Just the other day he had a dream about his father. He has had several such dreams since his dad died 10 years ago.
It was a familiar scene. He met his father on the street near his house. They were talking -- "nothing special, just ordinary kinds of things." His father smiled at him. "In his eyes I could see that he was happy to see me."
"Were you sad?" someone asks.
"No." He pauses, smiles unexpectedly. "Actually, I was happy to see him again. You see, growing up I was one of seven children. We never had enough chances to talk. After he died, I realized there was no way to fix this. But in these dreams I find comfort."
The speaker is Dan, a Washington, D.C., lawyer. He is one of a group of men with whom I meet every Monday night.
There are seven of us -- a singer, a photographer, three lawyers and two doctors. Although membership has fluctuated over the years, a core of four of us have been together from the start.
Usually meetings revolve around a specific topic, but if someone has a pressing problem -- a crisis on a job, an urgent family matter -- we talk about that. The idea is to connect with one another, to talk about or discover what is important and meaningful in our lives.
Perhaps this seems familiar. You have seen something on a television talk show or read an article in a magazine and you have a mental image of how it works. A group of males with a common issue -- divorced, single, gay -- all straining to reach out to one another. Finally, casting aside the old male values -- power, competition, the need to be tough -- everyone clutches one another in a blaze of mutual enlightenment, a new-found glow of fellowship.
Except it isn't that simple.
The growth of male intimacy, as measured by the experience of our group, is a more subtle, less dramatic process. Yes, if men get together on a regular basis and make the effort to communicate, they can learn to relate in ways they never expected. But there is no shining moment of truth, no magical culmination. Instead, there is a quiet, slowly strengthening bond.
The topic my group has been discussing is preparing for or dealing with the death of a parent.
When Dan finishes, the man next to him, a doctor named Harris, begins. We are going around the room, each of us taking a turn to express our feelings.
Harris tells of a trip he took with his soccer team while he was in medical school. His dad was going into the hospital but the operation was not considered to be life-threatening, so he decided to go.
While he was away, his dad died. There is a catch in his voice. "I haven't thought about this in quite a while," he says.
"I couldn't cry. I just wouldn't let myself cry. But after the funeral was over, I went up in my room and sobbed. Cried my guts out. Then I went downstairs. I still couldn't cry with others around."
There is a digression. Harris' comments about crying remind Richard (another lawyer) of the time he attended a funeral -- 10 years ago -- for the uncle of a business associate. The associate was a larger-than-life macho type. But all of a sudden Richard saw him break down. The image still haunts him. He was impressed by the man's unexpected openness. But -- he hesitates -- truth is, he was also a bit put off, as if the associate had no right to violate his macho image.
We continue around the room.
Three participants have both parents living. What lessons can they draw from what Dan and Harris have said? What are some of the things one says to a living person one cares intensely about?
One man talks about how his mother has just finished medical tests that indicate she may have a serious ailment. He is concerned. But how do you work up the sense of urgency to push beyond the usual, day-to-day forms of communication?
Another talks of a male mentor who died during the past year. It was a difficult time in his life. Still, after the funeral, on the plane going home, he also could not cry. This man had meant so much to him.
Perhaps the funeral is a rehearsal for his father's death.
The meeting breaks a half-hour late. It has been an intense evening. There have been no extraordinary breakthroughs or insights. Yet there has been a certain magic just in the sheer accumulation of intimacy. The evening is one we will harken back to a number of times.
There have been other times like this one: the night we talked about expressing anger; or when we talked about sibling rivalry; the evening (make that evenings) dealing with mothers; or the discussion about old girlfriends. (Jim got that one going because a high school sweetheart he hadn't seen in 20 years wrote him a complimentary note about an exhibition of his photographs.)
Then there was the time we talked about what we wanted to be doing 10 years from now; and the night we talked about our hopes for our children.
There have been highs, but we have also had our share of misfires.
