Aunt R. had babysat my brother and I since we were babies. I was her makeup police, always telling her when one eyebrow was penciled in darker than the other. She was the first person I ever knew to pencil her brows, and she laughed when I told her they were uneven. “You make me look beautiful,” she said.
But she didn’t need the makeup police in her hospital bed, her face a sunken shell. Her smile turned inward without the false teeth I’d never seen her without. Eyebrows gone. Hair gone. Life going. I wanted to cry for the aunt the cancer had stolen. I wanted to cry so hard my stomach spasmed. But my eyes couldn’t tear, so I turned away so no one would see.
It took me a decade to remember how to cry. I don’t know when the floodgates opened, but I’d like to think it was when I realized walls don’t protect me from anything. That softness is what lets people touch me, and touch is beautiful and real. I’d like to think I remembered how to cry when I understood that vulnerability is strength and that connection is the only reason we’ve ever learned to speak.
This morning, I leaned against the shower wall as silent sobs wracked my naked body. My tears mingled with soap and shower streams and I don’t know which stung worst, as my quaking body bent beneath the force of a sadness I didn’t own. I can claim a loss like picking up a backpack and mourn a sorrow that isn’t mine to carry, making up for years of draught. And I emerge cleansed, having washed my sadness from the inside out. Tears make us cleaner, I think. Raw like fresh-scrubbed infants.
I can cry, now. I can tear up over puppy food commercials, old people walking hand in hand, over the thought of loss alone. A text message can break me into watery pieces.
“I cry at the drop of a hat,” I tell my boyfriend when my voice breaks over trying to order dinner. “I’m like a leaky faucet.”
But I don’t want my bolts tightened, anymore. The ability to surrender to sorrow makes us stronger than the animals that don’t know what that means. It’s our ability to empathize that makes us human, even if the impetus is false, is silly, is small.
When death knocks now, I keen with the rest of them and don’t have to turn my face away. I can look hardship in the face, with water streaming down my cheeks.