What I Want to Know of Kindness

On masculinity, grief, and learning from suffering.

Devin Kelly | Longreads | May 2020 | 14 minutes (3,897 words)

This is the second time we’ve been lucky enough to publish Devin Kelly. Read his first Longreads essay “Running Dysmorphic.”

I remember that I was in a 6th floor classroom of the high school where I used to teach when I got the text. I read some words: Nancy…about to happen…they moved her.

I remember leaving the classroom and all those kids, finding my department head, and huffing out a rush of phrases.

My friend’s mom is about to die, I said. She’s like my aunt, I said. No, no, I said. She’s like my second mom.

I remember how bright it was outside as I walk-jogged to Grand Central to catch a northbound train out of the city. I remember the polish on the shoes of blue-suited men, and the tinny clack they made as they slapped along the sidewalk. I remember thinking how odd it was, and how much I felt alone, and how the world felt stilled and tilted on its axis, but that I was the only one who felt it, like I was leaning sideways while each other person I passed stood upright.

Two hours later I saw them: my boys. Julian, Nick, Ben. They were standing there, outside Nancy’s room. When I saw her, nestled in the bed like a chipped chess queen cupped in the palm of a hand, I felt deranged. I didn’t know someone could become so small and still be alive. But there, too, as the boys took me and led me to the oncology ward’s waiting room, I felt something else. What was it? Old? Not yet. Tall? I haven’t grown since 7th grade. It was something larger. Something like grace. The broadness of these boys’ shoulders, even if they were not broad at all. How quickly they adapted toward care, leaning gently into it.

***

I first met them in 2009. We were runners, the four of us, the only four male distance runners in our class in college, bonded by the simple objectivity of rules and restrictions. It’s amazing, to use a simple word, what four years can do to a bunch of boys, a handful of bodies.

We arrived still settling into these vessels the world had given us, Julian sporting the close-cut shaved head of someone who took, at 18, what he did with a great deal of seriousness. Five years later, a graduate student at a different college, he ran 4:01 in the mile on an indoor track in Boston. Nick, a transplant from Iowa, arrived looking quite literally like a stalk of corn. If I close my eyes, I can imagine the wind tilting him toward the ground. Three years later, running a 10k on a track in North Carolina, he lost one of his spikes and proceeded, dogged and forever a little unhinged, to run the rest of the race with one foot bare. At lunch the next day, he leaned his crutches against a chair and put his foot up for all to see. It looked like the surface of Mars. And Ben, lest I forget, my companion in athletic mediocrity, walked onto campus having once done a recreation of A Clockwork Orange that now exists somewhere lodged against the dark edges of YouTube. He left college having taught what must’ve been hundreds of high school health classes around New York City.


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In between all of that, the four of us logged somewhere approaching 10 thousand miles together. Runs spent bleary-eyed as we labored ourselves into our various romping, rambling gaits along the chilly trails of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Runs spent hammering some near-unachievable pace until our legs flooded lactic and became rock-like in their heaviness. Runs spent sprinting so hard a headache formed in one singular spot right between our eyes and pulsed there as we wandered our vomiting mouths toward a trash can. Runs spent hungover, beginning as a groaning shuffle, this protest from our bones. If you run enough with someone, you learn to hear them in a different way. You can conjure up their stride in your sleep. You can feel them without speaking. Their anxiety, their discomfort, their will, their struggle. It all arises without words, this love-language of footfall and breath. Run with someone long enough and the intimacy that builds will allow you to pull out of them the fine line of their suffering and carry them along with you the same way they carry you along with them.

But it wasn’t the runs that cemented our relationship. It was a woman. Julian’s mother, Nancy. She strode out along the long green fields of Van Cortlandt Park at every single cross country race, her hair, imbued with this goldenwheat lightness, tossing in the wind, big sunglasses on her face, a smile wide, flooded with joy. My boys, she’d come to call us, I’m here to see my boys.

***

The boys don’t know this, but earlier this year, as Nancy was dying, I was in therapy thinking about something else: my own mother, and her place in my life as a way to fixate on obsession and its aftermath, permission and its consequences, shame and its unendingness. I was choked up, near-sobbing, remembering the way my mother’s feet hung out the window of my father’s car as we drove her to the hospital in the middle of the night. My therapist asked me to remember a moment of mothering that gave me some kind of joy, and I thought of Nancy.

