With the recent death of my grandmother I have a good excuse to be crying lately. Although, honestly, things are already feeling a little better. The strange thing about her passing, for me, is that since there is no living person in the present to think of as my grandma, I am free to remember her as the person she was before the dementia set in and the woman I knew began to fade. I’ve been released from thinking of that frail figure as my grandma, and back to thinking of her as the independent, intelligent, and generous person she was for most of her life. She exists purely in memory now, so I can choose any memories of her I want, and I choose the ones that represent her best. Oddly, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I have my old grandma back.
But experiencing strong grief has got me thinking about crying in general. It’s one of those topics that doesn’t seem as if there would be much to it, until you give it a moment, and realize there are more types and situations involving crying than I’d ever have room for on one blog post. From the parenting perspective alone, consider babies with colic where crying is like torture, babies who learn to fake cry just to get attention, kids who cry only when someone is watching, kids who only cry in private, arguments about letting a baby ‘cry it out’ at night, being able to recognize your own child’s crying in a crowd, if your kid cries in her sleep, crying about shots, crying about nothing, crying about everything….
I was fortunate that as babies my kids almost never cried. I don’t really remember Mona crying about anything until she was around eight months old. (She was the happiest little thing, and I had to check her crib often if I put her down in the day because if she woke up she’d just entertain herself with her hands or her toes and not make a peep.) If they started to fuss I’d scoop them up, and I didn’t see any reason to ever let them cry. (So for anybody out there whose instincts are telling them to not let their babies cry but are doubting themselves because of some outside influence, I say go with your gut. I can’t name you one ill effect of having done that myself.)
From the time Aden was a few months old to the present day, if I cry in front of her, she cries. If I cry in front of Quinn or Mona they can’t deal with it, and they act as if they are ignoring it, but I can tell it’s unsettling to them. When something effects Aden emotionally tears come quickly and she accepts them. Her tears flow and she wants a hug. She even got emotional while we were doing violin practice the other day and got tears all over her instrument (ironically while working on “The Happy Farmer.”) We got through it and then cuddled for awhile and all was well. If I start to say something that Mona expects will be upsetting she tries to make me stop. Mona wants to avoid public tears at all cost, and chooses often to be angry rather than sad to protect herself. Quinn only cries out of pain or exhaustion, or if I act upset with him. (If I raise my voice at Quinn it seems to destroy his world so I do my best to not let that happen.)
Sometimes I feel like I cry at everything. There are songs on the kids’ CDs that will make me weep, and if I sing along with pop tunes I’ve noticed that usually a modulation in the chorus will induce tears for some reason. I enjoy a good cry sometimes, and certain movie or TV moments can send me instantly over the edge. (The final moments of Six Feet Under, the end of Harold and Maude, Spock dying in The Wrath of Kahn, emotional scenes in the new Dr Who, that episode of Star Trek the Next Generation where Picard lives out a whole lifetime in his mind and then snaps back to reality….. Yes I know my Sci-Fi nerdiness is showing–what of it? Huh?)
Anyway, when I think about crying I think about how unfortunate it is that women, in general, are wired to cry more easily than men. I hate that. There was a time in martial arts class many years ago when I got thrown particularly hard, and I had to clamp my mouth shut for a few moments or I knew I would burst into tears and not be able to stop. I did not want to cry in the dojo, so I couldn’t even say, “Hai Sensei” in response to the teacher’s questions because I knew once the dam broke it was over. I got away with a serious nod instead. It’s not that I think crying itself is bad or weak, but the sense of not being in control of yourself is horrible and embarrassing.
And I do believe it’s biological. I once heard a fascinating radio interview with a person who had transitioned from male to female, and she described what happened after the hormone shift began. She was on the phone arguing with someone at an airline, and she knew in the past the way she’d gotten results as a man was to speak forcefully, but when she opened her mouth to do just that, all that came out were sobs. She said she felt as if she were suddenly insane because it wouldn’t stop and the experience was bewildering and awful.
I used to wonder how this could have evolved because incessant weeping doesn’t seem like a useful or desirable trait, but I developed a theory after an incident in college. I was running a music cognition study that required subjects listen to recordings, and the equipment for doing that was only available in a certain room shared by other psychologists and musicians. I had clearly signed out the room for use in the afternoon, and a graduate student (who, frankly, no one liked) barged in during the middle of my hour and disrupted everything. I had to throw out all those data and find new subjects which was very frustrating. I had a right to be mad. But what happened was after my subjects left the graduate student turned on me and told me I couldn’t use the room without my adviser present (not true) and he made me write down the rules (as he saw them) for the use of the room. He stood over me as I scribbled in my notebook and yelled at me while I kept my mouth shut. I knew the second I opened it I would cry and I was not going to cry in front of that irritating man. I walked the entire half a mile home without opening my mouth. I maintained my composure until I stepped inside our apartment and saw Ian. Then I lost it.
Ian jumped instantly to my side and tried to figure out what was wrong. By the time I was able to choke out why I was crying I remember very clearly the sense of Ian bristling as he held me. He was furious. He was ready to march out and kill the guy and I had to assure him it was okay and I would deal with it myself later. That’s when I started to realize the utility of tears. In the modern world with odd disputes about procedures and protocol I should be able to fight my own battles, but what if the threat had been physical? It is probably a bad idea for the average woman to seek a physically aggressive confrontation with the average man. If I learned anything in martial arts it was just how intimidating a man’s upper body strength can be, and that was just with calm, careful grappling. So physical fighting is not a good option. But crying? That would cause other men who care about me–boyfriend, brothers, father–to leap to my defense with their muscles. That’s sort of interesting. So I don’t like that I can’t completely control some crying fits, but I think I know why they exist. Lord help the boy that makes one of our girls cry someday if Ian’s anywhere around to see it.
Another thing I think about is how crying can help tell us if something matters. I remember trying very hard to cry when I was four and my grandfather on my dad’s side passed away. I barely knew him, but it seemed wrong not to acknowledge his death with tears if I was a good granddaughter. But I couldn’t make them come because from my end that relationship was technical but not emotional. There are other people since then who have died where I was surprised at my lack of reaction, and when I was honest about how little I was connected to their lives it made sense that I had no tears for them. It’s a bad sign when a relative does so little to touch your life that you can only hope to muster tears in his or her honor. (Which is saying something for someone who cries during Star Trek.)
My mom once asked me if I ever cry when I perform music. I thought that was a great question because I can be moved to tears by certain pieces, but at the time I couldn’t think of an example of crying while playing something. I’d been moved, or had shivers run up my spine if something was particularly amazing to be in the middle of, but never experienced crying. I told her the concentration level for getting through a typical quartet or orchestra performance probably blocked that possibility out. But I had to perform a children’s concert the day after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and now I know it’s possible. It was a whole program of patriotic music, and as I played our national anthem while blissfully innocent toddlers smiled and clapped, I found out what it was like to perform with tears streaming down my face.
At the moment I’m not shedding as many tears for my grandma as I would have expected. I’m sure I will at the memorial service in a few weeks as the loss is more palpable, but I’ve cried for her so much in the past few years that now I find myself preferring to focus on thoughts of her that make me smile. She was losing her life while she was still alive and I’ve been grieving for her for since the first difficult decisions about moving her to the nursing home. There was so much about her end that was painful to witness (and I’m sure to live), that relief has swallowed my tears for the time being. My gram wouldn’t want me to cry anyway. She’d want me to bake her famous spritz cookies with my kids. So I will.
(Okay, and just because Sad Mona in particular breaks my heart, this is her about two minutes after that other photo was taken. Because eventually all crying stops.)