Near the end of Pat Conroy’s novel Beach Music, the main character Jack narrates a conversation in the hospital with his mother Lucy who is dying of cancer.
Beach Music is the story of Jack’s struggle to come to terms with his wife Shyla’s suicide and to raise his young daughter Leah as a single parent. In this conversation with his mother, Jack struggles with the nature of love and expresses feelings that seem to me are common particularly to many men.
“I’m a cold man, Mama,” I said. “There’s something about me that chills anyone who tries to get close to me. I’ve known women who almost suffered from frostbite after we’ve spent a weekend together. I don’t want it to be that way. But even when I’m most aware of it, I’m helpless to do anything about it. I’ve told Leah that I think that love is another thing that has to be taught. I think it might have bypassed you and Dad. Everyone talks about love all the time. It’s like the weather. But how does a man like me learn to do it? How do I unlock those pipes and jets where it lies in the deepest part of me? If I knew how to do it, Mom, I’d let everybody have their fair share. I’d spread it around and I wouldn’t skimp for anyone. But no one taught me the steps to that dance. No one broke it into parts. I think the only way I can love is in secret. There’s a deep, sourceless river I can tap into when no one else is near. But because it lies hidden and undiscovered, I can’t lead expeditions to it. so I love strangely and obliquely. My love becomes a kind of guesswork. It brings no refreshment nor eases any pain.”
The sense of frustration and impotence Jack expresses here is powerful and convincing. It may not be a uniquely male phenomenon, but it is certainly a powerful reality for many men.
Lying in her hospital bed, Jack’s mother tries to reassure Jack, expressing her faith in the inherent power of love and his ability to live in a way that expresses love. But he is not easily convinced.
“It’s something that doesn’t take to worry very well. You can’t handle it too much. You let love be and it’ll find it’s own way in its own time.
“It doesn’t work that way for me.”
“Love any way you can, Jack,” Lucy said. “I don’t think you’re very good talking about it. It comes easier to us girls. You get tongue-tied and scared every time the subject comes up.”
“It avoids me,” I said. “I can never say what I mean about it. I think about love all the time. Why can’t there be a definition of it? Nine or ten words that sum it all up, that could be repeated over and over again until it became clear.”
“You want to teach Leah about it?” Lucy whispered. “Is that it?”
“Yes – and I can’t. I don’t have a clue,” I admitted.
“You don’t need words, son. You’ve got all the equipment. Tell her love is cleaning vomit off your mother’s gown and bed, cleaning diarrhea from a hospital floor. Flying five thousand miles when you hear your mother’s sick. Tell ehr love is finding a very sick brother on the Edisto River and bringing him back without hurting him; bringing a drunk father home a hundred times during your teen years. Tell Leah it’s raising a little girl alone. Love’s action, Jack. It isn’t talk and it never has been. You think these doctors and nurses won’t know you love me when they see what you’ve done tonight? Think I don’t know it, Jack?”
“I like it when I’ve got procedures to follow,” I said. “When I’m moving around with something real to do.”
It may be a cop-out to dismiss Jack’s dilemma as a particularly male conundrum. But the puzzle of what it looks like to live in a deeply loving relationship is profound.
Lucy’s vision of love in action that does not need words, seems to me to let Jack off too lightly. When my grand-daughter looks at me and says, completely out of the blue and with no obvious motive, “Grandpa I love you”, it is hard not to believe that verbalizing love has some role to play in nurturing our loving relationships.