A Safe Place to Cry
First, the memory
I had a toddler, my oldest daughter, about to go to co-op childcare for a couple of hours; my husband was in school, already on the bus to campus. We were cleaning up in the kitchen of our little one-bedroom apartment when the phone rang. “Is your TV on?” my brother-in-law asked.
He explained that planes were flying into buildings in New York, maybe in Washington. I hung up and turned on the TV and saw 9/11, there on the Today show. Then I turned off the TV and took my little one to the co-op, waiting to turn on the radio until she was gone. For years I wondered, “Why did my brother-in-law call just to be sure we saw the news?” Writing this out now, the answer is obvious: He did what everyone did, reached out, needing to know that his family was OK.
We lived in Minnesota, of course we were OK. Except that’s not how it seemed at the time. I went back early to pick up my daughter, beginning to wonder what sort of mother drops her daughter at childcare when the nation is apparently under attack. My husband called to tell me that the Minnesota campus was closing, and all classes were cancelled: no one then knew what would happen next. Where else would planes crash? What other forms of terror could be happening? I drove to pick him up, relieved that we were all together again at last. Over the next few days we heard from people who were there: they were OK, no one we knew was hurt, no one we knew was lost.
For weeks afterwards I was afraid in large gathering places: the concert arena (we saw Neil Diamond sing America), the Mall of America (said to be a target, as a symbol of American decadence). While Ground Zero is a place of incredible tragedy in Manhattan, when it first happened, 9/11 was happening to all of us.
Now, the anniversary
Probably I have cried more today than I did 10 years ago. I suppose that is natural: now I know how many died, now I see how long and deep the consequences were.
I don’t like to cry in public, but since becoming a mother and suffering whatever hormonal changes happened there I have learned to suck it up and deal with it, because it’s going to happen. Besides, as an adult, I know things about sadness, fear, and loss that I could not have imagined when I was younger, and there is no one to hush and soothe those things away for me.
As a young adult I never cried in front of anyone: I remember vividly hiding behind a Pepsi vending machine in a Las Vegas hotel to cry, the only private place in the entire casino, maybe the entire city.
There just aren’t that many vending machines in the world, however, and eventually I had to give up and let go sometimes. Most often it’s happened during church (don’t worry, this won’t get religious), in part because there is not much to do in church besides just be present with what is happening there, and in part because in church there is a lot of singing, and if there is a cry inside me, there is no way I can open my mouth to sing without it coming out.
The first time I cried in church—I mean cried, not just got teary-eyed—a man came up and introduced himself at the coffeeshop afterwards. We had locked eyes at one point while I was walking out to collect myself, and he said it seemed weird not to acknowledge the connection later. We never became friends, but we talked about sadness, and then talked about our kids, and schools, and coffee, and then smiled at each other from then on.
On a particularly rough morning, deep in some period of depression, an acquaintance, a much older man, came over and put his arm around me and said, “This has always been my favorite place to come and cry.” And I cried with him for a while, and then he gave me a little squeeze and a smile, and walked away. I knew he had suffered hard losses in his family, and his quiet and brief outreach touched me in a way that a long hug from a close friend could not.
Such a lovely gift those men gave me. Each of them said, “I see you crying. I acknowledge the human connection between us. While it may make some people uncomfortable, your crying is OK,” and then they moved on, without needing to make it end or initiate an intense therapy session. Sometimes I wonder if that is the real reason we don’t like to cry: not because it makes us look weak, but because in that moment of weakness we risk someone jumping in and trying to drag it all out of us.
So this morning, primed for many tears, I skipped the mascara, packed up some Kleenex mini packs, and made sure to get to the church on time. I hadn’t even pulled into the parking lot before I started to cry, trying to explain to my younger daughter, now 8, what “9/11” is—she’s heard it before, but she’s also heard of the American Revolution and the Civil War, all events in the time known as “before I was born,” with little differentiation in emotional impact.
My girls sat next to me in the pew and periodically looked over at me in a worried way. My oldest knew, clever girl, that I was not singing because I did not want to break down utterly. She patted me, hugged me, sometimes took my arm throughout the service. I smiled at her and winked over her head at my youngest, hoping to reassure them that crying is OK, and maybe to teach them that, even when you are grown and there is no one to make it better for you, even when the dangers and losses are real, there are safe places to cry.