What does it mean to be a man?
Growing up with my mom and older sister just two doors down from my Nonna, we were “the Italian-Catholics” of our neighborhood, our home in the unlikely setting of Salt Lake City, Utah. Given these circumstances and being surrounded by a community of hyper-quintessential-go-camping every summer-rigid-gender-role-nuclear families, I found myself asking this question of manhood often. And while being raised in this world of women has always brought me immense pride, I would constantly struggle to find an answer to my seemingly simple question.
The shatter of glass has always been that sound for me, that visceral grasp, tug, and wring of cochlea that gives me a moment of sad before I snap back to the reality of a clumsy accident or drunken slip of hand. For this, I thank a man. That man who calls himself “dad,” who would throw and smash through fury and shatter, shatter as mom sobbed, shatter as my sister and I hid and plugged our ringing ears to suppress this distressed, dissonant orchestra. Is this what it means to be a man?
A boy grows up when he finds himself caring for his only parent. I was nine, numbed by a din of disbelief as mom’s “just a lump” went from mammography, to malignancy, and to curative double mastectomy in a matter of two weeks. And despite my mom—a former dietitian and lactation specialist—feeling the weight of an absence of what she felt defined her career and her womanhood, she never failed to be present for my sister and me. And when playground banter brought callous, casual remarks of having just a mom, I’d think if only you knew. Is this what it means to be a man?
It was a dark time as a third-year medical student on the Oncology service, but Dr. B brought light I will never forget. Her presence was stern, yet reasonable. Her face was encased by large lenses over drooped eyes that had seen too much, yet she retained the most moving ability to be wholly present with her patients. Her handshake was not simply a “hello,” but a caress of comradery, a statement of “I am here and here for you.” Her exam was not solely an objective maneuver, but a massaging away of the misery of malignancy. The way she used her hands, her touch to ail and hope with patients, was mesmerizing. She was a human, being fully present with another human. She was light through grim predicament. Is this what it means to be a man?
As a fourth-year medical student rotating on general medicine wards, Dr. C showed me that mindfulness and emotion—cultivating it, naming it, sitting with it—can be another of medicine’s curing prescriptions. The subjectivity of emotion discomforts physicians and trainees alike, yet Dr. C took every opportunity to embrace it. Her genuine, heartfelt finesse to addressing the suffering grounded me. “I feel like there’s so much love in this room,” she said to a family as their loved one knocked on death’s door. And I could feel this phrase, see it ripple through the water of a room slowed by sorrow, and see it bring closure and peace. I know that moment was meant for family, but that ripple passed through and changed me, too. Is this what it means to be a man?
I’m a man, a different man because of women. These women who show up and stay when others leave, who touch and humanize when others ail, who uplift and embrace emotion and grow. I’m a man because of women who gave and showed me nothing short of the world. And if I can emulate even an ounce of these women, that is a different man worth being.