“Do you ever just think you should get over it already?”
That was the question my 23-year old cousin, Katie, asked as we sipped iced coffee. It was the question pressing into her heart like a nail through her sneaker and she was trying not to limp or bleed.
“All the fucking time,” I said, “Desperately. Of course! But I’m here to tell you that doesn’t work and it’s okay to be sad.”
“But sometimes I’m sad for no reason,” she said.
I stared at her dyed pink hair which was bright and soft as an infant’s receiving blanket while her eyes were as heavy as cement and full of her own unshed tears. I remembered the toddler I held on my hip and wore like a purse at family parties. The five years after her mom left that she spent some part of most weekends at my house playing games or making crafts.
Now, a grown woman was standing in my kitchen.
“Do you really think you’re sad for no reason?” I asked, the details of her childhood lining up like exhibits I could pull to convince her of the validity of her own emotion.
Not just her mom leaving but the times she called me because she was home alone, wanting peanut butter on toast but wasn’t sure if she was allowed to use the knife or what part of the operation was dangerous or was just lonely or bored. How at seven she’d say, “When I’m with my Dad I miss my Mom. When I’m with my Mom, I miss my Dad. I’m always missing someone.”
Or moving, changing schools and how I became a mother and was no longer as responsive or accessible. Or how we lost her sister to drugs and the streets a decade and how Katie’s already broken heart split all the way apart. My divorce as well, which was only more proof of a world that doesn’t hold steady and is unreliable.
‘You don’t know why you are sad?’ I wanted to scream.
“I get sad about the same things more than once,” she said as though admitting she had murdered someone and was still hiding the body in her trunk.
“Of course you do! Why wouldn’t you?” I was furious but not at her.
I wanted to take aim at the world, to throw a bowling ball so hard it would strike out every pin that was an obstacle on her path, such as the message that it’s wrong to be sad. That was one. How many years do people waste fighting emotions we’re trying not to feel? I could see my younger self in my Katie wearing a mismatched outfit of tenderness and toughness. She knew she was sad but she didn’t want to be and was exhausted from battling herself.
What part of the ‘be here now’ message got so perverted that we think we aren’t supposed to be in touch with the past as though remembering something means dwelling or picking at old scabs that would heal if we let them be. That’s another pin I want to obliterate because sadness isn’t defeat. And some wounds are timelessly and forever sad. Like losing your mother (or the book Wild wouldn’t be so damn popular.)
Katie doesn’t have her mother in the now, can’t brag about honor roll or share details of a first date. She can’t get a hug or a hot cocoa when she goes through a heartbreak and doesn’t have a mother to help with laundry when she’s between work and a class and out of clothes.
Why doesn’t she get to be sad about it sometimes? It wouldn’t be normal or healthy not to miss attachment, connection and to long for that relationship at times?
If I could express all of the wisdom I have learned over decades, not just as writing, but as breast milk coming out of my skin and through my nipple to create something nutritious and life-affirming as milk, I would.
I want Katie to know she is, in fact, a rock star of resilience and a light show of amazing because she has a heart not too shut down to feel and that her prettiness is not in her eyes or lips but in her essence which doesn’t dim but in fact shines more brightly when she is emotionally honest.
I wasted so much of my own life wishing and wanting to be and feel other. I rarely spoke of my own homeless alcoholic father and avoided conversations about Dads. Because I was so uncomfortable with my own history, the early loss and the subsequent violence of step-family, I didn’t know how to share it with others for fear of being shamed.
I learned how not to seem sad even when I was sad which is the opposite of being in the present. It is un-Zen. I thought I was putting on my big girl panties and sucking it up but really, I was lying to myself and afraid to be affected or vulnerable and soft, afraid others would judge me as much as I judged myself.
What I had to let Katie know was that self scrutiny, judgment, hatred and recriminations did more damage to me than anything that happened in my childhood. My own harsh intolerance of the facts of my life kept me from ‘getting over’ my past more than any shed tears ever did.
What does getting over it even mean when it comes to the loss of your mother or father and the risk of sacrificing your actual self to some idealized self you think you ‘should’ be?
The happy isn’t more important than the sad. Neither emotion will keep you from brushing your teeth or laughing again, if you allow them. But any emotion, that you fight and resist, will wear you out, make you anemic, flat and weary.
Don’t wait for the sad to pass before you start living your life is what I want to urge.
And also, I want to rock and hold her, wrap her up in arms and blankets and love.
While I make her hot tea I will leave her with a book of Rumi because I know she doesn’t quite believe me and might need a little poetry and practice before bathing in her own tears.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Assistant Editor: Sanja Cloete-Jones/Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Adrian Sampson. Flickr.