I rarely cry. I’m not allowed to cry, don’t allow myself to cry, unless I’m alone. Maybe it’s a control issue. But it’s also connected with being depended on by those around me. Crying in the presence of family members, especially one’s children, makes things worse for everyone.
Sometimes I feel guilty about not crying even when it would be expected, but then some minor disappointment will set me off, in private, and once I’ve got myself under control I realize that I’d been bottling up real grief and only letting it out later. How could I not cry when my grandmother died, but dissolve into sobs and tears a few weeks later when critters destroyed the melons in my first substantial garden just before they were ripe? But there was a subconscious connection.
At my mother’s funeral, not quite four years ago, I had to hang on for my father’s sake. He probably felt the same about me. I managed it, except for stinging tears that didn’t quite fall when the soloist sang the piece I’d told her was my mother’s favorite. I almost wished I hadn’t. The power music exerts over our emotions is immense. In this case, I’d given in to it a few weeks earlier rather than later, in fairly trivial circumstances, sitting alone in my car in a parking lot listening to Simon and Garfunckle’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” I knew my mother would soon be gone, and somehow the line “Sail on, silver girl,” filled me with memories of her in her twenties, stories about her youth even before that, pictures in her college year book--and a wider sense of the passage of time, and of lives.
There have been other times, of course, but not very many. I know there will be more to come. I don’t think I’m likely to use any of them in my writing, although I did, just once, just briefly. I’m not sure I can put it in context briefly enough, but I’ll try. This is from a long-ago story, almost the first I ever had published, in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. “Steelwing” is about a woman who becomes a General in a women’s army but has totally blanked out memories of her life before she joined, and refuses to acknowledge her own magical powers. She’s sent on a secret mission to the area she came from, and painful memories begin to come back.
Sweeping vistas opened before us, of forested slopes, high meadows, and ever higher ridges and peaks uncrossable by any army. Tongues of white licked down the mountains' flanks, ravines still filled with snow, though in the lower valleys the growing season was well advanced. My elation grew, even as a dull pain began to throb beneath it all.
"You look like someone coming home." Ruald startled me. He must have cheated to catch up.
I looked involuntarily toward the wooded notch just above us. There should have been a brown roof, and smoke curling from a stone chimney, but I saw neither. I looked to the right, where a stream should have tumbled almost at our feet, but the pebbles and boulders in the dry bed were pale and naked to the sun.
The pain grew, and drove me harder. We passed into the dappled shade of white, slender trees. The tender green of their leaves flickered, swam, blurred before my eyes; awareness skewed, and flashes of gold streamed suddenly through my mind. Golden leaves were falling around me, sobs ripping through me as tears burned down my face and I ran, ran, from an agony of guilt that could never be escaped, a gaping loss that could never be filled...But I hadn't moved, and Ruald was holding me up without touching me. I saw his worried face. I felt for the solid rock under the thin soil, sank my consciousness into it, and knew who and where I was.
And knew what lay ahead.
Steelwing had run crying through the golden leaves because her young son had killed himself, racked by uncontrollable magic powers inherited from her that he couldn’t handle. I had run crying through golden leaves in the forest, a way to be alone, because my young son was racked by the misery of being “different,” unable to meet expectations, exceptionally intelligent, but close to delusional, and close to suicidal. Back then there was no such diagnosis as Asperger’s Syndrome, and his case was complicated beyond that, so we went through some very hard times, but we survived.
That’s the only time I used my own crying in a story, and I don’t recall any other times when I wrote about crying at all, except in a brand new story in an anthology I just edited. This instance is definitely not anything I’ve done myself. The main character is an ambulance driver in WWI, wounded and recovering back in rural England, who's been fighting her attraction to a local artist noted for her paintings of nature. The story is “The Bridge” in Through The Hourglass: Lesbian Historical Romance, and isn’t erotica, on the page at least, though I’d like to expand it in that direction. Anyway, to get away from the personal, of which I’ve had about all I can handle, here’s the passage that almost fits our theme.
Three days later Reggie saw a bicycle with familiar canvas panniers leaning against the low wrought iron fence surrounding the churchyard. In a far corner of the enclosure, someone with unruly light brown hair sat in the grass by a gravestone, bent over what might be a sketchbook. Not a suitable time at all for a casual greeting. Still, Reggie leaned her own second-hand bicycle against the fence and stood watching against her better judgment.
