Big Girls Do Cry

woman-cryingI didn’t cry much when my father died, not because I had no emotions but rather because I somehow believed that I needed to stay strong for my mother and my brothers. I don’t think that it was particularly healthy of me to prevent the natural feelings that were causing me so much internal pain from becoming public. For a great deal of my life I have tended to be stoic. I’ve often put forth a strong face when what I really wanted to do was allow myself to sob. Over time I realized that tears and sadness are a natural aspect of our humanity that is to be celebrated rather than hidden. We are made to react to hurt and loss and pain with a release of our real feelings. Big girls really do cry and it is not just an okay thing to do, but a therapeutic release. When our minds and bodies urge us to set our tears free, we should feel comfortable responding to the instinct.

Of late I have been crying a great deal, but still not so much in front of other people. I’m in the process of becoming able to do that. It have been through a difficult three months as have so many. I find myself reliving the moment when my husband had his stroke, and I cry, mostly because I am relieved that he is still alive and thriving. I have cried almost every single day for the last month because invariably I see or hear something related to the horrible flood in my city, and I sense the struggles that so many are still enduring and will face for months to come. I can hardly watch the news reports of the conditions in Puerto Rico, a place that I recall being so friendly and beautiful. The images that flash across the screen are heartbreaking, and I feel helpless, so I cry. I have cried for my friends whose loved ones so recently died, as well as for those who are reliving anniversaries of their losses. I cried for my father-in-law who had an accident that has left him barely able to move. I shed twelve hours of tears while watching the Ken Burns series on Vietnam that ran for the last two weeks on PBS. The memories of that era of my life are still raw with emotion and the poignancy of the presentation brought long past feelings to the surface once again. I have cried for the state of our country today which seems as divided and angry and confused as it did back then. Problems that I believed to have been solved were evidently just festering beneath the surface. All of it has made me feel weary because I know of no magical solutions to make things better, and so I cry.

I am by nature a peacemaker. I have always wanted to help people to get along. I have loved living the role of a supporter, a motivator, an inspirer. I feel uncomfortable when people are angry and fighting. I suppose that this is because I learned so long ago that our lives are quite fragile. We simply do not know from one moment to the next how much more time we have on this earth, and so I believe that we must make the best of however many hours that we have. My heroes have been individuals like my Uncle William who was the epitome of kindness. I would be quite surprised to learn of even a single time when he purposely set out to hurt someone. He was a man who mostly set aside his own thoughts and did his very best to consider the wants and needs and dreams of everyone else around him. He was always willing to listen and to love. In that regard as a child I viewed him as the strongest person that I ever knew, and even as I have grown older I still think of him that way.

I remember our neighbor Mr. Barry whom everyone seemed to regard as a living saint. There was nothing wimpy about him. He had served in the Navy during World War II. He managed a large bank for years. He knew how to get things done, but he always accomplished them with an eye toward being sympathetic and good. He was one of those people who noticed the individual who was unseen by everyone else. He didn’t know it, but he was the male role model that I needed after my own father died.

There is a tendency these days to admire people who possess what I call a false bravado, individuals who bully, blame others for their mistakes and take pride in demeaning those who do not agree with them. I personally find such folks to be offensive and weak. They remind me of a student that I once had who found joy in hurting other kids. When he went after a blind girl in order to increase his own popularity I put him down with a vengeance that I have never used on another student before or after. I was unwilling to allow him to parade like a champion when what he had done was so vile and cowardly. For that reason I have cried a  great deal of late, because our society appears to be mesmerized by those who behave the ugliest. It is something that I can’t understand.

Social media was a lifesaver during our Houston floods. I kept my sanity because I was able to stay in touch with friends and family members during the long days and nights when the waters filled our streets and homes. Unfortunately there is a negative aspect of that same wondrous means of communication that is hacking away at our decency. I suppose that it is simply too easy these days to dash off a quick and dirty reply to any person or situation that offends us. When we don’t have to look someone in the eye it is more likely that we will be willing to vent in ways that are hurtful. Too often we forget to think about how our comments may affect someone else. Too many among us don’t take the time to consider the impact of their words. When I see the fighting that ensues among people who were once friends and family members it make me cry. There is simply no reason for any of us to be hateful and yet even some of our leaders are not able to control their basest tendencies.

