There is No Map to the Land of Tears
By Lauren Smith
When I was fifteen I started running. I grew lean and cut my hair short. I devoured books and fell in love with a boy who talked to me about books. I idolized Katharine Hepburn and watched Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner until I knew all the lines by heart even though my soft drawl made them sound strange, made them sound like questions. I was already in love with words. I’d learn a new one and walk searching for excuses to call it by name. I remember the day they thought you had a heat stroke. They told me you’d been out working under the sun for hours, probably never even stopped for a sip of water, knowing him, my grandmother had said. She was cloaking worry under a tone of annoyance and everyone saw right through it. You turned away from that and looked towards me.
How far ya run, Boog?
Little over 4 miles.
Appreciative whistle *
What’s the latest word?
Two months later a neurologist added to my vocabulary. Glioblastoma Multiform. Malignant. Metastasis.
You asked me not to cry. I don’t think you fully understood what you were asking at the time but I knew what I was agreeing to. Some people lift people in their memory when their dying, place the diminishing life on an alter of adoration and exultations that could not other wised be sustained in the messy ordinariness of good health. Your granddaughter was not one of those people. As you talked I melted back into the smallness of childhood. I saw you coming home in the evenings from fishing. I remembered being hefted up above your shoulders so I could touch the higher tendrils of a willow. I remembered never being afraid of anything simply because you existed. You see, I adored you long before I ever thought it possible to lose you so when you asked me not to cry I simply nodded my head yes.
There was never any doubt about what option you’d choose. You were poetry composed by a lumbering woman of Creek decent and a petite farmer who insisted on walking the plaited rows of his land barefoot every night. You married when you were still a child and then had children of your own, working sometimes 3 jobs to support your own. You survived a faulty revolver that went off in your hands. A snake bite too. You were the last to see your brother before he killed himself and you kept on living but it was never easy for you after, each day containing a weight of sorrow that could never be shared or verbalized. You watched as another sibling was committed to an asylum. On this too you stayed quiet. You built houses. You learned the names of every tree you walked under. You released every fish you didn’t intend to eat. You never faltered with the truth. You cherished your family. So when it came to options we knew you’d choose surgery, bravely running towards the promise of more time rather then swiftly and painlessly leaving us.
This is the thing about cancer, about motherfucking cancer, it always metastasizes. It eats away at everyone that loves the body it’s trying to take. When people asked your diagnosis I often couldn’t tell them, staring blankly at them until the moment passed. Glioblastoma leaves a taste in my mouth so strong that I’ve choked on it before. It’s a condition known as synesthesia, which basically means that some people can taste words. Glioblastoma tastes like acorns and brackish water. It felt like dancing with small bouts of suffocation to try to explain to others how you were going to leave me. To explain why you were bed ridden, your short term memory cut to a 5 minute limit. One word can’t fully explain why you were fine one day and didn’t recognize your wife of 37 years four months later. A whole vocabulary wouldn’t have helped.
Things you told me:
- When you were born your family was so poor they drew your pictures rather than have one taken
- Your family locked you out of your house during a blizzard because you were too handsome to look at and your little tears froze into icicle. You broke them off your face and that was the first time you ever had a Popsicle.
- You fought in ww1, ww2 and Vietnam.
- You were once chased through the woods by a clubfooted monster named slew foot. It was a miracle you survived.
- Grandma once super glued your butt to the toilet seat
- You hung the moon
I still believe in every story you ever handed me.
On one of the anniversaries of your death I climbed onto a roof with a man I was considering falling in love with. I tried to explain what it felt like to touch willow leaves. I tried to describe how the music of toads, cicadas and crickets never leaves someone once they’ve heard it as a child. I offered these things because there is no way to describe how it feels to outlive someone you love. Instead we passed a bottle of wine between us and tried not to fall back to earth.
You spent your whole life as a closed house. He never really talked to anyone deeply until you were born, my grandmother would say. The tumor changed that; it shook you so hard that I expected to hear the creaking of shattered glass beneath my feet when I came near. In a waiting room with my mother, your daughter, you watched a child with cancer playing with blocks and you cried. It’s not right for someone so little to have this, you said. There were so many things I wanted to do. I just thought there’d be more time. In the time you had left you gave each one of your children and grandchildren advice. You asked me to be strong. You asked me to look after your wife. You told me to always make sure that anyone I cared about knew it. Love, you said, should be so honest that it can never be questioned for anything other than fact. Your face was streaked with the tears you didn’t want me to feel.
When I was 24 I tore a muscle in my leg. The Dr. performing the ultrasound on my knee pointed to the damaged tissue and called it ugly muscle. You keep running and we’re going to have to have a serious conversation about surgery, he said. I could see the tear plainly, illuminated like a ghost within my body. I wanted to ask if I could have a full ultrasound, to see if he could locate the pocket of darkness within me that held sadness and the ability to cry. You had been gone for six years and I was still unable to express grief, to adequately measure when it was acceptable to exhibit pain and weakness. Even when they straightened my leg and fitted it for a brace my eyes stayed dry despite the fury of physical pain that roared and buckled under my skin. I couldn’t shake the sense of obligation to stay strong for you even though the job was finished.
Your daughter took it hardest. What kind of person doesn’t cry, she’d ask me repeatedly. There was no effort in her voice to disguise the confusion she felt towards me after your funeral. I could have tried to explain but I didn’t. I barely remember that day. There is a sense that my shoes were too tight and that the wind caused my skin to pucker into gooseflesh as you were placed into the earth. These could just be memories I’ve created for myself though. In actuality, the spanse of
time I can’t remember after your death stretches out for months, so my I have no words to offer you in relation to how I coped. I went to sleep. I woke up. I traveled through the day. Repeated the actions.
When it happened, when they returned, it was so foreign a sensation that I was startled. I wish I could say that a profound moment caused me to cry, that my life altered so unexpectantly that I couldn’t help but cry. Something poetic. But that’s not what happened. I was simply worn out. I had reached a point of emotional exhaustion so acute that it was hard to sleep, to walk in a way that didn’t drag. When it happened there was no sound, they just slid down my face. My mother dropped the spoon she was holding. My brother, who had never seen me cry, looked stricken. I laughed. You see, I was happy to be able to ache again.
I have a secret belief that children books are not really written for children at all but for broken adults who are trying to find their way back to laughter.
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes, “said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?”
“It doesn't happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”
“It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.”
There is no way to quantitatively measure the value of a life. Those of us who love you often look around and to each other to find the things you left behind. We gather often in the house you designed and built with your hands. We stand beneath the trees you loved. Your youngest son has your eyes. Your oldest son has your fierce, protective nature. Your daughter is private and kind. Your wife protects the memory of you with the vigilance of a hawk. You only had one grandchild that was old enough to really know you before a cell misfired within your magnificent brain. You wanted her to be honest, loyal, loving. You wanted her to protect those she loves and to be fearless enough to be vulnerable around them as well. Guinn Philips, she is.