There are, for instance, those evenings when we just can't seem to get started -- when the discussion remains mired in gossip, politics or some other evasion that substitutes for real communication. And there are other nights when the topic simply doesn't work. Nuclear war, for example -- wonderful idea for a television discussion panel; too overwhelming, too impersonal for us. We do better with simpler, less cosmic themes.
We still tiptoe around certain areas -- anxieties about our sexual prowess, for example (better to talk about a former girlfriend than that). We still are tentative about shows of physical affection or emotion. Only recently -- after an especially intense evening -- did four of us embrace. But it was awkward and self-conscious, not the kind of thing you'd expect from people who have been sharing intimacies for so long.
All the same, these guys have become a kind of extended family. I look forward to Monday evenings. You might even say I depend on them.
The idea for a men's group sprang up eight years ago, when I had just turned 31.
Up to this point I had given little thought to male relationships. I thought that communication of feelings was important. It was just that I didn't associate that kind of thing with men. I communicated about emotions with women (especially my wife). That was a crucial ingredient in our relationship. With men, well, there was something else.
Men do things together -- play tennis, racquetball, go jogging. Conversations are sandwiched in between.
To sit down with a man and simply talk about feelings? It didn't seem natural. Besides, why bother if I could talk about feelings with women?
Then my father died.
Suddenly the question of male intimacy took on a greater urgency. It was a direct and real matter -- one that was bound up in the might-have-beens and unexplored possibilities of my relationship with my dad.
Growing up as an only child in New York City, I had seen comparatively little of him. He was a newspaper reporter, working odd hours on his stories, frequently out-of-town on assignments, rarely home on weekends. He would tell me terrific stories at bedtime (if he was home), get me passes to Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden, slip me $5 bills. But I saw him only in a blur. For the day-to-day details -- homework assignments, transportation to and from friends' houses, comfort when I was hurt, talking out fears and disappointments -- there was my mother. It wasn't that my father was unconcerned or aloof. When he was around, he was wonderful. It was just that he was not around often enough.
For the last 10 years of his life he had been sick. It was in this period that we drew closer. As he became more vulnerable, as he was forced in spite of himself to slow down, he became more real as a person. We began to catch up on lost time.
I visited him at his job. I went out to dinner with him. When my wife and I got together with him and my mother, I found myself seeking out his company alone.
He told me about his boyhood -- lingering over details I had never heard (or noticed) before. He talked about old friends, mentors, bosses. He talked about the meaning of his work, his successes and disappointments.
Still, when he died what I was struck with most was a sense of incompleteness. Here was my closest and certainly my longest-standing male relationship, and what was most noteworthy about it was what was left unsaid. Worse, it was unclear to me just what it was I wanted to say.
After he died, I thought a lot about our unrealized connection. I reflected on the fact that all my closest relationships were with women. I cherished the intimacy with my wife. But surely there could be another balance -- one that would include intimacy with male friends as well.
This was easier said than done. Contrary to the beer commercial image of male friendship, heart-to-heart man talk does not simply happen. It requires effort. And there are a lot of obstacles that somehow get in the way -- business engagements, social matters, professional obligations -- each obstacle constituting an unavoidable commitment.
My wife inadvertently provided a catalyst: She joined a women's group formed by an old acquaintance.
The whole thing seemed so casual, so utterly effortless. The acquaintance called a few friends; my wife called a friend. Within a few days the group was set up and ready for its first meeting.
"Why can't men do things like that?" I complained to a friend during one of our intermittent soul bearings. What was so difficult about setting aside one night a week to meet with friends?
We agreed the idea was worth a try.
Still, we procrastinated. What night? What time? Whom would we invite? How would we go about doing the inviting?
My wife's group took a week to start. Ours took more than two months.
But somehow we have managed to find our way. I cannot explain the glue that binds us. Probably it is an accumulation of small, unexplainable details. I do know this, though: These are the closest male friends I have ever had.