“The cure for pain is in the pain. Good and bad are mixed.
If you don’t have both, you don’t know yourself.” Rumi
I feel drawn to write about the power of tears–though I am an unlikely candidate. I can count the times I’ve cried in the past thirty years. And yet perhaps it is my resistance to tears that makes it possible for me to clearly mark their impact.
At 5 years of age, my tears were met with threats, “I’ll give you something to cry about!” At 7, they provoked a slap, “Calm yourself down, right now!” At 9, they were interrogated, “Why are you crying?” At 11, they were shamed, “You’re acting like a baby.” At 13, I began to hide them; and at 14, I turned them off altogether.
It was in the weeks following the untimely death of my grandmother that I was told my grief was self-indulgent. I didn’t cry again for years, not even in the late seventies, when tear-jerking films like Kramer vs. Kramer were the norm. I prided myself on this steeliness and girded it through all manner of life’s passages including the death of pets and the moving-away loss of friends.
At 19 however, I could hold off no more. Trauma was piled upon trauma as my father’s absence met my mother’s affair, met my parents divorce, met the loss of our house, met my mother’s drinking, met my father’s indifference, met our family’s collapse. Despair eroded the wall of my guarded heart and I cried three times in one year–and the tears became mine.
Those early cries were uncontrollable gushes of despair, but over time they came with greater ease, leaving behind treasures for my keep.
I’ve never forgotten the quiet stream of grief shared with my younger sister in the wreck of our family. I reached across the table for her hand, carving out a lifelong path of love that flowed between us. Though things didn’t get easier for a long, long time, we drank from this well of mutual compassion and were sustained by it.
As the years passed, my tears grew in their strength and helped me wash away things like pride and regret and fear–offering a husband, a home and a child in return. The gift of writing followed tears of anguish in the loss of my mother; and tears of frustration brought me to loving my father without cause. Though my tears frequently accompanied pain, they were always full of giving which allowed me to relax into them again and again as they found their away around my resistance.
Just yesterday, I was relieved to find myself crying in the very moments following a deep emotional gash. I sobbed a watershed of tears—both old and new, and this time was gifted with the compassionate presence of my 14-year old son. He sat down beside me on the front porch stairs and rubbed my shoulders as I wept.
This oldest son is as steely as his mother and I realized that my tears, however pain-filled, were a teacher for him too. Gratitude replaced my anguish as he tenderly kissed me on the neck.
Seven years earlier we had another family lesson in compassion when he shattered a treasured mug that my late mother had given me. Surprising the entire family, I ran from the kitchen to the couch with loud sobs.
Seeing me cry caused Lloyd to cry and he joined me on the couch in a chorus of cries as his two year old brother cried too without needing to know why. My husband came upon us last, and stood there before us, confused, not knowing what to “do;” and I began to laugh.
“Why are you happy, Mom?” Lloyd asked through his sobs, “You’ll never be able to drink from Mom-mom’s mug again.”
“But now I have this,” I told him with a squeeze. “Now I have this memory of our tears together, and that is more precious than any gift.”
I can’t help but wonder if this memory came to him as he sat beside me on the stairs yesterday afternoon. I have great hope that in his growing strength he’ll come to know the precious power of his “owned” tears.