The Precious Power of Tears

“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

kelly salasin

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.

“That’s My Daddy” from 4 to 40

by Kelly Salasin

That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!”
A four-year old girl stands with a tiny suitcase in hand as a passenger ferry pulls into dock. When she spies her father on the second-story deck, she jumps up and down, shouting, “That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!”

Surprisingly, that little girl is me (almost forty years ago). I can still remember the smell of the docks warmed by the summer sun, and the sounds of gulls flanking the ship as her stern squeezed itself into the tight embrace of the piers.

That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!” I hollered, tugging my Nana’s arm into the air with each leap. I had come to spend my first overnight at my Nana’s house in Rehoboth, Delaware, and we had a wonderful day. We picked berries, walked along the boardwalk, visited the beach. I plucked ripe tomatoes from her garden and met the frog who visited her there.

But when the call came late that afternoon to check in on me, it was all over. As soon as I heard my father’s voice over the phone, I fell to pieces, saying that I wanted to go home… right then.

His reply?

“Yes.”

Decades later this response seems a minor miracle–given my father’s lifetime indifference to the emotional aspects of parenting; and the increasingly challenging relationship we shared as I aged.

Even more amazing is the fact that I wasn’t down the street or across town, I was in another state–and a couple hours away–including a ferry trip across the Delaware Bay.  

The story grows even more climatic, as my penny-wise, pragmatic father, forgoes his plans to have my Nana board me (so that he doesn’t have to pay for the return trip)–and crosses the ramp himself to lift me into his arms, unable to resist my excitement.

That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!”

This phrase has taken on mythical qualities in the legacy of family, but you’d have to hear like I do with the twang of my Nana’s Delaware accent. She retold that story on each visit we made to her beachside town so that by the time that I was in my twenties, I no longer knew if I recalled any of it from experience, or if it was simply her telling that I knew so well.

But it doesn’t matter, because it served the same purpose: it anchored the affection between my father and me–for a lifetime. Perhaps, Nana, in her grandmotherly wisdom, knew that we would need to draw upon this for many years to come.

As I grew up, it was my mother whom I found easier to love. She and I had more in common and easily became friends as I entered adulthood. With my father, things grew increasingly difficult, particularly as I began to spread my wings, and even more so after my parents divorced and my father remarried.

My dad had been the one prone to anger and erratic discipline, and increasingly absent from our lives. He had always provided for our family, and we were proud of his work as a surgeon, but what we really wanted was his time and affection–something he never seemed able or comfortable enough to give in any large doses.

And yet, strangely enough, it is his shining moments of devotion that are strung along in my mind’s history of our dance together. At eight years old, I remember the day when I discovered that my mother had disposed of my beloved “blankies,” telling me once and for all that I had grown too old for them. This triggered an episode of hysteria that typically my father would dismiss with a fury, but instead it was he who listened to my tears when he arrived home from the hospital. Like a knight in shining armor, he rescued my blankies and returned them to me– pleasantly amused at my passion–and the simplicity with which he could be my hero.

In looking back, perhaps it was my father who was the more tender-hearted one of my parents after all. He certainly was more prone to the range of emotions that accompany one who lives from the heart. Or maybe it was simply that his moments of grace were so few and far apart that they took on larger-than-life proportions. Whatever it was that possessed him to sudden strokes of fatherly greatness, the memory of his heroic acts last to this day.

My favorite story is not the “That’s my Daddy” tale that my great-grandmother loved to retell, but another precious moment that occurred just between the two of us. It is a moment that has been forever etched into my heart because of the unforgettable intimacy that it held.

It was a snowy day in downtown Philadelphia, 1969. I had just turned five and was waiting outside in the cold for my daddy to pick me up from kindergarten. He was in his third year of medical school at Jefferson. He forgot me.

Schools were different in those days. They didn’t keep track of every child and there wasn’t someone “on duty” who sent me inside to wait. In fact, when I trudged through the unexpected snow back to the school entrance, I found the janitor locking the doors, and learned that my only option was to re-enter this imposing stone building from around the back–which seemed frighteningly far away to a little girl who was certain that her father would not find her there and that she’d be left forever.

Because I was told to wait out front, I did, shivering as the snow fell upon me.

My father never did remember me until he arrived home that afternoon an hour late and my mother asked “Where’s Kelly Ann!?” By the time he sped up to the curb, my teeth were chattering uncontrollably and tears were frozen on my cheeks. My young father quickly lifted me into his arms, turned the heat all the way up in his car, took my hands in his and warmed them with his breath. Then he removed my socks and shoes and placed my frozen feet– and this is the best part–under his shirt, snug against his belly.   We rode home like that, our bodies touching, his warming mine.

To this day, that act stands out as one of the most loving moments of my life. In fact, I repeatedly challenge my husband’s devotion by insisting he warm my cold feet against his belly each winter night.

Sometimes, when I find myself filled with resentment for my father’s failure to strive for any of the “Hallmark” standards of parenting, I see that little girl with the suitcase in hand,

And I decide to give this love story another chance…

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