The bent head lifted. Emma gazed at the stone for a long minute, then raised a hand to rub an eye. To rub a tear from an eye, Reggie was certain. Quite definitely not a time to invade someone’s privacy. Yet there Reggie was, setting one hand on the top rail and vaulting easily over the fence, striding between the ancient and not-so-ancient headstones, and dropping to the grass beside Emma.
Emma looked up, face drawn, eyes bright with tears. She didn’t seem surprised at all to see Reggie. “Mother can’t bear to come here,” she said in a low voice. “But if I draw the stone, with flowers that bloom here or some I’ve picked, and leave my sketchbook open on the hall table, she’ll pick it up and look. That’s the closest she can come to acceptance.”
The open sketchbook showed a watercolor scene, still damp, portraying the grey stone with softly muted edges and an inscription that could just barely be read, although the one on the actual stone was sharp and all too recent: “Lieutenant Edward Greening.” In front of the pictured stone, small bright buttercups danced on delicate stems, minutely detailed mirror images of the actual flowers before them, just as an oak branch in full leaf at the top of the page matched the very one arching above them
“Your brother?” was all Reggie could think of to say. Something about sitting on the grass together made any formality absurd.
Emma looked back at the stone and went on as though they were longstanding friends, the sort with whom one could share deep thoughts when one desperately needed to speak them. “At least Eddie came home. So many others never will. Who knows—you might even have carried him in your ambulance. But he was too broken to live long, in too many ways. And he’d lost someone he loved over there. I think he would rather have been buried there too, in ‘some corner of a foreign field…’”
“‘…that is forever England.’” Reggie continued the quotation without conscious thought. “So you know Rupert Brooke’s poetry.” Vic had loved Brooke’s poetry. Reggie braced for the pain the thought must bring, her face tightening.
“Oh yes. Rupert was from this district, a distant cousin in fact, and Eddie knew him at Cambridge. He was given his book when it came out. Eddie thought him rather too sentimental, but his words were sadly prophetic and do stick with one in times like these.” Emma turned, saw Reggie’s expression, and reached out to touch her arm. “You lost someone there?”
The pain came, but now she could speak of it, which made all the difference. “Vic only went to the war because I did…and now she’s dead, when it should be me.” She drew a gulping breath. “I want to go back, I must do the work again, but with her gone…” She groped in a pocket for a handkerchief. She’d thought all her tears had been spent long ago, but one was making its way down her cheek.
Emma passed her a paint-stained square of cotton cloth. “Work is the only thing that helps, no matter how hard it is to do, but there’s more than enough of it on this side of the Channel. I go to Oxford once a month because I’m needed, but also because I need to do the work.”
Reggie stared at her blankly. “Oxford?”
“Somerville College has been converted to a hospital for the duration,” Emma explained. “I was in training there to go to France as a nurse, but then Eddie…then I had to care for my parents. Now I go one week a month as a nurse’s assistant, filling in when others need time off, helping with cleaning, changing dressings, lifting, sitting with cases who can’t be left alone. Sometimes the lads like me to make sketches of them to send home to their families and sweethearts, pictures showing them less…less harshly than a photograph would…” She snatched the cloth back and used it on her own cheek.
The flush on Reggie’s face this time was of shame, not anger. What a thick-headed jackass she’d been, assuming that folks in the peaceful countryside knew nothing of the horrors of war. And giving no thought to what became of the wounded she carried to the field hospitals, or from those to the ships, once they got back to England.
“I could be of help there,” she said slowly. “I could go with you.”
“Yes. You could.”
A long, considering silence. Then: “We were at Somerville together, Vic and I. Victoria and Regina. We got ragged about the names, of course, but eventually everyone just took it for granted that we did everything together.”
Emma smiled at that, not her brilliant, flashing smile, but one of understanding.
“I should go there,” Reggie went on. “There are people in Oxford I must see, a tutor who was a mentor to me, and to Vic, and wrote to us when we went to the war, as did some others as well. But I’ve been putting it off. To be there, when Vic never will be again…to tell them how it was, how she died… It’s a bridge I must cross, but I don’t know how I can bear it!”
Emma wrapped her fingers around Reggie’s as though it they had a perfect right to be there. To Reggie it felt as though they did.
“I can give you a hand with that,” Emma said, echoing Reggie’s words by the wooden bridge where they’d met. “Over any number of bridges.”
Reggie tightened her grip, leaned forward, paused, and thought briefly of looking about to see whether any passerby could see them. But Emma had leaned forward as well, so that their faces all but touched, and a breeze through the oak leaves above them sounded uncannily like Vic’s voice saying, ‘Get on with it, you slouch!’
So Reggie did. And the salt of spent tears had never tasted so sweet.