MY SON, JACK, was looking over my shoulder at my iTunes and saw a playlist I’d made, entitled “Tears.”
“’Tears?’” he asked.
I hesitated, wondering if I should say: these are just sad songs, you know me, I like the morbid stuff, or if I should tell him the truth. I decided on the latter.
“These are songs that make me cry,” I said.
Because he’s got my number, Jack did not ask, “Why the hell would you do that?” He just nodded sympathetically, hand on my shoulder, whirring wheels in his mind almost audible. Then he was off.
I was thirty-two when Jack was born, so he turned seven when I hit forty and, as with most people, his memories sharpen right around then. He’s now seventeen and I’m pushing fifty, and he’s champing at the bit to leave his hometown for college and beyond. Thus, his growing-up-dad, the man in the rearview mirror, will be a guy in his forties.
This has been a decade of sweeping change in our house, and Jack’s journey from seven-year-old to seventeen-year-old is but one facet. Alongside his mom and me, he’s become part of a vibrant community; he’s seen me lose my two dearest friends (one of them his godfather, in a motorcycle crash a block from our house), he’s been spectator to my quite unexpected immersion in the world of kids, and he’s watched, with eyes lit up, as I’ve begun to write in earnest. Although less obvious, but significant, he’s witnessed my re-connection with my old, crybaby self.
I was a crier – or crybaby – for most of my childhood. After my father died when I was seven, I cried off and on for a year. Against my will, I cried at Born Free, I cried when Frosty melted, and I cried with abandon in the hallways of Christ the King Elementary when my fifth grade girlfriend, Mary Jo, broke up with me.
My older brother and I became enemies for a while. When we fought, punching, kicking, and bleeding, he would rise dry eyed and in control, while I always, always, dissolved into wracking, uncontrollable sobs, sometimes to the entertainment of neighborhood kids. Even when I got the best of him, I cried. I attempted for many minutes to control myself, but couldn’t. The sobs actually hurt, as I gasped for air until my throat was raw. Once, in an odd moment of post-battle intimacy, my brother actually said, with sudden tenderness, “Go on, cry. I wish I could cry.”
Eventually, a rush of hormones – or something, I don’t really know – granted me emotional control for the first time in my life. I was sixteen. Perhaps not coincidentally, I was in the early stages of becoming a musician, playing gigs, and getting good. I was confident. In any case, as I stood sobbing in our kitchen, mid-fight, I perceived an open door inside me, emotion flooding through it. Finally, I somehow shut that door and stopped crying. The feeling of control was, paradoxically, liberating. The muscle memory has never left me.
I did cry a handful of times after this, and those scenes play in my mind. Tears, as any human knows, have a way of crystallizing memories: a couple of breakups, a friend’s gruesome attempted suicide, and the last night in the house in which I’d grown up, sitting with my comrade and band mate, Todd, listening to U2’s “An Cat Dubh – Into the Heart,” and mourning our lost childhood like we were in a John Hughes movie. But I could shut down these tears; I’d gained a new power, and on this cornerstone I built a measured, in-control, poker-faced persona, one who sought drama, but rarely cried.
This mask took me through most of my adulthood, during which I formed bonds with people prone to losing control, relationships in which I could freak out vicariously. As a performer in New York, finding loosey goosey extroverts was not hard. When not making money as a musician or actor, I excelled as a bartender. I doled out alcohol to people who often cried, shouted, and otherwise lost their shit while I stood implacable behind a slab of wood and took their money.
A brief depression clouded my late twenties when I realized – for the first time but not the last – that certain dreams were not going to come true. I wept once then, but with a few exceptions, I retained and refined my power to keep the crybaby at bay.
Fatherhood, at age thirty-two, re-awakened the crybaby, or blasted a hole in my invulnerability cloak. When I took the call from the lab and learned my wife’s amnio was all clear, I wept, for the only time in my life, with gratitude. This was something of a harbinger.
A year into my four-year stay-at-home-dad gig, I experienced chest pains and convinced myself I was going to die. I was in excellent health, but, like any dream-seeker, I’d lived, for better or worse, with little or no concern for “the odds,” and I’d witnessed many friends cut down in their prime in the 80s, so my perception was off, to say the least. I was quite sure my number was up, and I cried operatically for a few days, usually when Jack was napping, during which I often watched him.
Turned out I’d pulled a muscle in my chest from carrying my boy too long in the Baby Bjorn. Jack was pushing twenty-five pounds, and you’re supposed to move on to a stroller or backpack when baby hits twenty pounds, but I was desperate for any alpha male action I could get, so I kept him in the Bjorn until I hurt myself. If I could’ve strapped on an additional kid, say, to my back, or atop my head, I probably would have, and paraded around the East Village so all could view my prowess.
But even when my x-rays and numerous tests checked out, the crying kept coming. Why? We concoct stories. Here are a few of mine: parenthood reminded me of my own fraught childhood; my genes twisted on me (depression, anxiety, suicide, alcoholism, and bipolar disorder blight my family tree); I looked into the abyss and it looked back into me and left a mark; I don’t know what the fuck happened.
In any case, crybaby was back. He’d gained power in exile, clucking his tongue as I’d watched others weep. He was not so easily banished this time. I was a sleepless mess, staring at the ceiling fan while Jack and his mom slept soundly. I felt the need to call out the big guns, and medical professionals encouraged me to do so.