I didn’t drink for a long time because of my mother’s own struggle with addiction. Not in high school, not for the first two years of college, despite the pressure from others, and with great gratitude to Ben, who would buy a six-pack of non-alcoholic O’Doul’s and drink it with me at parties (go on, get yourself a friend like that). I had my first glass of wine far removed from the apartments and basements of college: at a kitchen table with the boys and Nancy.

We had gone up to Julian’s house one weekend in September, to get a long run in and enjoy the company of each other and his parents. The first night, Nancy and her husband Michael cooked in the kitchen while we sat and offered small gestures to help which were always and forever refused. To be waited on, even when you know you don’t deserve it, or, at the very least, assume you don’t — this is a kind of grace. And so we were waited on.

To be waited on, even when you know you don’t deserve it, or, at the very least, assume you don’t — this is a kind of grace. And so we were waited on.

No one asked me if I wanted a glass of wine. No one pressured me or made me feel all the more unwelcome if I didn’t want one. As I explained it to my therapist, near 10 years after that night, I finally felt — what was the word? — safe enough to have one. So I said it as nonchalantly as I could, and the boys and our second mom and dad took it as nonchalantly as they did, and I poured myself my first glass of wine. That night stays embedded deep in the joy file of my memory, not because of drunkenness, but because it was the first time I ever felt at home. The conversation moved between each of us like water around rocks, and we learned to love each other for our own individualities. For the way Julian would correct his own parents and they would love him for it. For the way Nick always had a story that brought us near tears in laughter. For Ben’s deep, unrelenting kindness. For the way I always somehow managed to make things a little weird.

That night, after the parents locked themselves in their rooms, the boys and I took a car outside and played Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” on repeat, singing it to the moon. We went to Julian’s high school football field and stared at the stars. I remember yelling at the moon. Hey moon, I yelled, you’re so close!

***

I lost the benefit of having a present mother in my life when I was 11 and addiction and separation took her away from me for a long time. The joy of adulthood is getting to know her again, and the deeper joy is getting to be proud of her. But during those years of college, I never knew until later how much I was searching for family, chasing the ideal of what a family could mean. I found it that night and the many nights that followed with my second mom, my second dad, and my brothers — and I mean that last word, despite the way the word brothers has come to exemplify so much of what is wrong about masculinity. The pulse and grind of it. The way you surround yourself with men not to hold you accountable, but to give yourself permission to be all that men can be when at their worst — self-serving, abusive, wrong.

The way you surround yourself with men not to hold you accountable, but to give yourself permission to be all that men can be when at their worst — self-serving, abusive, wrong.

How many times in this world has it taken a woman to teach a man something? Not just in movies, when the bewildered man is stunned on the doorstep of loss, and the woman steps, sure and poised, to put her hand on his shoulder. Think. Think beyond the movie, into the fact of daily life. Ask yourself: how many times has it taken a woman suffering to really teach a man something? When I ask myself, I know the answer is: too often.

When Nancy was diagnosed with cancer, too young, and then beat it, and then was diagnosed again, and then again — well, it taught me something. It mostly taught me something about the deep inner strength that can exist inside a person, the grace that encapsulates such strength, and how strength itself should be divorced from any mention of stereotypical masculinity, should be redefined as moving through the reality of suffering with a compassion for the world. It taught me something, too, about boys, and what they are capable of loving, and how they are capable of loving it.

We thought she would die that night. I remember buying a pack of cigarettes and smoking them as we excused ourselves for a breath of fresh air. The four of us stared at the sun setting over Bridgeport and I tried really hard not to cry. I don’t know how you become an adult. I think it takes a moment — standing outside a hospital with the friends you once did everything with and realizing you were never taught how to deal with any of this. That moment, when you realize no one taught you how to handle this specific instance of life — that is adulthood in a nutshell.

We spent the night at Julian’s because Nancy — true to her spirit — kept breathing. I slept on a couch and woke with Nick and Ben, and caught the early train to teach my classes in the same clothes I taught the last day in.

***

Once, on a particularly heated long run, I got into a fight with Julian. We had just doubled back along the trail that ran along Van Cortlandt, and, as was our style, the whole gang of us began to pick up the pace, moving from the easy loping strides of a 7 minute pace to the relentless forward motion of a 6 minute pace and faster. I was feeling particularly good, and I moved from the back of our small pack to the front, beginning to, as they say, hammer the pace. It was then that I felt a literal hand on the cuff of my shirt. Julian’s. He was pulling me back, telling me to cool it. I flipped out, yelled at him, and settled behind him as we still ramped up the pace all the way back home.

