suicide as well, a great deal of responsibility fell on my grandfather’s narrow childhood shoulders, though life would prove him very equal to the task.

We often call them the Greatest Generation, and we often fetishize those black and white memories of a dapper and clean group of Americans, with the softly arrogant jaunt of their caps, the cigarettes clasped within the smirk of their confident grins, and we think we can never match their selflessness and courage, facing down the depravity of the Nazis, and the viciousness of the Japanese. They moved forward relentlessly, ushering in an era of American prosperity yet to be equaled, before our nation devolved into the quagmire of Vietnam, self-doubt, and crisis of identity.

The Pop I knew was a man in the latter stages of mid-life, successful beyond measure, with magnetic charisma, dignity, and grace. He was a quiet man of classic humor, enchanted by Looney Tunes cartoons, nature documentaries, capable of repairing anything, disciplined, hard working, and loving of his family while never betraying a temper or really any emotion aside from those associated with positivity. I grew up looking up to this giant of a man, who had massive hands and forearms hanging from his thin frame, which was absolutely covered in thick, dark, course hair. He had a sort of classic, 1940’s hair style, slick and well-kempt. He never let a stray whisker be seen on his face, or wore a pair of britches not starched.

He simply never fell down that I saw, and if he did, he got up so quickly I guess I must have blinked and missed it. As a child, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said neither fireman nor policeman, soldier or astronaut. I would have told you I wanted to be Pop. I couldn’t envision someone tougher, greater, or more worth being.

What I didn’t realize as a child, but would later receive so much solace from, was that Pop lived a life dogged by tragedy. His upbringing during the Depression required him to drop out of school in what would have been the eighth grade. His spelling was so naturally poor as a result that he always had a dictionary near at hand, out of embarrassment. He worked to support a family before he could shave, and when Uncle Sam demanded the blood of young men, he went to fight his war, leaving behind a pregnant wife, with my oldest Uncle nestled within her womb. His war took him to North Africa, to France and D-Day plus three, the Battle of the Bulge, and eventually, Berlin. He survived to meet that son, Tom Jr., and took work in the oilfields of Illinois, as a general laborer, eventually rising through the ranks to the Southeastern Superintendent of Operations for the now defunct oil company Sohio. Along the way, he had more children. A daughter, who died in infancy, two more daughters who lived, and two sons, both of whom he buried as a result of brain aneurysms. When my mother fled my father multiple times throughout my childhood, my Pop gave us shelter from the storm and protection. My dad wouldn’t dare confront Tom Lowder…it just wasn’t done. Near as I can tell, to this day, Pop was the only man my dad feared, and it wasn’t his strength or temper…it was the gravity of his persona and his quiet dignity. He was what my dad recognized as a better man, a reflection of what he himself would never be, and my dad just couldn’t stand to be himself around Pop. It showed him his own glaring flaws in stark contrast to Pop’s character.

When I became a man old enough to work and with a family to support of my own, I followed Pop’s footsteps into the oil field, and took up the life of a pipeliner. That gave me tremendous pride, seeing his genuine interest in my career. It made me feel like a real man.

But there was a vast misunderstanding on my part about what that meant, being a man. You see, Pop had an inner world that I was oblivious to. All of those tragedies throughout his life, the war and killing, the loss of three children, the suicides and the loss of education and opportunity for a boy from Wichita Falls, they stayed with him until his death in July of 2011. I just didn’t know, until fate or providence one allowed me to receive from my Pop something more precious than he could have given me in life, long after his death.

Pop gave me permission to cry. He gave me permission to feel and be bitter. He gave me permission to be weak and make mistakes. And more than anything, he gave me permission to let go of him, and to be my own man.

Men have always been expected to, or have always had the perception that, we can’t cry or show emotion. We can’t discuss feelings or doubts. We must be as machine-like as we can, moving relentlessly forward on our instincts and drives to protect, provide, and conquer. The world of 2018 does not allow for that, however, as we are now expected to be more sensitive to others, more understanding, more forgiving, more compassionate. More Beta, less Alpha. Even for a man who is not navigating troubled seas, the sense of not knowing exactly your place and purpose in this world is difficult to grasp and even harder to execute properly. The inner struggle of instinct versus civility is daunting and leaves a modern man feeling…less than.

