He’s crying again.
The night has come to an end. His brother and sister are in their rooms, and their potential mistreatment of him is seemingly not the reasons for this avalanche of tears. He walks quickly through the living room on the way to his bedroom, but I know something is not right. I know him, his body, and his affect intimately, this eldest child of mine, the one that made me a mama. I see in his gait a weariness combined with anxiety, feelings I know intimately as well. That feeling is pain.
I know better than to just ask him, “What’s wrong?” He is 12. Twelve year olds answer questions like, “How was school?” with one word – “good.” They also answer questions like, “What’s wrong?” with one word too. “Nothing.” So, I do not ask. I just follow him into his room.
He shares with his little brother, and as I walk into the room, the little one says. “Mommy?” But I am not there for him, not right now. I pat my little one, tell him it’s time for him to close his eyes and go to sleep. And then I sit with my big boy. Tonight, I do not tell him that he must talk to me. I do not tell him that I can’t help him unless he talks. Tonight, as he wraps himself up in his blankets, I simply rub his back and rub his hair, letting him know through my touch that I am there.
I was once a crying child. I cried about everything, from little slights and a bad look, to harsh words, and of course, to the spankings I received with belts. I felt in a way I imagined others did not, even when an action, look, or word was not directed at me. Other people told me how they laughed when their siblings got in trouble. Not me. Rather than laugh or feel somewhat verified when my brother got in trouble for something bad he’d done, I cried for him.
Early on in my life, I was labeled “sensitive,” which was – and is – an accurate description. I was “quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences.” Everything that happened to me I felt in my body, viciously. But when I wasn’t crying, I tried to smile. And smile I did. I had friends. Boys liked me. I skipped a grade. I was smart.
But in sixth grade, the same grade that my boy is in now, things changed. I was bullied. I was at a new school, and I was singled out for my sensitivity. In front of a teacher, a bully spat out, “You know why we don’t like you, right?” That teacher heard, but she said nothing. Only, “Don’t do that in here.” She did not do her job. She did not protect me.
So, every day going to school felt like slipping into a deep abyss. I stopped smiling. I developed severe anxiety, migraines, and heartburn, afflictions that affect me today. I went days without eating.
Crying wasn’t looked upon favorably at my house, as I grew up at the time where black parents were known to say, “Shut up that crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” Children weren’t supposed to feel anything that made adults uncomfortable, and if they did, they were certainly not supposed to show it. And, they did not understand. So what if someone gave you a mean look? So what if someone says they don’t like you? So what? Why does that bother you so much? No one really wanted an answer. The goal was to make me realize that I needed to be stronger.
I had many examples of “strong” black women in my family. Black women who went to work every day, dealt with foolishness from men, raised their kids. Black women who made something from very little. Black women who had children young. Black women who were doing the absolute best they could. But I was alone. Painfully, heartbreakingly alone.
Beginning at age ten, I took public transportation to school each day, to the place where my tormentors met me. As I waited for the bus or on the subway platform, I fantasied. Fantasized about walking, at the very last moment before the bus pulled toward the curb, into the street. At first, the fantasy was not about being killed or dying, but being so hurt that people would come to see me, so I wouldn’t be so alone. But as the dark night of the soul pressed deeper and deeper, the thoughts shifted. And I shifted, closer and closer over the subway platform’s yellow line, the yellow line the announcers instruct to stay behind for your safety. I’d place a toe over the line, then one foot, then two feet. Close enough to feel the overwhelming power of the subway cars as they came rushing alongside, I fantasized about taking that one extra step, the one that would make my body move with the cars, flinging me in front of the train.
My uncle committed suicide by jumping off a roof. I knew it could be done. I hoped that I would be loved and remembered like he was. I was in pain. I was alone. And I was tired.
(to be continued — Part II here)