The history of tears
As the days roll on, ferrying the memory of my mother farther down the dark river of loss, I’m surprised that I can go whole hours without crying; even, on rare occasion, a whole day goes by with few or no tears.
Of course, it wasn’t that way in the beginning. My tears started before my mother passed away; they started during the long journey she made towards death, as we accompanied, passing milestones we tried to ignore.
We didn’t want to recognize those milestones, those way markers pointing to a place we all feared. Instead, we talked of the future, what she would do when she got “her legs under her.” She’d get the garden back into shape; she’d visit me in the mountains, swim in the lake; she’d balance her checkbook, give the house a good cleaning.
Meanwhile, we did what we could to help her. We supported her as she struggled to breach the barrier where carpet met linoleum; we spooned soft eggs and applesauce into her mouth; we laughed with her at yawns that preceded sudden mid-sentence sleep; we reasoned with her as she hallucinated in the ICU; and we apologized over and over and over as she grimaced and moaned in pain at home as we shifted her in the rented hospital bed.
At first, not wanting to upset her, I wept in secret; then it was no longer a secret and I wept wherever I was. Washing dishes. Sitting on the toilet. Going to the bank. At last, caring for her in her last days, I no longer knew that she could see the tears, and I often sobbed as I gave her morphine to ease her pain. We all wept, the whole family, faces chapped from tears.
When she finally left her body, I thought I would be relieved. The weeping would stop.
But I wasn’t and it didn’t. The sudden howling loss of her was an atmospheric river that stalled over my heart and threw buckets of hurt at me.
Now, nearly two months after she left, I no longer feel like I’m drowning; it’s not in the present tense. It happened. The flood filled the valley. Past tense. I’ve drowned. I sink under fathoms of grief. And, although it happens less regularly, I still fall into tears at a moment’s notice.
How is it that I’m still able to cry? Is there no end to these tears?
Topography of Tears
Online I searched the oracle Google to find a remedy for crying. I found a photography project—The Topography of Tears—by artist Rose-Lynn Fisher. You can see one of her pictures at the top of this post. Fisher photographed tears through an optical microscope, translating various emotions through the crystalline structure of water shed from eyes. She took pictures of tears of laughter, grief, hope, and even waterworks from that most mundane of routine jobs: slicing onions. The black and white images read like photographs taken from an airplane of the landscape far below.
I asked Fisher what she had noticed about the difference between tears of grief and tears from other emotions. She wrote to me: “In the course of the project I saw that there are not inherent categories of how each emotion appears via its tears; there are many variables that influence the image. For me the point was what I could see in the tear, how I found visual symbols and associations that somehow spoke directly into my heart, that gave me solace at some deep level; these are the mysteries I don’t understand but do appreciate.”
It seems that tears from great emotion differ from a mere watering of the eyes. Research indicates that tears from sadness brim with hormones, chemical compounds that resemble natural painkillers. Certainly these tears of intense grief are like no tears I can recall shedding. Gummy and thick, they coat my face with a sticky veneer. They interest me. Is there something wrong with me that I observe their nature as they fall?
If there are painkillers in the tears, I’m not sure what help they are, sticking to my face like jelly; that isn’t the part of me feeling the hurt. The ache is in my chest, a hollowing, an erosion into my throat, my arms and legs. The pain goes nowhere near my face.
Do I absorb tears through my cheeks, through my eyeballs? Are they so potent that when these drops roll into my mouth, they ease my pain? That would be strong medicine indeed. Should I collect these tears, decant them, and drink them down in great gulps to quell the hurt?
Or have I already imbibed them? I imagine myself as a hollow torso, fronted by clear glass. An aquarium of tears through which orange-gold fishes swim, fading in and out of murky water, nibbling at limpets and snails stuck fast to my ribs. And there I am, buried like a flounder at the bottom of the tank.
Sometimes I wonder if the tears I shed—the tears the whole family shed—created a river that helped wash my mother away. Do the dying need our tears? Do they ease passage, reducing the friction that holds the soul to the body? Or do tears help only the bereaved? This aquarium of grief reduces noise, keeps at bay the hubbub of the world.
As the days pass, I find I’m no longer always like a flounder, hidden under sand and googling life from eyes that flow with tears like an underwater spring. Life means I have to dislodge myself, engage with the world.
These days I’m more like a diving bell spider that lives under water, surfacing to trap a snifter of oxygen, then sounding to the bottom where I hide. I’ve built a little bubble in this salty aquarium, a pocket of air where I can work and eat, and even play. A little. It’s not much of a simile shift, but it’s something.