:: a little anecdote from my summer that won’t loosen its grip ::
“That’s what you gotta do to keep her around: you gotta give her some grandchildren!”
Goosebumps crawled over my arms, little hairs standing on end. My cheeks grew hot. Tears congregated in the corners of my eyes as I stared at a stain on the concrete. Black circle, black circle inside a bigger black circle surrounding a smaller black circle. If I stared long enough maybe it’d eat me up.
I’m sure he meant it as a joke.
The words felt like someone punched me in the gut. See, he didn’t know we’d lost our baby a year ago, almost to the day. I wouldn’t expect a stranger to know this, to censor his comments accordingly. This is why I laughed; to be kind, to show that his words didn’t shred my insides with their sharp blades, one organ after the other ceasing to exist.
It wasn’t his fault barbed wire-words cinched my lungs and cut off any words of my own.
If it had been a year ago – hell, six months ago – I’d probably have started crying right there in front of him. Guilt and hormones and all that; something about trauma and loss. I could have cried and it wouldn’t have been his fault, but he’d have asked what was wrong as one generally does. The question doesn’t beg a real answer; it is merely a bandage of sorts to stifle the awkwardness of crying. Besides, I couldn’t tell the truth (oh, I could, but for what purpose?) because how inconsiderate of me to heave that sort of grief upon a stranger. So I laughed, laughed and begged for the black circle stain to swallow me whole and spit me out somewhere else, somewhere away from this conversation and its painful words.
Yes, that’s it. Fault. Losing the baby was no one’s fault. A blip, an abnormality as abnormal as the disease that caused it. It was a failure. No one’s fault, but a failure all the same. That’s what I needed to do to keep my mother around: not fail. Somehow the love she feels for her own daughter isn’t enough in itself. I must give her new lives to dote upon; I must not fail.* This was what those words meant. These were dagger-words, words of a bygone era when they weren’t a joke coming back at me now as laughter-laced cynicism. A half-joke of societal expectations, a razor-sharp half-joke of oversize proportions.**
If I had cried. This thought stewed for months. If I had cried and not laughed, if I had not chosen to stifle my emotions in that moment, how different the fallout. As a society, we judge easily, especially when it comes to someone having a breakdown over something another said, no matter how minor or major. But words are not just words; they take on shapes and edges that curl around our insides with ease no matter if they’re barbs or hugs. We must recognize that words and images and body language can cause intense pain in another without the intent to attack; and further, that sometimes the intense pain is too much to bear and the result is emotional upheaval. So, let it happen. Don’t try to bandage a wound that another has no interest in opening for you. Let someone be sad or hurt or angry without demanding a justification they do not owe. Empathize without explanation, without argument.
-M. Ray Hall
*For the record, my mother is wonderful and would disagree with this standard wholeheartedly. She also lives her own life wherever she pleases because there are these things called planes, trains, and automobiles.
**This also could easily have been about those built-in expectations society heaps upon young women and their worth when it comes to bearing children. Let’s just all agree that those expectations are bunk and you don’t need me to say so.