My doctor prescribed 100 mg of Zoloft daily, and, like millions, I jumped on the antidepressant train with no concurrent counseling. If the side effects were untenable, I told myself, I’d quit. I was watching Jack ten hours a day on the weekdays, and in the wake of my sobfest, I worried I was not up to it; I was going to blow it. Nothing had ever been more important to me than being a good dad. Nothing. It didn’t matter if any of the above was true. The worry itself was debilitating.
The meds worked. I regained control of the crybaby, just like I did when I was sixteen. Although, I found out, no one can say why the meds worked. I did my research, and without getting too technical, the gist is this: Big Pharma markets Zoloft and other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or ssri’s, as drugs that keep the brain swimming in the naturally occurring chemical serotonin, which scientists connect to happiness. But it turns out this isn’t a hard-fast truth, and efficacy of ssri’s is quite subjective. Now scientists think ssri’s might actually promote growth of brain cells that produce serotonin, and that’s why they sometimes work. But no one really knows. And no one knows why they make some people want to kill themselves or otherwise lose their way. And most people, amazingly, don’t care to know. I was one of those people. I had a kid to raise, and for me, the side effects were mild, and if I didn’t tell anyone I was on the Z, no one knew. So I kept getting my script filled for about four years, and I count those as among the happiest of my life. How much the meds were responsible I do not know. Most importantly, my son grew into a funny, chatty, smart, affectionate kid, and I was happy to be his primary caregiver. I was good at it. I doubt I’ll ever be that good at something again.
During that time, I cried once, and only a few tears: when my Grandmother, who co-raised me, died. The next year, from the roof of our apartment, I watched the Twin Towers fall, and I comforted many people who cried, but I didn’t cry. We were evicted from our apartment; my in-laws, who I loved, died; we left the city we loved. No tears. Just after Jack’s birth, the newest – and continuing – surge of school shootings began with a mass murder in Fayetteville, Arkansas. One year later, Fayetteville’s horror, incredibly, was dwarfed by the Columbine massacre. Events like these would come to be less aberrant. I processed the atrocities, as much as one can do so, through a muffled heart.
Every parent, I’ve found, has moments of: I brought a kid into this nightmare, and with each act of gun violence, war, and increasingly apocalyptic natural calamity, I felt that ever more frequently. Parenthood had given me deeper connection to my fellow humans, and while this mostly conjured a kind of joy and wonder, bad times like the aforementioned evoked a keening despair, alongside a sustained echo of rage. Yet, I didn’t cry.
In 2002, we moved to the Catskills and I took a job as a teacher’s assistant at a Montessori-esque preschool in Mt. Tremper, NY. Much to my surprise, I loved it. It was fulfilling, and fun, and while not lucrative, it helped pay the bills. Our new home was beautiful, and the community embraced us. I thought it would be a good time to taper off the meds. By 2003, I was med-free again. Gradually, and then suddenly, crybaby returned, sometimes manifesting as madbaby and sulkbaby. But still, I thought, like everyone, I sometimes have reason to feel sad, mad, sulky, and why am I worried I’ll be intolerable? It was sometimes rough going, but I was prepared to adjust.
No meltdowns until my best friend Todd killed himself in 2004. Shortly thereafter, I heard The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You” on the car radio. Todd loved that band and that song. Jack, then six, was in his car seat, and his mother was next to me. Tears streamed, my gut tightened and convulsed. I barely kept it together, and then, back at home, I lost it in front of Jack. Once I started crying, grievous tears for other losses gushed, too. I could probably have stopped, but I chose not to, and my body, while consumed with feverish sadness, thanked me.
Jack survived seeing me lose control. To make me feel better, he made me a present: several boxes in which his beloved Lego Bionicles had lived, held together with packing tape, and presented as something to keep pens and pencils in, i.e. a device that can hold items, keep them from scattering into a mess, keep them from being lost.
Over the ensuing decade, other losses and fears and outrages occurred, and I will not list them here. And truthfully, I seesaw’ed back on, then off meds several times, tamping down the intensity of the ache and reining in, if not completely taming, crybaby, then going “clean” for awhile (all under supervision, with a new doc). I added counseling, creative activity, fellowship, and rigorous exercise to my life, and those have all helped a lot. But the important question is always: do you cry, Robert? And I do. I can. I let the tears flow when they rise. It’s important because it’s part of who I am, and always has been, even when I’ve denied it, or worked to keep it hidden.
Like “The Ghost in You,” other songs can make me cry, and once in a great while, I turn to them to help connect me to my grief, which I now know will never go away. It will morph and change, ebbing and flowing, but it’ll never go away, and sometimes I need to express it, so I turn to my Tears Mix, a version of which is pasted below. Some of these tunes will mean nothing to you, some will seem inexcusably corny, and others might not seem outwardly cry-worthy, but for me, each is a touchstone to feelings of loss, and while the Tears Mix doesn’t actually purge those emotions, it lends them shape, and they flow out of me via tears as melody flows in. I went too long without crying, and every time I do it, it feels like some of the tears feel have been dammed up for years, or centuries. I let them flow, and move on.