The beauty of running with people for a long time is that there is no secret about the ways you hold each other accountable. Some people spend their whole lives trying to figure out if their friends are really their friends. When you run with someone long enough, you know what it’s like to share in their suffering, albeit physical, albeit for a moment. It transcends language. It is like sharing a singular, collective, beating heart. When one person’s pulse quickens, the rest do too. When someone feels the anxiety of a dawdling pace, that anxiety giddies up the rest of the group into pushing down on the pedal.

Run with someone long enough and the intimacy that builds will allow you to pull out of them the fine line of their suffering and carry them along with you the same way they carry you along with them.

You learn the more serious effects of that kind of shared heart later in life, though. After the Sunday long runs are over, and the bus drives to races in Jersey, Pennsylvania, everywhere along the East Coast. After the ice baths and twisted ankles on rooted trails. You learn it later, when you get the call about Nancy, and don’t even have to call Nick or Ben to see what they are doing. How you just know they are, wherever they are, hopping on trains, getting in cars, moving toward the same place as a singular noun, this batch of friends running toward the new finish lines of life.

***

When Nancy died, it was during the 10th year of my friendship with Nick, Ben, and Julian. Months after the funeral, we celebrated this anniversary and attempted to find some joy by going on a trip together to Ireland. We did the things one might expect of a group of 20-somethings on a trip to Ireland; namely, we drank a lot of Guinness and sang a lot of songs we didn’t quite know all the words to. We did some less stereotypical things, too. When we went to the Cliffs of Moher, we watched as Julian, a new burgeoning master of the art of Qigong, moved through his system of meditation and breathing on what seemed like the end of the continent. Ben and I later darted like little kids, attempting to find a puffin perched along the crags. Walking back to the car, I thought about how young we felt and how old we soon would be. I wanted to reach out and hold the long moment of our becoming.

I went for many runs in Ireland, and more than a few alone. Once, on a particularly foggy morning on the west coast, I found myself running along a road, barely able to see more than a few meters ahead. I assumed what would happen next as if I was in a movie of my life. I assumed the road would rise steeply through the fog, that I’d begin ascending an apex-less mountain, ignorant of its height, caught up in the relentless grind of it. And then I’d emerge, at the very top, sweat steaming off my skin, and see the ocean below me, and feel closer to god, whatever god means. But I was wrong. The fog cleared, and I saw the road bend left and amble kindly down toward the coast, where a few boats bobbed gently off the shore. I was so struck by the gift of it — this gift of ease, this kindness I didn’t deserve — that I crouched down and almost cried. I never went down to the water. I turned around and ran home.

I was so struck by the gift of it — this gift of ease, this kindness I didn’t deserve — that I crouched down and almost cried.

I think so many men don’t know what to do with kindness. And I think, then, that many men don’t know how to be kind. It has so often been my fantasy to be relentless, to be trapped in grit, and to imagine a world watching, and to earn its love that way. My childhood taught me this. My father called me Maverick on the playing fields of my youth. He gave me lead pipes filled with ball bearings to run with so I could learn to hold my arms low, to relax my shoulders over the course of miles. How funny, gripping steel to teach myself the compassion of a gentle stride. It took a long time for me to see in my father’s urging the kind of care that is tender, so often reserved for mothers, because, with a mother gone, the three of us — father, brother, me — acted so much like men. Silent, unfeeling, eating dinner in front of the television while the football game crunched its bones for us.

Over the course of Nancy’s passing, I witnessed the way grief can carve away at men and boys until one sees the gentleness that always lingers beneath the surface. It was there when Michael, Nancy’s husband, sat with me in a living room, going through songs to play at the funeral. And it was there in the pauses between our comments. This would be perfect, he would say, and I would nod yes, and then we would let the tears fill up the silence that happened after. To give yourself permission to cry, to not let yourself have to act as someone, but rather to let yourself be acted upon — how do you learn this other than grief?

