I thought writing about crying would be easy, since I’m way more familiar with the activity than I’d wish to be. I was advised that the topic was tears, which was fairly general, and I said I’d be happy to (happy to write about tears -- how weird is that?), before I actually read that the idea was to write about something that made me cry. So the real issue became, “Just one thing? You’re kidding, right?”
I tend not to cry in front of my husband, because he doesn’t cry and somehow I feel I should be as tough as he is. I need to be his match, because he’s my hero and I refuse to be a wimpy heroine. He doesn’t ask this of me, and to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t even wish it; just that I don’t believe he feels comfortable around tears – doesn’t know what to do with them – and I don’t enjoy making anyone feel uncomfortable. I’m not afraid or ashamed to cry in front of him; I just tend not to do it too often, and these days, it doesn’t seem to matter much one way or another. Tears are just tears now, an expression on par with laughter and sighs, growls and harrumphs.
It wasn’t always that way, though. So what to write about tears?
I replayed myriad vivid scenes from my past, where tears were more than just a little evident, if only to me. And that was what struck me; I often cried out of sight and sound of all except those who wouldn’t tell and wouldn’t think I was weak for crying. Cats and dogs are known for their discretion in what they witness, but don’t reveal; they’re the ultimate silent partners, the friends you know will keep your shameful secrets.
What hurts more than crying alone? Can you be any more alone than when you’re shedding tears with the certainty that there is no comfort to be had from even those simplest of words, “It’ll be okay?” When you want to pour out your heart, along with the salty deluge streaming down your cheeks, weeping with those wracking sobs that feel as if, simultaneously, your chest is going to implode and your head explode, snuffling, not caring if you’re using your sleeves or, indeed, the whole bottom half of your shirt to absorb the mess – and there’s no one to receive that outpouring, except the infinite universe, that space where no one can hear you scream – how lonely is that?
It may be selfish and mean, but when I’ve done that – cried that way – I just want to share that with someone I trust. What’s that saying – a burden shared is a burden halved? Someone got that right. I don’t want to be a martyr and suffer alone. On the other hand, thanks to the society in which I’ve evolved, that much of a display of emotion frequently nets one of three responses: “Get over it,” “Don’t be such a baby,” and/or, “Isn’t that just like a woman.” Nothing like having your feelings minimized to toughen you up, right? Being emotional and showing it is considered self-indulgent, infantile, and weak.
Bit of a conundrum for those to whom being considered self-indulgent, infantile, and weak are all anathema, not because we don’t feel those emotions, but because we must never let anyone know what our soft spots are. Once the soft spots are discovered, there are those who are only too willing to gnaw away at them, poke them, prod them, worm their way in and use them to their advantage. Crying exposes the soft spots. To protect yourself, for your own mental and emotional safety, it pays to come up with a solid, self-disciplining rule, something like, “Never let them see you cry.”
There are few instances in my life, where I’ve given in to those wracking sobs, and allowed myself to cry out loud. Silent wracking sobs are difficult, but not impossible. You can despair and heave sobs quietly, if necessary. Silent sobbing is actually physically painful, because we’re simply not designed to withstand that much internal pressure without physiological consequences – most notably, migraines, throbbing sinuses, aching eyeballs, and clenched muscles. The stress of silent crying is enormous, but sometimes it’s all you can do, because doing it out loud exposes the weakness.
For months after my father and sister died, two weeks apart, I kept it pretty much all together. It was months of doing all I could do to comfort my mother, because she was the only one who’d suffered a loss. No one was hurting the way she was hurting; no one ever had; no one could ever understand her pain. She lost a husband and a daughter. That was all that mattered. My surviving sister and I hadn’t lost our sister and father. Granddaughters and nieces hadn’t lost their mother, or aunt, and grandfather. My mother was the only one suffering and grieving. Suffering and grieving were her province alone.
The only times I’d broken down were in Marks and Spencer’s, when I saw a couple, my parents’ age, shopping, the day before Daddy’s funeral – I had to buy something to wear for it – and the clerk was surprisingly understanding; the morning of the funeral while writing a eulogy; and right before the service, when I found comfort in the arms of my mother-in-law. That last one helped a lot because I got it out before the eulogy and didn’t break at all while reading it.
When my sister, Irene, died two weeks later, I didn’t cry. We’d had a bon voyage party for her, which she and everyone, but my mother, thoroughly enjoyed, despite the knowledge of her imminent death, and she died within 24 hours of saying good-bye. I loved her so much, but I couldn’t cry. Perhaps, because she would not have wanted me to.
My mother told everyone and anyone she met, including complete strangers, that she’d lost her husband, her beloved Peter. And after they expressed as much sincere sympathy as possible to her, she’d tack on, “And my daughter died, too.” Irene was an afterthought used to garner a bit more sympathy. Right after Daddy died, the day of his funeral, while Irene still lived, my mother was badmouthing her to one of Irene’s oldest friends. Others might think that unbelievable – knowing your daughter was dying and *still* not forgiving her for perceived transgressions, still making her out to be a bad person, a selfish daughter, and saying, “Irene is all for Irene.” But it was not unbelievable to me, or to my other sister. We’d heard that all our lives and had ceased to be shocked by the cold callousness. What was Irene’s unforgivable sin? She grew up. She stopped being the beautiful little doll, as my mother had often described her – so beautiful that people had stopped on the street and given my mother a bit of money to buy something nice for her little girl – and had grown up. My eldest sister’s unforgivable sin had been having the audacity to try being her own adult person and a not a little girl – my mother’s little doll – anymore.