I am weary of hearing epithets of snowflakes, commies, ingrates, sons of bitches, entitled kids, abominable people, fascists, racists, homophobes, rednecks, ignoramuses. I listen as we devour one another with words and accusations that often have little or no basis in fact, and yet we speak as though they are gospel. I grow tired of seeing memes and tweets that trivialize serious situations or poke fun at entire groups of people. We seem intent on boiling a pot of furor, and so I cry.

I remember a time when I went on a civil rights tour with my students. We sat in the church in Birmingham where little girls were murdered because of hate. We crossed a bridge in Selma were fire hoses and snarling dogs had once been let lose on protestors whose only crime was asking for the same rights as their white counterparts. I walked down the street toward the capitol building in Montgomery and remembered the hateful rhetoric of  George Wallace. I cried as I looked at my students and remembered the violence and racism that I had witnessed when I was young. I stood in Dr. King’s kitchen and ran my hand across the very table where he sat and prayed for God’s guidance. I cried as I thought of his courage and wisdom and I knew that he too would always be one of my heroes.

I cry when I think of Jesus and the lessons He taught us, the sacrifices that He made. I wonder why it seems so difficult for us humans to follow His very simple message of love whether we believe He was God or not. What is it in our natures that makes us complicate and misinterpret His teachings? Why did we not learn how horrific hate can become from His death on the cross? What prevents us from being like my uncle or the man who was my neighbor?

As I grow older I find that I remember the kindnesses that were extended to me and I cry tears of joy and gratitude when I recall the people who touched my heart so beautifully. I also think of the ugly things that I have witnessed. They make me cry as well. I had hoped that we would be evolving toward a better way of living with one another by now. Unfortunately we are instead being taunted to take the low road, to dialogue with our fellow men and women with rancor rather than understanding. We give power to the rabble rousers instead of ignoring them and siding with those who would challenge us to bring out the good that resides in our souls. The fact that this is happening makes me cry.

I would so much rather cry over a beautiful sunrise or sunset. I want to shed tears when I see people helping people. I want to release those positive emotions when I watch a toddler so innocently embracing the world. I would prefer feeling a heave in my heart from listening to music or sharing a wonderful time with friends and family. I know that there will be uncontrollable events like natural disasters and deaths, but I am so tired of seeing the kind made by people. It really is up to all of us to begin to demonstrate the kind of understanding that was the hallmark of Uncle William’s and Mr. Barry’s lives. Those two men were so loved because they never hesitated to love. Perhaps the most telling story about my uncle came when he was delivering mail along the route that had been his for years. He came upon the mother of a notorious serial killer and the emotion that he felt for her was unadulterated love. He spoke of how sad it must have been for her to lose her only son under such circumstances. He did not judge the woman nor consider that she might have somehow been responsible for how her son had become. Instead he simply cared for her and worried about how she would be now that her son was condemned to prison for life. My uncle taught me how to love. I’m still trying to be as good as he always was and while I am learning I sometimes cry.

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A Memorial Day

american-flags.jpgThere was a time when Memorial Day was celebrated on May 31, regardless of when that day fell on the calendar. Thus it was in 1957. I had just completed the third grade after a rather adventurous year of moving from Houston to San Jose to Los Angeles to Corpus Christi and back to Houston. My father had begun working for Tenneco and we were living in a rented house in southeast Houston. My parents were thinking of closing a deal on a home in Braes Heights and we were all excited about meeting up with all of my aunts and uncles and cousins on Memorial Day at the beach.

My mom had spent most of May 30, preparing foods like potato salad and baked beans as well as her famous homemade barbecue sauce that my father would use on the burgers that he planned to grill the next day. We were beside ourselves with the anticipation of launching our summer vacation with our relatives. We knew that it would be a day of playing in the waves, fishing and crabbing on the pier, rollicking on the playground and listening to stories from our hilariously funny family members. It felt so good to be back in Houston after having been so far away for so many months.

