Frank Ocean’s “There Will Be Tears” & the Pangs of Missing Your Father

“You can’t miss what you ain’t had, well I can.”
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Fathers are difficult. They’re stubborn beings with the ability to wield so much pain. Fathers can hold us close and soothe us, or they can make us crumble with their shouts. Fathers can patch our hearts, or they can make holes in the walls of the dining room. They can give wings to our dreams, or they can cut us down.

The love I have for my father is woefully unconditional. I’ve looked past so much to make our relationship work. Thankfully, my father is still with us, but there have been many times where I have missed him as he lives and breathes. I’ve missed the gentle man while the tyrant lay waste to the kitchen appliances. I’ve missed the stoic while the flippant scalds me with unrepeatable words. Every time I see my father, I miss the man I know he can be. 

Though Frank Ocean sings of his grandfather, the pangs in his chest mimic my own on “There Will Be Tears.”

We begin with a call-and-response between the Mr. Hudson sample (“There Will Be Tears,” Straight No Chaser) and Frank’s wailing. Over danceable production and vocoder vocals, the emotions rise like billows of steam. “I cant be there with you, but I can dream,” Frank beams, a section that may be understood in two parts. First, we have Frank singing about his dream to be with his grandfather who has passed. Secondly, we have Frank singing about his dream to have a father figure in his life, period. I find myself in this second meaning. The wistful “but I can dream” echoes through my head as I look at my father during one of his fits of rage or a drinking spell.

I can dream the kitchen spatula broke because of happenstance, not because my father slammed it against the counter out of anger. I can dream the holes in the wall and the fists thrown between us were a figment of my imagination and not the dark side of my upbringing. I can dream away the rattling screaming that shook the house and bent the walls. I can dream away smashed cabinets and broken hinges. And, too, I can dream my father accepts my sexuality, and never told me my brain tumor was a lesser punishment unto him than my being gay. I can dream, but I cannot avoid reality.

The fondness with which Frank sings of his grandfather is the fondness with which I look upon my father in spite of every blow we’ve come to. Where “There Will Be Tears,” tells a tale of two father figures, my story with my dad mimics Jekyll and Hyde. I did not need a supplementary father figure to fawn over as Frank fawns of his grandfather. I needed my dad to keep his cool and stay himself. The man I loved, who loved me back, was often trapped inside the tortured soul of a man who never learned to process his immigrant’s trauma.

I can’t be there, that’s all you had to say to me was / You couldn’t be there, why couldn’t you say to me / You won’t be there, you coulda warned me / You wouldn’t be here right here, you wouldn’t be here for me, no” —Frank Ocean, “There Will Be Tears”

Despite how much my father hurt me in my life, I still turned to him for support. I can never imagine a reality where I stop needing him. Life teaches you to divest from those who hurt you, from those who are not deserving of your energy, but how can I let go of this man who gave up his life for me? There’s underlying toxicity to our relationship I’ve yet to reconcile but is that not the task of family bonds? To reconcile the unreconcilable? If I can’t do this for my father, who can I possibly do it for? For this reason, the outro of “There Will Be Tears” is so painful to hear.

All my father had to say to me was he could not love me back, but he never voiced the words. He never told me he was unwilling; he only showed me through his actions, then immediately showed me otherwise. My father hand-fed me while I was in the hospital. I’ve always wondered how that same man had it in him to get so drunk he beat his chest and holler at me while standing in the middle of a thunderstorm. My father nursed me back to health for a month after my surgery; he was my rock. He also broke me several times over, wishing I was never gay. It’s the unpredictability of our relationship that is so dramatic and cutting. If only he had warned me he could not be there for me, I wouldn’t be holding such lofty expectations—any expectations at all.

“There Will Be Tears” is a wounded and spliced anthem about the ache of missing your father figure. Whether that’s your grandfather—a la Frank Ocean—or your father lost within himself, the song rings true as a statement of heartache. Much of nostalgia, ULTRA. deals with the hurt of memory, but none of the songs are as willing to step outside of themselves as “There Will Be Tears.” Frank absconds the minutiae of his youth to focus on the bigger picture of loss and mortality as it relates to anyone of any age; though the production is some of the most dated on the mixtape, the writing is some of the most mature and forward-thinking.

Every day, I miss my father, and I love my father as Frank Ocean misses and loves his grandfather. The man I know my father can be has my heart, and “There Will Be Tears” reminds me my love is not for nothing. Fathers are difficult; family is thorny. There will be tears, but there will be joy, too. Where there is loss, there was love. We cannot forget the love. 

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