Water Works

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Guest Post by Grant Chastain

“Are… are you crying?” she asked me.  There was more bemusement in her voice than bewilderment.  Genuine concern.  Not fear.  Not yet.

I looked over at her, my face bathed in the soft glow of a computer monitor, and silently nodded my head.

She put the Xbox controller down, and frowned.  A Minecraft ocelot impatiently paced back and forth on the screen.

“She” is a lot of things.  But in the context of this conversation, “she” is first and foremost my 10 year-old daughter, whose preoccupation leading to that question was entirely focused on excavating the Minecraft minerals she would need to make pretty blue armor for her horses.  And when she asked if “you” were crying, she meant her father – a 39 year-old man in a white t-shirt and track pants, sipping from a cup of orange juice, and learning for the first time that longtime ESPN anchor Stuart Scott had passed away at the even now impossibly young age of 49.

This was my Sunday morning.

I gasped when I found out.  Lots of people use that phrase in the abstract, but in this case, The moment had caught me completely off guard.  I did not know Stuart Scott personally.  I knew him the way that many of us “knew” him.  By his work on ESPN’s “SportCenter.”  By his seemingly-ubiquitous banter, and the way he infused the business of sports-entertainment with a distinctive urban flavor.  By the way he seemed approachable, and likeable, in ways the other anchors of the time were not.  Chris Berman was the elder-statesman.  Dan Patrick, the knowledgeable straight-man.  Keith Olbermann, the acerbic variable.  Rich Eisen, the merry prankster.

But Stuart Scott… he was the buddy.  Friendly, and approachable.  And now, gone entirely too soon, leaving behind two teenage girls and a host of what-ifs.

I did not expect to cry.  I did not know Stuart Scott personally.

“Are… are you crying?” she asked me.

This is NOT an article about sports.

It’s an article about love.

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Eugene Chastain passed away in 2008, at the equally impossibly-young age of 69.

“Passed away” might suggest it was a swift death, or a painless one.  As if someone simply slipped beneath the waters, or disappeared into the shadows like a formless spirit.  I can assure you that dying of cancer is NOT painless, and does not warrant the phrase “passed away.”  It takes from you everything you have, and everything that you consider YOU.

Gene Chastain succumbed to a brain tumor that robbed him of his strength, his motor skills, his ability to form words and thoughts.  To a man whose career – his very LIFE – was built upon a natural aptitude for sales and persuasion, this latter indignity was undoubtedly the worst.  One may as well have cut off Beethoven’s fingers.  Da Vinci’s hands.

He was many things in this world, my father.  Rest assured that “emotional” was not one of them.

It’s easy to say that men of his age simply did not wear their emotions on their sleeve.  It just WAS NOT DONE in the strictest sense of the term.  My father was a salesman who possessed a storyteller’s tongue and the easy gift of persuasion.  He was Don Draper.  Emotions paid him, and the other men of his era, exactly no favors.

I saw him cry exactly twice in the 34 years I knew him.

The first time was in 1987.  I was not quite 12 years old, and serving as a pallbearer for my grandmother, Thelma Chastain.  This impossibly strong woman, who had raised her four sons alone after the sudden death of my grandfather… brought down by the very illness that would come to claim her son a little over 20 years hence.

I lifted my end of the casket.  Even with five adult men helping, it felt impossibly heavy.  The weight of the casket and the weight of the world, tugging at my 11 year-old wrist.  I yelped and the other men turned their heads to see me.  I pretended that I had to choke back tears, rather than admit I was too young and weak for the burden.  I am, after all, my father’s son.

And I watched as my father, overcome with the emotion of having lost the only parent he’d ever known, cried… his body wracked with tears and sobs.  It was a terrible day.  It was the day I realized that Superman might not need to be exposed to Kryptonite.  Sometimes, the weight of one terrible day was enough.

Seeing my father cry that day scared me.  Not because I associated it with weakness.  I did not then, and I do not now, consider crying to be a detriment to one’s character.

It scared me… because in my 11 year-old mind, if he DIDN’T cry the way I cried, and NOW he was crying, then things were Very Bad Indeed.  I wanted my dad to not cry anymore, but I felt powerless in that moment to help him.  He was beyond the kind of help I could give him.

The second and final time I saw my father cry, it was during one of the extremely few one-on-one conversations we’d had.  Shortly after his diagnosis in 2006, I came to Illinois to visit him.  At that time, cancer had yet to cruelly take everything away.  He was still Gene Chastain – a flawed man trying to improve.

Like we all are, I suppose.

In 2006, I was still a new father myself.  Father to a 2 year-old bundle of raw emotion and pure id.  A child he would never see.  He disliked travel, and we were at that time distant from each other.  In both geography AND emotion.

He cried that day when he told me the prognosis.  Awkwardly, I stumbled over my words trying to find the right ones to comfort him.  I am, by nature, a conversationalist.  My father’s son.  Striking me speechless is not easily done.

He stood from his chair, and retreated inside.  When he returned… the moment was gone.  The tears dry.  The “weakness,” such as it was, purged.

I would never see him cry again.  We didn’t speak of it again after that moment.

I am, as I mentioned, my father’s son.

He would die less than 2 years after this conversation.  But that’s another story for another time.

This is NOT an article about sorrow.

It’s an article about love.

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“Are… are you crying?” she asked me.  There was more bemusement in her voice than bewilderment.  Genuine concern.  Not fear.  Not yet.

I looked up from my computer screen and nodded.  And we talked.

There are pieces of the universe – shards of remembrance – that never fail to make me cry.  I do not judge.  Sometimes a good cry is as vital to one’s well-being as a good laugh, or a good conversation, or a good memory.  I am the kind of man that wears his emotions on his sleeve.

I am, in many ways, NOT my father’s son.  I am something entirely different.

And so Kendall and I had a long conversation.  She is 10 years old, and yet her age seems at times to be going on some infinite figure that sometimes instills in her a kind of wisdom well beyond her years.  She behaves in a way that make it entirely possible to forget that she has only been on this Earth for 10 complete trips around the Sun.  She was concerned about dad, but only in the way you’d be concerned about someone having a tough time.  She sees my tears through a different set of eyes than I saw my dad’s.  My tears are NOT an aberration, and they aren’t a sign of weakness.  She needn’t fear for her or my future because they appear.

She asked if I knew the man, and why I found myself so sad.  I explained that I wept at the loss of a good human being that left behind two young girls.  That such an event should be sad for us all, and that I couldn’t imagine ever leaving her in that way.  And that I did not, and never will, be ashamed for owning my emotions.  That it’s okay for even the strongest among us to cry.  That this is our burden as caring, feeling individuals all facing the challenges of life.

And of course I got a hug.  The hug is the salve for all fathers everywhere.  Especially when given freely by the child you have raised from birth.  The child you are watching, day by day, grow into the beautiful, kind, and genuine young woman she will one day become.

As she left the room to go plug her iPad into the charger, she stopped at the doorway and looked back at me.  She smiled as words of wisdom flowed from her lips.

“It’s okay, daddy.  I cry too sometimes.”

This is NOT an article about crying.  Not really, anyway.

It’s an article about love.

Now if you’ll excuse me… I think I’ve got something in my eye.