Many years ago, her grandmother passed away and her family sat in the funeral home around the casket. Her grandmother was to be cremated in a few hours after the service. No one said anything until her grandfather, who was sitting next to her cousin Joe, slapped Joe on the arm. For emphasis, my professor slapped me on the arm.
Loudly, as though starting a regular conversation, her grandfather had asked, “How hot do you think it gets down there, eh Joe? How hot?” He was referring to the cremation chamber.
Cousin Joe looked startled, then mumbled, “I don’t know.”
“He stayed with her body, with the coffin. He followed her down to the cremation chamber and he sat outside and waited. He stayed there for hours. He stayed with her until she was gone.”
That day, we were to discuss Jeannette Winterson’s “Written on the Body,” the first line of which reads:
Why is the measure of love loss?
“I don’t think any of us could have done that,” my professor said. She didn’t cry but her voice cracked just the slightest bit, “Not for my grandmother and not, not at that point, for anyone else. We had all loved her but for my grandfather the loss he felt – it was on a totally different level.” She did not have the words except to say, “They had been married for seventy-four years.”
I had lost it by then, the tears were coursing down my face. I wondered what my fellow students – whose faces though downcast, remained dry – must have thought of me.
My professor heard a sniffle and turned to look at me. She smiled softly, “Sorry for hitting your arm.”
After class, I left Columbia to meet Tom and a few friends at a happy hour in Chinatown. I could not shake my professor’s story and cried silently in the subway the whole way down, using up two travel packs of Kleenex and I’m sure, a good chunk of attention span from my fellow commuters. No one asked me what was wrong – I didn’t expect them to – but there was one young man who, after much deliberation seemed to be summoning up the goodwill and courage necessary to approach any sad stranger on the streets to ask, “What is wrong?”
But somewhere near Broadway and Lafayette, I looked up at him, smiled and shook my head. I meant, “It’s not a big deal. My professor told me a sad story and I’m still thinking about it,” but he probably saw a girl freshly broken up with who was thinking, “It’s done. It’s dead. There’s nothing you can do.”
I’m not sure when I turned into this enormous sap – maybe I’ve always been like this, but I don’t always remember crying so much as a kid over sad thoughts. I cried when my mom beat me, but that was more like, “Oh man this is going to hurt,” rather than, “My God! Unfathomable pain and darkness!”
But somewhere along the way the ducts in my eyes became hypersensitive, their nerve endings wrapped themselves a little too tightly around certain lobes and they would erupt, like broken dams, at the slightest mention of tragedy, a passing glimpse of an abject image.
Maybe I heard too many sad stories from my mother, who may also be the mother of all saps, not just of this one, or perhaps I’ve been conditioned by too many sad books and movies, but it makes me wonder why I cry excessively when the people around me seem able to hold it in or “keep it together.”
Am I not together?
No, sometimes not. Especially on the subway after hearing sad stories.
A few years ago, I wrote this blog post about crying at work.
Steve Jobs had just died and I read, at my desk, his sister, Mona Simpson’s Eulogy in the New York Times. A few coworkers came up to me to ask for one thing or other and in seeing that I was crying, felt immediately uncomfortable and couldn’t wait to walk away. A few of them avoided me for the rest of the day, waiting for whatever was bothering me to blow over.
Not everyone is like this, put off by tears, but some key people in my life still scratch their heads at this soggy display of emotion. My father, despite being married to my mother for nearly forty years, believes that tears don’t solve problems. He is not so much put off as he is perplexed: “I get that you’re sad, but why are you crying?” Tom, who also doesn’t believe in crying, is by now used to my weepiness and instead of getting uneasy will give me a hug and say, “Ah, you’re leaking again.” He will wait it out with me as one would a passing storm cloud.
I’m lucky though, that thus far, the storm cloud is very seldom mine.
Last year a friend told me her boyfriend of two and a half years had called it quits. Trying to stay composed, she didn’t shed a single tear when she told me of how it happened, but I thought I could feel, from her tired gaze, just a shade of what she must have felt. I burst into tears. Like her, I had wanted good things for them.
“Why are you crying?” she said, surprised, but not claiming that it was her right alone to cry.
“Because it’s sad,” I said.
Early last month I accompanied Tom to the funeral of his friend’s father, despite having met the friend only once and her father never. When the casket was wheeled in I cried, even though the family’s faces stayed dry. Perhaps they’d done much of their crying, perhaps it hadn’t yet sunken in, but who can contradict the sadness of the scene? A widow and three children walking behind their father’s body.
“You cried more than anyone else there!” Tom said later, “You didn’t even know them!”
“Because it was sad,” I said.
More and more now, “Because it’s sad,” is the only answer I can give when people ask me why I cry, even if on the surface I seem to have no reason or relation. That is the reason. That is the relation. I’m human. Not more than you or my tearduct-less father, just different. Crying out of sympathy or empathy or both is sometimes the only thing I can do.
It’s never about the funeral itself or my friend’s breakup or Mona Simpson’s eulogy – it’s the scenarios they represent, scenarios you and I and even the most dry-eyed human can relate to and will eventually experience. If we haven’t already. It’s losing a parent, a husband, a lover, a sibling or a child. It’s someone not loving you back. It’s a lot of things.
“Peaks and valleys,” my cousin once said, when looking over at our grandfather’s silent figure after our grandmother passed away, “How he must feel.” They had been to together for sixty-eight years.