I don’t know a lot about tears. They tell you that laughing is good for you, that it can add years to your life, even help cure cancer. But what about tears? What does it do to you if you rarely cry?
My earliest memory of crying was soon after my father’s massive heart attack forced him to retire and us to relocate to Seattle. I got in trouble for something. Dad was home, and I heard the slip and snap of his belt as it slid out of his trousers. I fled to my room and wailed.
“Stop sounding like a fire engine!” my mother yelled.
I cried because I didn’t want to be punished. I cried with rage at the injustice of it all. I cried because inside me was a great knot of feelings: grief over the death of my grandmother, shock over the jarring moves from familiar Maryland to foreign Honolulu and then overcast Seattle, fear that my father could die from a second heart attack, and profound loneliness because I was lonely.
Oh how I cried.
Eventually I got the message. I wasn’t supposed to cry.
My parents were of hardy western stock. Mom, only child of a short, scrappy attorney, learned to drive at 11 years of age so she could accompany her father while he hunted on the benches around Boise. Given his blood pressure problems, there was always the possibility she might need to drive for help. Dad grew up in Yakima under a “severe” father – his words — in a household where shit rolled downhill. His father criticized the eldest brother. The eldest took it out on Dad. His was the kind of family home where children were seen and not heard. His mother behaved civilly — as people would expect of the daughter of the town’s “grand old man” — while her husband left each night to sleep with his mistress. An open secret.
When bad things happened, my mother was unshockable. It wasn’t just that she was unflappable. It was as if a switch was flipped and she went into sergeant mode. She dealt with it — whatever it was — without fuss.
She expected the same of me. My brothers, all older, knew the rules without being told. They were the sons of a hunter, sons of a Marine.
Somehow I thought the rules would be different for a girl. I felt different. I wanted to share my enthusiasm, my indignation, my pain. I wanted to be held and comforted.
Rather than provoking sympathy, my expressions of emotion exasperated my mother (she would say outbursts). In early grade school, she would let me lean against her for a while — but only a while — before eventually complaining, “Stop clinging.” Mom was a big believer in shaking things off. Her biggest hero was her grandmother, who lived into her hundreds and was famous for her advice about illness, “Just make up your mind and shake it off by morning.”
Mind over matter.
I don’t mean to whine. (See? I had a pop up message in my head that said, “Quit whining.”) Or to blame my parents for being the stoics that they were. Stoicism has a lot going for it. Stoicism got Mom through the loss of her father while she was still in college, supported her through WWII, and saw both Mom and Dad through the loss of their daughter to leukemia.
This whole topic came up because I’ve been really mushy the last 24 hours. (Mushy? I know. It’s hard not to be pejorative.) I was looking for an old piece of family memorabilia and stumbled across a plaster mold of my son’s handprint and his first pair of real walking shoes. I almost lost it.
You see, he’s graduating from college tomorrow.
When I posted a picture of my find on Facebook, a friend advised, “Be sure to take tissues tomorrow!”
I wondered, will I cry? It’s not that I avoid crying. I simply can’t.
I’m not the family crier. My husband is. When we go to a movie with any kind of emotional moment, my daughter and I look over to him to see if he’s tearing up. He usually is. My husband comes from a whole family of criers. My best friends are criers. My children are criers.
When I was in therapy as a young mother, my homework assignment was to let the feelings in, to sit with sadness, to let myself cry. Crying, for me, took effort. When I finally would cry, it was as if the dam broke. I couldn’t stop.
So I wonder, will I cry?
I can feel my heart threaten to explode out of my chest. My son has overcome some really awful stuff to take that walk across his commencement stage. At times, in the past two years, I have felt as vulnerable as a new mom looking down at that gentle baby who looked in awe at the world around him. Wondering, how did this miracle happen? Will I be able to give him what he needs and keep him safe?
I don’t know if I will cry. I’ve been well trained. But I can tell you my heart is cracked open, hovering outside my body, waiting for tomorrow.