My brothers and I went to bed before our father arrived home that evening. Mama explained that he had to complete a project that was due right after the holiday. He was a mechanical engineer and I was so proud of the work he did. I knew that if he failed to come home for dinner what he was doing had to be very important. I twisted and turned for a time but finally fell into a deep slumber with dreams of the fun that lay ahead. I did not awake until the sun peeked through the blinds in my bedroom window.

When I opened my eyes and acclimated myself to the new day I heard my mother talking on the phone in the hallway of our house. She sounded as though she was crying and her voice broke now and again. She seemed to be answering questions about my father and her answers were strange. She used past tense verbs which immediately alarmed me. Somehow without ever asking I had the idea that something dark and terrible had happened. I lay in my bed listening and grew ever more worried.

I finally crept into the kitchen searching for a glass of water because my anxiety had caused my throat to become dry. I was both surprised and alarmed to see my Aunt Valeria puttering about. Now I was convinced that this was not a good sign. I sat down at the kitchen table without saying a word while she nervously began attempting to explain to me that my father had died. It was difficult for her to get out the words and her eyes were filled with grief. I sat motionless and stunned as though I had not understood what she was saying, but truthfully I had figured things out before ever entering the room. I felt for my aunt because she literally did not have any idea what to do and I had no energy to help her. I suppose that we were both in a state of shock.

There have been few days in my life as terrible as that May 31, 1957. It has now been exactly sixty years ago since my life changed so dramatically. I was one person on May 30, and became someone completely different on May 31. I was only eight but I felt eighty, and in many ways forced myself to become an adult so that I might deal with the tragedy that so altered my world. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to lock myself in my room forever. I wanted to run away. I wanted to tell my father one last time how much I loved him. I wanted to scream at him for going away from us. My emotions were a jumble that left me bereft for months. I wanted to know exactly what had happened but never really would. I could only draw inferences and surmise what might have brought his brilliant life to such a crashing end.

Based on conversations with my mother and stories in the newspaper my best guess is that after working late my dad went out with some of his coworkers and had a few celebratory drinks. I suppose that my mother became angry when he finally came home and they had a fight. Perhaps he left in a huff to attempt to calm down. He decided to drive to Galveston. He was on his way back home on a freeway system that was still under construction. Instead of being on the main road he was on the feeder. There was a deep unmarked ditch directly ahead of his path. He was driving as though he was on a highway when he was in reality heading to a death trap. Too late his car slammed into the cavernous depression. The front of the auto was crushed and caused the steering wheel to slam into his chest stopping his beating heart. He died instantly and so did a little bit of everyone who loved him. It seemed such a meaningless end.

Of course I eventually adjusted to the reality of the situation but a profound grief lay under my thin veneer of courage. I was never quite the same after that. I worried more and often found myself avoiding adventures lest I be the source of more pain for my mother. I grew up almost instantly while somehow being in an eternal childhood. A piece of my heart would always be eight years old and every Memorial Day it would hurt again. I would experience a lifetime of questions and what ifs. I learned the importance of empathy because I had needed it so on that day and there were special people who provided it for me when I most wanted it.

I have friends and acquaintances who have also suffered unimaginable losses. I suspect that those who have not had such experiences don’t quite understand how we never really and truly get over the pain. Our wounds heal but now and again something triggers an ache. In my own case I have so much more that I want to know about my father. I would give anything to experience an adult relationship with him. I wonder if the images that I have of him are just a creation of my mind. I want to hear his voice for I can no longer remember it. It would be nice to share stories with him and see his reactions to my accomplishments. I would so like for my children and grandchildren to know him.

I have a friend whose husband died suddenly. She has young sons who are suffering. When I read of their hardships I literally feel their pain and cry for them. They are lucky to have a wonderful mom who allows them to express their feelings, so I believe that like me they will one day have the courage to move on with life. It is what we do even when we think that surely we too will die.

Sixty years is a very long time. I am almost twice the age my father was when he died. My memories of him are all pleasant for he was a very good man. They have sustained me again and again. It doesn’t really matter how or why he died, but only that he set the world afire while he was here. He loved fiercely and squeezed every ounce out of life. He left his mark and I have told stories of him all throughout the years. He still lives in me and my brothers and our children and grandchildren. Sometimes I see him in my brother Pat or my nephew Shawn. His life had great meaning and we continue to keep his spirit alive.