Tears of a Clown
Yes, that was me you might’ve seen crying at the gym. And in the waiting room at Brackett Street Vet Clinic. And on my bike on Baxter Boulevard. And sailing with our neighbors on Casco Bay. And, if you were spying on me in my backyard, hanging laundry on the line.
What set off the tears? I will tell you: at the gym, a line in a song; in the waiting room, waiting; on my bike, the wind; sailing, the smell of the ocean; hanging laundry, the sky.
You have to understand, I’m not a crier. At least I wasn’t at this juncture in my life before my mom died at the end of May. Prior to that, I felt I’d already shed my share of tears. As the youngest sibling and only girl (read: big babypants), I cried all through my childhood. I cried during my Janis Ian “At Seventeen” adolescence. I cried when I didn’t get to go to the University of Denver (even after I was accepted) and ended up at Orono. And then, my tear ducts sealed shut like puncture wounds — that is, until a few years later, when my beloved dad died. I cried for two years straight, then packed away my hankies, moved to San Francisco and bade farewell for good to all those tears, idle tears. Or so I thought.
Sure, there were the occasional weepy breakups, those boy-and-beer-fueled crying jags, over the next 20 years, but they were few. Something had hardened in me. I felt strangely like Mr. Spock. It seems it would be appropriate for me to cry at this moment, but I can’t activate the lachrymational motivation. It wasn’t that I was (wholly) unfeeling. I just couldn’t show it.
And let me tell you something: As embarrassing as it is to cry in public, not being able to cry at the appropriate moment — babies being born, friends moving away, really great gifts being given — is just as bad. Try as I might, the best I could usually muster is what I called my “stubborn man tear.” If the event itself — say, when my friend Lesley organized my family and friends to chip in to buy me my first computer — wasn’t enough to move me, I’d think some really sad thoughts (someone drinking the last beer, for example) until I could squeeze out one bulbous tear and hope its slug trail would last long enough on my face for someone to notice. Even at my wedding, when my eyes so brimmed with joyful tears they must’ve bulged like Bette Davis’, I did not spill a drop.
In the difficult last two years of my mother’s life (which she faced with both grace and pluck), I was surely tested, but there were only three times I cried. The first was triggered by receiving an especially disappointing rejection for a freelance job. John tried to console me after my one man-tear leaked out, but I snapped, “Do not be nice to me.” I could feel the glass wall at the aquarium quivering, ready to shatter. One more kind word from him and the dolphins would be loosed.
The next was after a particularly harrowing visit to the hospital that was intended to be a couple hours but turned into eight. I cried all the way home from Brunswick, but mainly because I was wrung out.
The third time was a couple months ago, after Mom’s kitty, which we were taking care of, accidentally (or so it claims) clawed me pretty badly. I stumbled to the bathroom to run my hand under water and blubbered, “You hurt me. You hurt me. You hurt me.” As it happened, I had to meet my friend Lisa for coffee right after the incident. When I stood up to wash my face and looked in the mirror, I realized I had been resting my head on the faucet and had pressed a bright red oval into my forehead like an Indian jewel. (I wore a ballcap to coffee, and the kitty cat and I have since made up.)
So, this constant crying is taking some getting used to. Like the earlier examples, I never know what will set it off. My mother’s birthday is the Fourth of July, but I felt nothing that whole weekend except when I gave my niece the two silver necklaces her grandmother always wore. The ongoing job of sorting through Mom’s things and packing up her condo registers nary a tear. But every time I see that ReaLemon I grabbed from her fridge and have in mine, I nearly lose it. I know eventually her diamond ring and bone china will mean more to me, but right now if you so much as laid a finger on the plastic squeeze lemon that had been held by her hand, I’d probably have to kill you.
I have rarely wished for any other job than being a writer. But it is completely surreal and mildly perverse to have to churn out a column when my world is reeling and the thought of life without my mother has barely begun to seep into my brain. But here I am. I remain on the frontlines and will continue to report what I see. That’s what the Peaveys/Carsons do — even the big babypants.
We dry our eyes and get to work.
Elizabeth Peavey’s column appears here each month.