I realized that us boys had been learning it our whole lives together. Each run, slowly. I have other friends I can talk more easily with about the stuff of warmth, those who know everything about my poems. But none of them have seen me bent over myself. Have heard me groan something animal. This is both powerful and its own problem. Suffering should not have to be what triggers compassion. The sight of it, the sounds. As a world, our kindness so often exists as a reaction. A crisis only engenders a response when it is seen as a crisis, when the images flash across our screens. If we are paying attention, it’s only then that we realize that the people closest to the crisis have been talking about it for a long time. And it’s only then that we do something tangentially close to listening. The sooner we realize that crisis and suffering are part and parcel of living, the sooner compassion becomes a requirement for living as well.

To give yourself permission to cry, to not let yourself have to act as someone, but rather to let yourself be acted upon — how do you learn this other than grief?

Men have a lot to learn from this because men are not taught to suffer openly, and they learn their response to suffering from those who suffer openly, so often, at the hands and words of men. This is a destructive paradox. To confront it openly is to realize how much work and care are needed to create a more vulnerable and less hardened masculinity.

This is why I hold my memory of Nancy so close, because to fail to realize what she taught me about being a man is to fail her memory. I think of her every time I receive a small kindness. I say to myself: it is alright to be loved. I think: to receive kindness is an act of kindness in itself. And this is why I hold my boys close. And why I keep the memory of our miles so close to my chest. Because to suffer openly with another is also an act of kindness, and trust. The sound of a footstep next to another on a long run is the sound of two voices saying I need you over and over again.

***

The question is not: what does a world without suffering look like? The question is: what does a world look like where suffering is not what calls forth a man’s kindness? When Nancy finally passed, Nick, Ben, and I went back to the kitchen table without her to be with Julian and Michael. We learned how to laugh again. We drank wine and told stories with the rotating guests who joined us to do the same thing. We went out at dark again, drunk and grieving, and threw paper airplanes into the night and bet money we didn’t really have. Grief will always be a teacher. It closes a door that was once wide open, and forces you to live in this new structure.

When I think of Nancy now, I think of her laughing. The way she wanted to know things, to try them. The way curiosity, which is so often portrayed as being neglected with age, was her mode of living. How Julian would offer her a new way of thinking about something, and how she’d consider it, and then take it up. The way, at her grave, those gathered took hands and shared in one collective, earth-feeling Ohm all at once. The way she never stopped asking me about my life. When I was with her, I missed her already.

I say to myself: it is alright to be loved. I think: to receive kindness is an act of kindness in itself.

At her funeral, I thought of how, when my grandmother died, my mother, who had not seen my father’s mother in over a decade, arrived at the funeral where only a few of us had gathered. In the years after the divorce, my grandmother had not spoken highly of my mother. But my mom still was there, on that cold day in Rochester, because it was important to show up. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of it. But when Nancy died, I understood how much I had to learn from my mom, who I spent a childhood not really talking to, whose suffering was so absent from me, whose suffering I never asked about. I thank Nancy for that, too, for the way her mothering stopped making me grow further from my mom, and made me want to call her, again and again, so I could know her life.

Six months after Nancy’s death, my boys and I went up to Julian’s to be with Julian and Michael. It made me proud of us, this recognition that grief continues always, that it doesn’t end in the moments after the moment of crisis. We sat back at the kitchen table, ate Michael’s cooking, helped in the ways we knew we were supposed to, and listened as the conversation moved where we knew it would. Stories, more stories, endless stories. Nancy in labor in Michael’s car, driving north out of New York City, refusing every hospital pit stop until they reached Bridgeport, where they both grew up and where she would have Julian. Hours of this persistence, and Michael unrelenting in his acknowledgement of it. I listened to this and thought of Michael as a model of what a man could be: embodying the road that slopes down toward the coast, gentle and unassuming, forever saying I will not be the cause of your suffering, and I will not be your savior; I will just be who I can be for you. You don’t have to change the world to be a man. You only have to feel it. It’s why my boys and I ran to the same place the moment we each got the text. It’s what running taught us. When you spend a near-infinite amount of hours in the stillness of breath and heartbeats, you realize that the same ground can inspire different reactions. One of us lagging behind as the trail climbs, another surging ahead before realizing they have to come back and guide the other home. Because home, when we arrive, is where we all are. It’s here, in each of us, complex and loaded with love and grief. A house with so many doors closing and opening. Is that you talking at the kitchen table? Can I join you? I want to laugh again.

***

Devin Kelly is the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen, (published by Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series. He is the winner of a Best of the Net Prize, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, LitHub, Catapult, DIAGRAM, Redivider, and more. He lives and teaches high school in New York City.

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Editor: Krista Stevens