In Latin America, I learned to cry.
Correction: In Latin America, I unlearned how to not cry.
When I was younger, long ago in the distant past of 18 on down, I fought a lot with my dad. A natural reaction to what I often felt –anger, frustration, annoyance, self-righteousness, not being heard– is generally to cry. Or go punch something. But mostly cry. I felt though, like I’d lose the fight if I cried, because crying tended to turn me mute to voluntary vocalizations, and once the jag began, I’d be pretty much chained to the arc of silent sob turns into loud weeping turns into whimper and then out with a snuffle. So, in order to be able to yell back, I suppose, or show I was tough, or who knows what, I learned to bite my lip and/or run away before the emotions could take hold and harness me into their inevitable spiraling descent.
I actually came to see myself as a pretty a-emotional person for a long time because I never cried. I had trained myself to squelch the rising wave as tears approached tear duct and my throat started to pinch, learned to nip the physical response in the bud so automatically that I couldn’t even cry if I wanted to. Whole years passed with no more than a couple of tears shed. Half with pride, half feeling dysfunctional, I identified as one of those people who NEVER cries during movies. I went to Les Miserables with some guy friends and some of their parents senior year, and I think mine were the only dry eyes in the house. I think they thought I was pretty weird.
I thought I was weird, too. I didn’t cry at my grandfather’s funeral, for chrissakes! I cried three times senior year. Once, when I was driving at night on winding Wisconsin back country roads without the brights on, and my dad kept bugging me about it, and I got mad, and then there was a screaming match, and he drove the rest of the way home while I sobbed in anger in the back seat. The second time was when I found out that a woman I’d met once in El Salvador had died of cervical cancer. She had helped found an organization of women –mothers, sisters, wives– to find and care for their disappeared, detained and tortured sons, brothers and husbands during the civil war in the 1980s. Like so many other women during that time, especially going around to prisons asking after people and caring for torture victims, she was raped many, many, many times. And it is very common for women raped that many times to die of cervical cancer many years later. I cried, standing in the girls’ locker room before practice with toilet paper crumpled in my palm, for the people who would never hear her story to learn not to ever do wars like that again, and for her, as an incredibly strong and resilient woman, who had succumbed to an illness so out of her own control, evidence of the horrible things people can do to each other given the chance. The third time I cried, I was doing the last revisions of my common app essay, and my mom was pointing out The Most Nitpicky Things to change and the picking, and the college app stress, and the imminence of it all came crashing down on my head and I started to cry and my mom said, “it’s good, sweetie, it’s good,” and I sent the essay in as it was, because sometimes, there are things that matter more than perfect phrasing.
When I got to Wellesley, pretty much immediately I tore my ACL, but I didn’t even cry then. I just whimpered like a wounded puppy as my entire universe became pain for an eternity after the sickening pop. And later, after hours in the ER, MRI scans, the full-tear diagnosis, having to figure out transportation and appointments and disability assistance, and educating myself about knee anatomy (made myself a diagram that I’m still pretty proud of), I didn’t cry. I only broke down, really, a couple of weeks later on the phone with my parents, probably when we were talking about insurance, and didn’t try to hide as tears and snot and too much made themselves known on my face. My roommate left pretty much as soon as I got going, not sure whether to give me some privacy, or because she couldn’t handle it. I’d finally allowed myself to feel sorry for myself, and really needed to be a mess for a bit in order to keep myself together.
Sophomore year, I cried when a fever, a bad cold, extreme exhaustion, dehydration and a roommate who insisted on keeping the room hotter than the Bahamas converged. That was a cry of breaking point, and did the trick for convincing the roommate to turn the heat down. And convincing me to get some sleep.
I didn’t cry for love, for heartache, for a newly opened person-sized black hole in my heart until I had to leave a relationship on its upswing knowing we’d never be able to grab ahold of that same swing again. It was such a new feeling, that feeling of full-body missing, so unlike the self-pity or stress or anger that had been my other triggers, that I took pictures of myself crying with my webcam to remember how it felt. Just in case I forgot. I was scared to lose this newfound ability to cry every night, scared to lose the heart-tear duct connection that made me feel so deliciously, achingly human.
In Chile, I didn’t cry. Everything was too new and exciting and surprising. Even when I got sort of excruciatingly slowly half-assedly left behind by someone I liked, I didn’t cry. Just angsty journal entried and slowly moved forward.
But then, in Brazil, where un-throttled emotions go careening off the walls, the sink, the pot of beans while strong women’s voices blend in a mêlée that envelopes the family gathering, I learned to cry for real. This time, it wasn’t self-pity, or anger, or a sense of injustice or surprise. It was pure, unadulterated heart crying. I cried for my heart, a heart that beat its way into love and out of love and hurt. I’m not sure what all. What I am sure of, though, is that I had finally found a way to cry calmly, cry for myself and not because I felt that I had to, or should, or needed to in order to prove I was a real living person. Gosh, I even cried watching this mini documentary about some D3 high school runner with MS who is an incredible runner, but collapses at the end of every race because she can’t feel her legs on account of her MS symptoms being triggered by her own body heat. In my journal, in the middle of it all, I wrote myself a permission to cry.
Last night, finally back in Valpo, I cried at the end of three very happy weeks, full of taking care of myself physically, mentally and emotionally, spending the time I needed to outside, in the gym, learning, connecting with people, sleeping and eating very well. I cried, as I opened the door to the apartment 3 minutes after having left, almost unable to walk because of a newly sprained knee. I cried, and let the emotion overtake me, let it wash away the crashing down plans I’d made for a semester full of running around outside, walking all around Valparaíso with nary a worry. I didn’t need to pump up those feelings to make the tears I knew I needed come, but rather, they came of their own volition. I cried, as María Alicia held my head close to her, until I was all finished. And allowed myself to laugh, later, as Juan got out a saw and joked about cutting off my leg (as his surgeon friend had suggested, apparently), and then cry some more as I felt my semester was being stolen from me, and then send an alternately overly cheery and kind of desolate email to my parents to explain the situation, a possible repeat of 2.5 years ago.
All in all, though, I feel good, even with a bad headcold, a left knee the size of a tumorous grapefruit and without the slightest idea of how to get around Valparaíso without walking. But, I’ve got pretty formidable upper body strength after all the trapeze and lat pull downs, so crutches won’t kill me. And my friend gave me fluffy socks with grippy things on the bottom when she left Chile, so my feet don’t slide when I hop around the apartment. And I can cry without feeling like it’s just because I’m self-absorbed or overstressed. I can cry without hangups, and then get on with my life. And that, my friends, feels like quite a gift.