That’s where I was at on March 16th, 2016, when I was in a car accident and the driver of the other car was killed. I was immediately thrown into a tempest of emotions that I would normally at least attempt to suppress, but now were so violent that suppression was no option. Pandora’s box was open, as they say, and I was ill-equipped in my inexperience with self-control that I immediately fell victim to my own mind. Hopelessness, depression, anxiety, a feeling of uselessness, failure, betrayal, victimhood, a stained sort of nastiness that I perceived in myself, the sentiment of being unfairly judged, the nightmares, an overwhelming feeling of ineptitude and impotence…this torrent of negativity and self-hatred froze me in my forward momentum, and I became trapped within my mind, my home, and my new identity that I didn’t understand.

All of these feelings were in direct opposition to the “man” that I was, or at least thought that I ought to be. I did not know where to go, who to be, or how to act. Each outburst of laughter was laced with bitter guilt. I was crying uncontrollably and having extremely undignified outbursts of anger and self-pity.

What a man I had become. In my mind, I had let Pop down, and I couldn’t live with that and my weakness.

Spoiler. There is no “ah ha” moment coming, or a neat Hollywood ending where everything became resolved. Pop was dead, and I was alone. I was flailing and suicidal. My blueprint for manhood was faded with the passage of time since his death and he left no directions to read or interpret…or so I thought.

In the seventies, that not-so long ago time of yellowed photos, phones with expensive long-distance and no internet, my Pop corresponded with my aunt, who never left Illinois, from his final home in Texas where he was enjoying retirement, via the lost art of letter writing. During the period of 1976 to 1977, something was affecting my Pop to the point that he authored two letters to my aunt, betraying his inner thoughts and emotions, something I had never experienced in my time with him. Knowing my struggles and through an act of pure love, combined with understanding of what her dad had and would always be to me, something rang out in my aunt’s memories, and she dug through her old letters and found me the beginning of an overgrown path, hard to distinguish from the terrible, dark woods surrounding it, that would lead me back in the direction of myself and to a final and more complete understanding of how complex and beautiful of a man Tom Lowder truly was.

In those letters, Pop seemed to sense the golden light of his approaching age, and saw it tinged with darkness. He spoke eloquently and with a sentimentality that I never knew before; of regret at growing older, his children aging into adulthood, his misgivings about what his life had meant, and the tears he cried, only when alone. He cried! And he was not ashamed, but rather felt that his tears were private and that he had to have solitude to reflect on his feelings and indulge those tears. He cried out at the injustice of a newspaper article stating that bones of an unknown and unsung individual had been discovered in a tenement building during razing, and that no one knew who that soul had been or mourned them. He felt the world was too big and moving too quickly, and that he had become lost in the shuffle of the universes’ cards. He felt small and alone. He spoke of the beautiful light of dawn and the tranquility of a virgin day. He asked that he could hold his children as babies one more time.

He wrote from the other side of life, with his experience and knowledge of what it meant to truly be a man, and not what the movies, books, and society told you a man was supposed to be.

This man, who had fought in the war to end all wars in the hottest beds of combat, freezing in the woods of France and suffocating in the heat of deserts in North Africa, who had built a small fortune through labor and relentless work ethic, who had buried three babies, killed and loved, traveled and yearned for home, who had worked at the age of 12 to feed a family deserted by a father’s suicide, who had seen a sister-in-law murdered in cold blood and jealousy, who had been the patriarch of a flawed but loving family…this man who never yelled or cursed, who never cheated or abused…this statue of manhood had cried tears of regret and pain, but he had nonetheless plodded onward toward life’s end, with dignity and grace in spite of the tragedy.

I read these two letters and I remembered something that I had forced myself to forget. In 1992, Pop’s wife of fifty years, my grandmother, died. Pop had always picked my sister and I up from school and kept us until my mom got off work. Without my grandmother’s touch, the home stayed clean but definitely had the feeling of unwanted bachelorhood. He kept our favorite snacks in stock, but the melancholy was temporarily evident. God bless him, he fought it for us.

One evening, I walked the short distance from my house to his, to visit. I walked around the expanse of the house, where I saw, when I rounded the corner, Pop sitting slump shouldered with his head hung, his large, hairy hands gripping each other, crying. I froze and felt gross at witnessing this weakness in Pop and I silently retreated back home, disturbed by what I had seen, as if he had been naked and I had seen his withered, nearly elderly body. I forced myself to forget that weak, small man and went about my misguided idea of manhood, growing into my own and on the inevitable path toward my own tragedies and recent defining tragedy of Accidental Killing.

