In the walls of the church, I attributed her tears to some godly experience that I was not yet old enough to understand or to take part in. Ushers dressed in white would carry boxes of tissue down the aisle and to the front. With pristine white cloths, they were ready to cover the women who fell out at the altar, laying their burdens and worries down — while wearing their Sunday finest — at the one place they knew to. They formed a river of women draped in white running through the front of the sanctuary. My mother was never in this river, but she was one of many in a chorus of cries. Like many of the women who lined the pews with their young children, she was a single black mother.
This is where black mothers come to cry, I thought.
We went to church faithfully every Sunday. As a teenager, I had resigned myself to being a spectator in the service. The same women in the same white river joining the same chorus. This was the norm, but it was not a part of my experience. My experience included crying uncontrollably when our cat died when I was 12. It included whimpers and sad faces when my older sisters teased me. “You’re too sensitive!” they would say. So I was determined not to be.
When I was 14, my grandmother came to visit us for Christmas. A few years before, we had moved five hours away from the red and white house in a South Side of Chicago neighborhood that was once our home together. She was different from the grandmother who made jokes and yelled, “April Fool’s!” while laughing hysterically in her loud, high-pitched voice. I couldn’t imagine her as the same grandmother who would pick me up off the floor in the middle of the night when I fell from the top of my bunk bed. She was my best friend. She stood shorter, now with a walker and less energy. She was tired. I distanced myself. I needed to love her without feeling the pain of losing her.
Months later, my mother cried. This time, she cried in front of us as she told us that grandmother was gone. That night, my sister and I slept on the couch. I don’t remember crying. I remember smelling my grandmother’s perfume and feeling her hand on my shoulder in my dreams. She comforted me. It was this year that I also learned that tears were a weapon.
In typical teenage fashion, I was late for class. I hurriedly threw on my clothes for aerobics class as the teacher stood by my locker and railed on about the importance of timeliness. “It’s just PE,” I remarked as I ran out of the locker room. She spent the first five minutes of class having an open forum about her education and the importance of her job. She peppered the lecture with her tears and named me as the perpetrator. A sea of shocked white faces turned to me, the only black girl in the class, as though looking for visual evidence of the crime I had just committed. The next few minutes were an informal trial against me and my words, and I ran to the stairwell, unwilling to share my own tears in front of them. Her squeaky-sneakered footsteps came up behind me.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“That’s not what I meant!” I said choking back tears.
“Why are you so angry?” she said wiping black mascara off her face as she walked away. I stayed in the safety of the empty stairwell.
Empty stairwells are where black women go to cry.
My first son was 7 when he was diagnosed with autism. I sat in a meeting with his teacher and a team of educational support professionals as they discussed his every academic and social weakness at length. I scanned the room looking for hope and for someone who believed that a black boy could overcome these challenges and thrive. My voice thick with emotion, I responded curtly. “Why are you so angry?” I read on their faces. I would not cry in an empty stairwell this time. I made it to my car.
My second son was born six weeks early. He spent his first days of life in the NICU. My husband and I stayed at the hospital every day until he was ready to come home with us. I was adamant about nursing, and he latched on right away. Our first night at home, my husband slept. Baby and I did not. He cried. At the point of exhaustion and desperation, I cried, too. After months had gone by, my son grew out of the constant crying. I did not. I could no longer hide my crying in the shower, in the walk-in closet, in the car. I was out in the open.
“Why are you crying?” my husband would ask, walking around me.
When I cried, I became a piece of furniture that was blocking the flow of traffic in the house. Before I became an out-of-place piece of furniture, I was like the mahogany curio cabinet in my grandmother’s living room. Solid and strong, it stood where it was placed. No one knew back then that it was a tipping hazard and that if it fell it would hurt whoever was near and everything it held would come spilling out. Now, everyone knew.
I cried for the grandmother I never mourned. I cried over my fears for my black son in a climate that is hostile for him. I cried because I was expected to be strong, and strong women do not move people with tears. Strong black women must find spaces where they can cry, laugh, scream and heal.
In the safety of a small room with mint green walls, an overflowing bowl of peppermints and inspirational rustic decor, I sit on a low couch between two oversize pillows.
This isn’t an empty stairwell. There is no sound of spraying water and a squealing shower head to drown out the noise. I’m not at the altar in front of God. I am face to face with myself and my journey to healing.
“What brings you here?” the doctor says.
“I’ve heard this a good place to cry.”
Kelly Glass is a freelance writer whose interests focus on the intersections of parenting, mental health, race, and diversity. A city girl at heart, she lives in an Illinois college town with her educator husband, brilliant preteen son on the autism spectrum, and an ambitious toddler. Follow her on Twitter.