This excerpt from “Kelly Tough: Living Courageously by Faith” by Erin Kelly with Jill Kelly is printed with the permission of BroadStreet Publishing. For more information, go to erinmkelly.com.
“It’s okay to cry!”
I could faintly make out his head hanging down through the blinding tears that flooded my eyes. They streamed down my face uncontrollably as the knot in my throat tightened until I could barely breathe. I marshaled every last drop of willpower trying to stifle my sobs as the toughest man I’ve ever known slowly lifted his head, reluctantly yielding to the tears that forced their way from his broken heart into his eyes.
And he began to cry.
It was inevitable, but that didn’t make it any easier. In fact, “easy” just wasn’t in our vocabulary anymore. My dad had lost the ability to eat by mouth as a result of the intense pain and numerous sores from radiation treatments. The doctor, as graciously as possible, explained to my dad why he would need to have a feeding tube put in. And though we all knew it was coming, it still made us feel as if the ground gave way and we were desperately reaching for arms to fall into as we braced for the inevitable impact. What would be next? What else would he have to endure?
Seeing him cry only made me cry more – my big, tough father who was slammed to the turf by blitzing linebackers week after week, shaking off cuts, bruises, and concussions too numerous to count, only to rebound and put six points on the scoreboard. But there was no linebacker, and the numbers we were following were very different from the numbers on the scoreboard as he sat across from me with tears rolling down his cheeks. This wasn’t football; it was life! Getting thrown for a loss in this forum meant losing a lot more than yardage. And that would explain why I had never seen tears like this before – tears filled with pain, frustration, confusion, and brokenness from one of the toughest guys on the planet!
As his little girl I was tough too. Tough but shattered – with my tears coming from a kind of heartbreak I had never felt before. Nearly paralyzed, all I could do was sit there and pray, hold his hand, and weep with him. And in that rare, recklessly vulnerable moment, we threw away the playbook, and allowed our unguarded eyes to meet, my father trusting me with his tears and me hanging my broken heart on my sleeve. I’ve never felt closer to my dad, never seen him stronger, and I don’t think either of us have ever been more “Kelly Tough!”
There are only a few times that I recall seeing my dad cry. You see, when he grew up as one of six Kelly boys, intense wrestling matches (you might call them knock-down, drag-out) with his brothers usually led to someone getting hurt. Long before the gashes scabbed over, the typical response from my grandfather was, “Toughen up! You’re a Kelly, and Kelly boys don’t cry!”
It wasn’t long before a similar sentiment was being echoed to the girls in our family. Seriously! When my aunt noticed my mom crying after Daddy took a fierce hit that sidelined him during one of the Super Bowl games, she quickly shot her the “eye” and bluntly snapped, “Kelly girls don’t cry!”
Well, in the grand scheme of life, filled with the kind of circumstances we’ve walked through, Kelly girls and Kelly boys do cry. In fact, I’m convinced that this reflects strength of character and an enduring foundation for life – as opposed to pretending the hit doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t mean you don’t play through the pain, but that you don’t let the pain play you. There’s freedom in being honest and calling it the way you see it!
This realization certainly didn’t happen overnight. My dad is not one to wear his heart on his sleeve. He’s the quarterback – the one calling the shots and holding the team together when everything’s falling apart. Through most of my teenage years, I was a lot like him when it came to fielding my emotions. Sure, I had my moments, but most of the time I held my tears in, stuffing them until I couldn’t take even one more emotional step beneath the weight of that proverbial “last straw.”
The weight of my sorrow was relentless, and even the smallest demand felt like a boulder on my back. I was unable to unburden my heart, especially during the last few months, as I struggled watching my dad’s recovery from his cancer treatments. But I’ll be honest with you: it was a game changer. And with my dad’s cancer, and everything that we’ve been through as a result, I have a whole new perspective on life, a whole new game plan, and I cry all the time now. Sometimes it’s a few tears, other times they fall like rain, and I sob until my eyes are swollen shut and I can barely breathe. I’ve become convinced that tears are a gift, an expression of strength rather than weakness. I have learned to give myself permission to break free and cry. And that is exactly how I feel when I cry now – free!