I held those letters in my own two hairy, large hands, and I wept. I cried out loud and begged my Pop to forgive the misunderstanding. What I saw wasn’t a weak and small man. It was a man who had endured sixty plus years on this earth, feeling the weight of those years and grieving the anchor he had had throughout that life. Because no matter who you are, even if you are Tom Lowder, a pipeliner, a warrior, a father, a consummate man, you have to have a tender hand to hold you. Someone who knows what’s really going on inside. A partner to help you carry the weight of your life when it becomes to heavy. I bore witness to that small breaking and I found it unforgivable until I broke, too.

I look back now, at old photos of a man who had a zest for life and an infectious smile, dignified and respected. A master of his domain and life, the jaunty tilt of the cap and the cigarettes clamped in the smirk, the slick hair style and the air of a generation of conquerors and now I see the real man, and the blueprint is now rich in color and the directions are legible. The path through those darkened woods is slightly wider, and I can now feel Pop’s hand upon my shoulder, teaching me again, and again, and again, what it really means to be a man and to grieve a life well lived, but flawed in spite of good intentions. The missed chances, the close calls, the victories and the defeats, and coming to terms with it all.

We here as Accidental Killers do not have a justification for our killing. There was no war, nor defense. The guilt and self-hatred is real and bitter. I see myself now on the side of that road, next to my Toyota 4×4, of which I was so proud and was now a smoldering wreck. I see myself spitting compulsively in the dirt wondering how damaged my insides were, relishing the pain and confusion as deserved. I see my shoulders beginning to bow under the new weight and I see myself dropping into the grass and hanging my head. I see myself in the ambulance ashamed of the hot tears and the snot. I see myself limping out of the hospital, not knowing I was going to be fired before the coming of the next month and that I would lose my identity as a man. I see myself curled into a terrible ball on my bed, tearing at my hair and losing my mind. I see myself as I really was, now. Weakened by the most terrible blow of them all.

But I also see, now, my Pop standing beside me, holding me, and reminding me that it isn’t what society projects on you that makes you a man. It isn’t how tough you are, or how many fights you’ve won. It isn’t the money, the power, or the trucks. It’s not the guns, or the arrows, or shields, the clothes you wear, or the house you live in. It isn’t even what others think of you.

It’s your ability to feel.

Manhood is in the tears that you cry, but more so in the reason you cry. It’s your ability to comfort a tiny grandson as he wails, and being gentle with that new man coming into the world. It’s your inherent kindness and ability to forgive. It is in the lives you have touched and even taken. It’s in your example of charity and giving to those less fortunate. It’s in taking pride in things that matter, like your children’s education and actively participating in it. It’s not in the amount of money you’re making, but the making of that money with honor and discipline.

It’s in embracing your weakness and becoming stronger for it. It’s in those dark lonely moments when you decide to see the light of a virgin day, rather than the mists of fog still clinging to the ground.

It’s in the moment, when you see an old man bowed by the weight of life’s trials, and see the strength rather than the weakness.

It is within me, and it is within you too. You simply have to give yourself permission to be weak, to be frail, to cry, to hurl vengeance to the heavens, and to then let go of that anguish, understanding that when it comes again, your shoulders are not giving under the weight but rather squaring against the coming storms. That the tears are not betraying your weakness, but are rather allowing you to gather your strength against that next assault. It is breathing in the life-giving air and shuddering with the breath, knowing it is calming the beast in your soul.

My Pop had a strange response to terrible thunderstorms and tornadoes. He would stand in the open in his yard, watching them come, cup of coffee in hand. It used to terrify me. But now I know that what I was seeing was the essence of the man. A man who had endured worse, and who knew that resistance against the storm was futile, so he was going to stand forth and bear witness to it’s terrible strength, with the knowledge that the outcome was beyond his control. He would either be, or he would not. And that’s where we find ourselves now; in the midst of the storm, helpless against the outcome.

So come now with me. Hold my hand and let’s watch the terrible storm gather, and let’s release the idea that we control the outcome. Surrender to the winds and the lightning, and let’s try to see the beauty in it. Let’s withstand the storm, and let the feelings come. Let the tears flow like rain, let the anguish howl like the wind, let the anger strike like lightning, and let the release come just as the first rays of sun breaking through the clouds.

It will storm again. We will face it again. And we will survive with our regrets intact, but with a better understanding of the nature of the storm and our place in it as men and survivors.

Chase O’Brien

Pop on the eve of war
Pop & I enjoying Looney Tunes
Pop with myself and my sister
Pop and I goofing around
Pop & Tom Jr., listening to music, one of their passions
Pop with his second wife, my nephew, and myself
Pop with my son Thomas, his namesake
Candid photo of myself, working on the pipeline

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