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Born to cry

When I was a kid, all through to the sixth grade, I cried all the time. Helplessness and frustration drove me to tears. The condition became critical enough that my teacher, Miss Milazzo, sent me in for a serious talk with the enigmatic and scary Franciscan priest named Father Francis, who always dressed in black monk habit. He was a tall man, bald to his shiny pate, with small, black eyes in an otherwise featureless face.

The room was in the part of Christ the King Catholic Elementary School where students were prohibited to tread. The office, I remember, had a small window that let in a dribble of light. He turned on a small library light with a green shade when he admitted me to his realm. The room had the smell of funerary incense and human sweat.

Father Francis sat behind the desk after he showed me to the chair before the desk. I don’t remember much about the conversation, but it was akin to, “Time to pull your pants up and be a man.” He did not probe into what was going on at home or in school. He instead asked me what I intended to get out of bursting into tears.

“I hope it’s not sympathy,” he said. “You’ll find none of that around here.”

Those were his parting words. Father Francis continued to give us catechism lessons and depart the room without interacting with students. He was there, he did his spiel, and he disappeared back to his office. As far as us kids knew, that was where he lived.

Something about Father Francis’ talk with me stuck. I sublimated feelings of despair and never again cried except when beaten on the playground, and then only out of pain and embarrassment.

(Later, after a couple of years of high school, Father Francis showed up again, this time as a catechist for the Christian Brothers. He gained the name of Father Masturbation/Fornication for his subject rarely changed.)

But I remained a crier, despite rarely, if ever, bursting out in public places. Crying was something I did in private, and often. I would tear up at the news, at the mention of warm human contact, at any show of kindness or compassion. I cried at movies, plays, and orchestra performances. Sometimes it was the story, the empathy with the characters, or the shear beauty of a great concert.

In all my dating life, there was only one woman I didn’t cry over. Even then, I did plenty of crying before the inevitable end of our relationship.

Crying is something we all do, or I hope so. But my condition has become worse over the years. Now, I can be driving home from work and hear the terrible news of the day and begin to weep at the wheel. There have been times recently when I’ve had to pull off the road until I get myself under control. I cry at hearing the verdict of a man or woman freed on reasonable doubt. I tear up when I hear of any injustice.

Racial injustice, misogyny, and corona tend to get me where I’m most vulnerable. My tears come from being happy at someone’s recovery or exacting of their human rights. Sadness fuels some bouts, a whiff of the helplessness I once felt as a child. I tend to overthink the job interview and find myself in despair at my current state of affairs—a book that probably won’t make it, a writer with no notoriety even after a life of determined effort, a job that’s kicking my ass, and so on.

Anything. My son starts college. My wife loses a job or gets a new one. A friend loses a parent or has a new child. My voice has cracked and I have had to collect myself when someone rejoices at the appearance of the mailman. When it comes to talking about service to others, people devoted to higher causes, the karmic wrenching of justice due to human effort, I’m a sucker.

I can be watching a movie at home. My empathy with characters, the good and the terrible, drive me to emotions I try hard to conceal from my family. But they know the choke, that hitch in my throat that tells them that dad’s starting to cry. My chest goes into convulsions. I hold my breath. I rub my eyes as if I have something in them. But they know and I know they know.

Books make me cry. I’m on a Cormac McCarthy binge—fuel for tears every couple of pages. I cried years ago when I got to the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s plenty to cry about in that book, and I did at all the right places and more. At the end, I was in despair that the story was over.

That was just one instance. I know I’ve read a crummy book if it doesn’t jerk a tear.

Age makes things worse, I think, when it comes to crying. The emotions of joy, despair, sadness, melancholy all take me down. They are so close to the surface.

I cry when Matthew McConaughey sets his ice-fishing rig and retires happily to the back of his Mercury SUV.

I don’t know what will happen in the future. I’ve met people older than me who dry at the drop of a hat. At one bookstore reading I gave years ago, a man burst into tears when I approached the end of the excerpt of my book. Of course, I wondered what about that part of the book set him off. I did not wonder about him getting weepy. I knew where he was coming from.

I have had to mask a cry with friends at a coffee shop. Once I was with my friend Alicia and she talked about her father, who had some physical disability. But he was a staunch father and was sure to walk with Alicia and her siblings on a regular basis. Just thinking about that as she was telling the story sent me to the bathroom to recover myself. I still get emotional when I think of it.

All it takes is for me to see a little kid on my route. The ones that get the best of me are the ones out on the street alone. I have plenty of “sent out to play” stories of my own that when I see a lonely child, I can’t help but daub my eyes and fight to keep the Promaster on the road. Then, I remember my kids and thank goodness that carrying the mail is a mostly solitary profession.

But you don’t have to wait until I get old. Just get married, celebrate an anniversary with a loved one, lose a mate to illness, lose a friend to misunderstanding. You can make me cry. It’s easy. Just tell me a story.

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