When my mother cried, it was terrifying.
No child likes to see her mother cry but my mom was so stoic that when she did, it was a tidal wave of emotion. A keening unlike anything I’d ever heard. Years of repressed emotion seemed to come out in one fell swoop.
I heard her cry all of about three times in her life.
The first was when my father had his first heart attack and open heart surgery. I was all of about six years old, about to enter a room. My mother broke down sobbing because she was afraid we were going to lose my dad. I hadn’t been scared of that prospect up until that point. And the sound of her crying was terrifying. It came from a place she rarely accessed.
The second time I remember her tears was when her father died. I was in high school, pulled out of class unexpectedly, told to go to the disciplinarian’s office. I was stymied, as I wasn’t much of a rabble rouser. When Sister Carolyn opened the door to her office, I saw my mother sitting there, waiting for me. Sister left us alone. My mom calmly told me my grandfather had died, and as she said it, she began to cry. Now, from an adult perspective, I see that my mother needed a safe place to do this. It was unlike her to share news like this in person, not because she didn’t care but she was businesslike about grief, as about most things.
The third time I heard her cry I did not know the reason. She was in her bedroom, alone. The moment came back to me when, during a particularly rough patch in my life, I did the same thing. There I was, a forty-something mother and wife, keening in my own bedroom. The only difference? My children were not home to hear me. But, I realized, I sounded like a wounded animal. Exactly as my mother had sounded years ago.
It was a moment that made me stop and think.
My mother was what I’d consider a mighty oak. She was sturdy, strong and no nonsense. And her roots were deep. But, she could not easily flex in times of trouble. She’d hunker down, sure she could outlive most any storm. And most, she did. But once in a while, the mother of all storms would come (my father’s heart attack, my grandfather’s death) and it would topple her. Or at least take a piece of her with it.
I’ve always admired mighty oaks, but I don’t plant them. They have bossy roots and late autumn shedding habits. They tend to weather storms but when they do come down, they come entirely down. Without the flex of more supple trees, their demise is usually dramatic and messy.
When a crisis comes, I am a bit like Mom. Probably too stoic. Not wanting to appear to need much help. Rebuffing friends who want to rub my shoulders, pat my arm and soothe me. All just irritate me more than anything. I want to know I’m loved but don’t get too close.
And yet, hearing myself a couple of years ago, emitting the same sounds that had terrified me as a child, was an eye opener. Mighty oaks are lonely. And a bit brittle.
I come from a mighty oak, and thank her for teaching me how not to easily topple.
But it is the flex in me that makes me mighty.
Therein lies the difference.
So, at my father’s funeral, as we said our last goodbyes before they closed the casket, I was relieved to feel my sons’ arms around me. The three of us cried together and held on for dear life as we said goodbye. I did not brush off their attempts at consolation. I did not try to hide my distress. And in that ability to be seemingly weak, I showed them strength. Flex in the midst of what felt like a horrific storm.
You see, I want the keening alone in a bedroom to end with me.