By: Shannon Ralph
When my mother found out my uncle had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, she took to her bed in tears for an entire day. I have not shed a single tear despite adoring my uncle. I told my mother this past weekend that I was trying not to think about my uncle because it makes me sick to my stomach. So I try not to think about it. I try not to dwell on the savagery of a cancer that lurks in the depths of a person I truly adore. My mother responded by saying that is how I have always been. I shove things down. Ignore them. I got the feeling she was implying that was an unhealthy reaction. I’ve been thinking about that brief conversation ever since.
Perhaps it is true. Perhaps I am an emotional black hole. I admit to being rather stoic. No one would ever accuse me of being prone to histrionics. I am Even Steven. Calm, cool, and collected. When my grandmother died a few years back, my aunt wailed at her funeral. Literally wailed. Like you see veil-adorned women doing in footage from the war-torn Middle East. I remember staring at her in absolute awe. What is it like to be able to express emotion in that way? What is it like to carry your feelings so close to the surface? Ready to erupt at any moment. I am afraid I do not know. I have never wailed in my life. I can’t even picture myself wailing in my wildest imagination.
I think I am more like my father than I am like my mother. He was a quiet man. A stoic man. A good-hearted, funny, happy man. But an unflappable man. I remember my parents’ occasional fights when I was a child. I don’t think you could really call them “fights,” as they were really quite one-sided rants. My mother would scream and wail and rave and stew. My father would sit quietly and listen. Or worse yet, he would chuckle at her hysteria, which never failed to put her over the edge. He did not fight back. He did not get angry. He did not give in to emotion. Whereas my mother functions in a state of constant emotional upheaval, my father rarely showed emotion at all. I am afraid I inherited a bit of that from him.
It is not that I do not feel emotion. I do. It is just that strong emotion is disturbing to me for some reason. It upsets the balance. I don’t like the feeling of being unbalanced and upset. I don’t like it, so I avoid it. My mother tries to get me to read sappy, emotionally wrenching books. She adores stories full of heartache and tragedy and doom. She doesn’t understand why I don’t care for Jodi Picoult. She can’t fathom that I stopped reading Sarah’s Key as soon as I realized the little boy was locked in a cabinet. Why would I willingly -and unnecessarily- inflict that kind of sadness upon myself? Why would anyone? These stories of tragedy stick with me. They haunt me. I can’t close a book or switch off a movie and leave the story behind. So why torture myself unnecessarily?
There are times when I wish I were more like my mom. More like my wailing aunt. More welcoming of all the intense emotions inherent in the human experience. But that is simply not me. I love my family with my entire heart. I would do absolutely anything for my uncle and the thought of losing him is unbearable. But I am not going to take to my bed in grief. I am not going to wail. There is a very real chance that I will not cry a single tear. And I will feel like an emotional pariah because of that. But that does not mean that my love is any less real or my sadness any less true. I cope the way I cope. I don’t have it within my make-up to respond in any other way. I am my father’s daughter.
That’s not such a terrible thing to be, is it?