Irene died a quiet death from cancer, but I couldn’t cry.
Some weeks after that, I took my mother to grief counseling and the moderator of the group asked me how I was doing. I thought that seemed a little weird. Why would the grief counselor think I was a concern? I wasn’t designed to grieve; I was designed to absorb grief.
I just shrugged. “Oh, I’m okay,” I said, “My mother isn’t doing too well, but I’m doing fine.”
She only went once and didn’t want to go again.
I ignored myself, and just about everyone else, to focus on my mother’s grief, her needs, and yes, her neediness, which had always been apparent, but now turned into something so overwhelming that it threatened to engulf me. It did engulf me. I had no time to grieve for my father, or my sister. I owed it to my mother to not be selfish, to not think only of myself. I just knew I could help her as long as I kept trying to; I was sure of it. As long as I was a good daughter and kept looking after her, I was positive that, eventually, she could live on her own, and then I could get on with my life, too.
Of course, I was an idiot. Some rules are made too late, like closing the barn door after the horse has already run away. She’d seen me cry long before I’d learned that crying was a weakness in me. She knew my soft spots. She had no intention of getting on with her own life, or of letting me get on with mine. She wanted to be my life the way Daddy had been hers.
I was alone in our house one day.
For months, I’d kept it all together. Months of getting phone calls during the wee hours of the morning from her, or from the neighbours saying she was at their place, carrying on and beside herself, and could I come down. Months of driving the 60 miles there and 60 miles back in a day, two or three times a week, while working a fulltime job in a direction not on the way to or from her place. Months of sitting with her and reminiscing about her memories. Months of hoping she’d work her way out of the dark, of trying to help her find that path. And months of waiting to hear, just once, “And how are you doing, Rosie? You must miss Daddy and Irene so much.” Just one little acknowledgement that I might be feeling some little bit of pain.
It was like waiting for a bus that, unbeknownst to me, had broken down at the terminal and wasn’t showing up. Like that scene in “North By Northwest.” I’m standing there, out in the middle of nowhere, waiting for that bus, but all that shows up is a crop-dusting plane dusting crops where there ain’t no crops and then it’s bearing down on me and I realize there was never any bus and that crop duster is only interested in dumping its toxic load on me.
And there I was, alone in my kitchen – my beautiful, well-appointed kitchen, in our beautiful new house that my mother loved visiting so much because it was beautiful and new and looked like something out of Better Homes and Gardens, something she could brag about to all her friends and neighbours, not like the old farmhouse my husband and I had lived in previously, that my mother didn’t like at all because it made us look poor, instead, and was something to be ashamed of – and I burned the toast, or something in a pan, or dropped a stirring utensil on the floor and it was a little messy. I don’t even remember what started it, but it was the end of the world, an incident of such magnitude that there could be no fixing it ever. I started crying.
And what happened next was what I’d always feared; that if I started crying, I might not be able to stop. I lost it. I bawled and sobbed those great wracking sobs. I pounded the countertop, and turned and slid down to the floor with my back against the cupboard, just crying and blubbering, waving my hands like flopping fish out of water, then hammering my fists against the cupboard, and the floor, and I didn’t think about stopping. I didn’t even try to stop. And the tears and sobs just kept coming. I think part of me just wanted to stay in that place crying for the rest of my life. I believe part of me was crying for everything up to that point, not just for a few weeks, or months, but years, decades. The part of me that wanted to cry for the rest of my life was the part that hadn’t cried out loud for so long, it had forgotten how it felt to do that.
Pure, raw emotion – disappointment, grief, despair, loneliness, longing, frustration, anger, rage – all flooding out with a monsoon of tears. And even though no one else could see it or hear it, I could, and I could feel it, too, and I wasn’t ashamed of it because it just felt good to do it. It felt primal.
And the only distinguishable words I remember saying were, “Help me. Somebody help me, please.” But there was no one to hear them, so my secret was still safe. And I said, “Why did you have to die?”
I was crying for my father and for me, but I was crying for my mother, too. She was still alive, but lost to me, and I couldn’t make it better, no matter what I did. And I was crying because, although the best case scenario would have had my parents dying together, so that neither of them would have had to live without the other, the worst case scenario was what had happened; he had died and she hadn’t. I knew – we knew – the day he died, that the worst case scenario had transpired. How does a child deal with the guilt of realizing that truth about herself, other than with self-hate and tears? I didn’t know it then, but I had another eight or nine years to go to live with that living truth. Why did it have to be him and not her? I loved my mother, I know I did, but if I’d had to choose one or the other, I would have wished that she had died, instead of my father. How does a daughter live with knowing that about herself? How do you forgive yourself for wishing something like that about your own mother?
That was 17 years ago and since then, I’ve cried a lot more tears both quietly and aloud. Oddly, although tears come much easier now – I allow them to – they don’t come as often, or, at least, I don’t notice them as much. They’re a much more simple and acceptable response to sadness, with a “this too shall pass” sentiment. And there are tears of joy, too. Crying just because I feel happiness. Tears have washed away much of the rage and so much of that rage was grief over losses never identified, losses denied.
These days, I cry when I feel like crying. It doesn’t feel self-indulgent; it isn’t a pity party, but I pity anyone who would tell me to “Get over it.” I feel stronger for doing it, not weaker; my loved ones have not reviled me for giving in to this emotional urge, and it isn’t my secret shame anymore. It isn’t infantile; it’s human.
Perhaps we find the strength of the human spirit, our own humanity, when we dare to look at our reflection in a pool of tears
Rose B. Thorny