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Crying in Cars with Boys
Late yesterday afternoon, I'm driving east on Highway 46, heading home to L.A. after a happy but exhausting Easter weekend. My son sits next to me; his mother and his sister are in a separate car, somewhere ahead. David plays a game on his iPad.
My body feels battered by three straight days of overeating. The aftereffects of too much tomato aspic and too many marshmallow peeps -- gelatin is so delicious, so flexible, so irresistible! - have me almost lightheaded.
Though she is as sharp as ever, mother is getting older and more frail, noticeably more tentative in her steps since Christmas. I am filled with fear for her, and worried -- as I always am -- about my children.
I think of my clients, and the work that is due; I stress about whether I will have more clients after these, and how I will pay the bills. The miles pass; the sun sinks lower on the astonishingly, unusually green hills; we near the famous turnoff to Highway 41 where James Dean met his end.
I have my Spotify playlist on, and as I do more and more often these days, I start to cry when I hear certain songs. Holly Williams -- of the famous first (or is it second?) family of country music -- sings her sparse and poignant "Waiting on June," and the tears pour down my cheeks.
David has his earbuds in. He has his own playlist. We force each other to listen to our chosen music sometimes, but this is not one of those occasions. My son is sensitive; he looks up, sees his papa weeping, and puts his hand on my arm.
"Are you just crying because of the song, daddy?"
One is never “just crying because of the song.” The song is what gives one permission to cry -- it is the trailhead into the wilderness of strong emotion, a wilderness we were raised all our lives to visit rarely and with caution. Older men in particular, one has noticed, tend to rely on certain auditory or visual cues to give themselves permission to tear up. (Give me the last five minutes of "Lost in Translation;" or the singing of La Marseillaise in "Casablanca;" or Paulie redeeming himself by lifting the ring rope at the end of the first “Rocky,” and I will be a reliable puddle. I would say that most of the boys in my high school graduating class, closer now to 60 than 50, are the same.)
I am not going to tell my ten-year-old that I am filled with a strange mixture of anxiety and happiness; gratitude and sugar. I will tell him, someday, but not yet. David has school tomorrow, and his own worries.
"Yes, it's a wonderful song. Will you listen to it with me?"
"How long is it?"
Holly Williams unspools the story of her grandparents from their first meeting in rural northern Louisiana in the 1930s until their deaths seven decades later. Guitars and harmonies soar and fall away as she traces the arc of an extraordinary marriage. She can't get the job done in three.
"It's about seven minutes, bunny. Interested?"
"No," says my son, blanching as if I've just asked him to sit through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, dubbed in Turkish.
He pats my arm, goes back to his music and the FIFA game on his device, adding "You cry all you want, dad. I'm here if you really, really need me."
It is as good an offer as I am going to get. I start the song over as the car hits the Kern County line. It is good too to cry for many things, it is good not to force one's children to witness the spectacle, and it is good to know they stand ready. Their days of being rocked by sentiment and memory will come soon enough.