“First I cried because I had no shoes; then I met a man who had no feet”
That was one of my father’s favorite sayings, a “dad-ism” if you like. He used it frequently, whenever I was upset or crying or disappointed or feeling sorry for myself. I understood the meaning of the “dad-ism” to be that I really had no good reason to cry, that my situation did not warrant it, and that there was someone else much worse off who really did have a reason to cry.
I understood as well that my dad’s intentions were good, he intended to comfort, to give perspective and to ease my sorrow. What I didn’t understand was the unstated subtext, that my feelings were not valid, that I was wrong for feeling what I was feeling and that I should be more appreciative and more grateful for all that I did have.
It took me most of my adulthood to realize that this underlying belief had been ingrained in me since childhood and to also realize that it was simply not true. Gratitude and appreciation do not oppose emotions. I now believe that if I allow myself to feel what I am feeling, to experience my emotions and to acknowledge them, then they will find their own perspective and proportion and I will be able to integrate the emotion with the logic all that much faster.
I am sure that we all know those kinds of people who dive down deep into their emotions and every statement of their feelings intensifies the next statement, escalating it all into one huge pity party. I don’t believe that feelings deserve that kind of limelight; that spewing of ever growing negativity does no good for no one.
My daughter recently went through a frustrating experience; she and her husband joined us to celebrate a holiday weekend at my son’s house. Each family contributed part of the meal. My daughter arrived a bit later than expected, and as they unloaded the car (after an hour’s drive) they realized that while they had packed their carriage and porta-crib and two car seats and two children and diapers and wipes and such, the two kilo of chicken schnitzel, the cookies and the cake that she had baked had been left in their apartment.
My immediate, instinctive reaction was to comfort her and I said things that did exactly the opposite; they infuriated her. I told her that it was okay, that we had so much food, that no one would go hungry because of the lack of schnitzel, that we could use the cake when we would all get together the following day again….
Her answer to me was succinct and insightful. She said to me that she knew that she would be ok but could I please just allow her to feel her disappointment and her frustration over this mistake, that she had invested so much effort into the preparation of the baked goods and the food and once she dealt with her emotions she would once again be ready to rejoin the family gathering.
At that moment I realized that not only had I integrated my dad’s theory as part of my internal make up but I was passing the message forward as part of my children’s legacy.
I am an emotional person; I tear up easily at tv movies, often cry while reading a book or when hearing of other people’s sorrows. But I very rarely feel my own emotions; I am quite afraid of them (okay, fear is an emotion as well, but fear and I are well acquainted with each other and I generally allow fear to take the front seat whenever he wants to…).
I have had to deal with traumatic events in my life. Thank God the good far outweighs the bad (is that another attempt to deny what I am feeling??) but all 5 of my babies suffered various traumatic events at birth, ranging from prematurity, to a lack of a certain enzyme , to “wet lung syndrome”, fever and a kidney infection (at day 9 of life) and prolonged neonatal jaundice (like for 3 weeks, reaching values of 22 + and suggesting the need for blood transfusions!) I cried, I don’t think I could have not, especially being so hormonal (aha! Another denial of my feelings??). One nurse did say something that I found extremely comforting. She said “you have absolutely no reason to cry and at the same time every right to.”
My parents both suffered heart attacks; my dad’s was so serious. My mom called just as I struck the match to light my Sabbath candles. She said that they were wheeling him into surgery at that very moment and they had no idea if he would survive it or not. I was just about to welcome the Shabbat and cut myself off from the outside world for 25 hours. I felt numb, I didn’t know what I felt or what to do. I started to cry, stopped myself and said “what good will that do you? All it will get you is red eyes and a huge headache!” And so I didn’t cry, and I went through the motions, without the emotions.
Thank God my dad lived.
My mom had a devastating, life changing stroke right in front of my eyes. There was no time for emotion then. I had to call the ambulance, answer their myriads of questions, help get my dad to the hospital. There was a lot of sitting and waiting, a bit of discussion and decision making and a lot of trying to comfort others. I only remember one time when I had no option to feel or not to feel; my feelings took control and literally brought me to my knees. I could simply not stand up to the weight of them. I had to leave my mom in the hospital to fly home to Israel. I didn’t know if I would ever see her alive again. I tried to reach over the bars and around the wires to hug her and kiss her goodbye but my 5’2″ frame was not tall enough to deal with the hospital bed frame. My mom reached up with her “good”‘ arm and yanked me down to her. It was one of the clearest indications that my mom still possessed some awareness of her surroundings and of those who surrounded her. I wept. And as my sister and my dad’s cousin tried to help get me to leave my mom and go to the waiting car, my knees gave way beneath me and my loved ones supported my body wracked with tears.
My mom survived for almost three years in a state of solitary confinement within a barely functioning body. Her death, when the end neared, was long and drawn out. My sister, husband and I sat vigil for four days until her soul left her body. It was a difficult time, a frustrating time but not a particularly emotional time. We joked, we laughed, we sang songs to my mom, we read old letters from my dad to her. It was “heavy” but I don’t remember feeling anything particularly emotional.
My dad had died, suddenly and unexpectedly, and alone, nine months before my mom. That translated into 20 months of mourning according to Jewish law. I felt absolutely immobilized when I learned of his death; I felt like my blood had frozen in my veins. I remained in my seat for over six hours without moving; I was numb, and shocked.
At both of their funerals my voice shook and my eyes teared as I read my eulogy. But I didn’t feel a surge of emotion, or rather I did not allow myself to feel so. After returning home, I cried every single day for most of that year and a half. Something small would set me off; a photograph, a calendar date, a song on the radio. But I would quickly stop my tears; I KNEW that there was a good chance that if I allowed myself to cry as much as I wanted to that I might very well not be able to stop.
As I type these words I find my eyes welling up, how sad to be afraid to allow myself to be sad over the death of my parents!
I will never know what would have been the outcome if I had allowed myself to cry a “good” long hard cry, would it have alleviated the need for that year of tears? Friends advised me to seek medical intervention; they believed that I was clinically depressed and in need of chemical assistance. But I didn’t think so, I was able to smile, to laugh, to take joy from my grandchildren. I got out of bed daily, I performed as expected of me at work, my hygiene was good, my home functioned. But what was the effect on my heart?
Now, when I see my grandchildren dealing with their feelings, I do my best to try and put a name to what they are experiencing. I try to overcome my instinctual reaction to tell them that “this too shall pass” ( a mom-ism) or that things are “always darkest before the dawn” (another mom-ism). I try to hold them, and love them and let them know that it is okay to feel whatever they are feeling. And that sometimes, having no shoes hurts, even if at the same time I am grateful for still having my feet.
Postscript: I wrote all these word a week before bloodthirsty terrorists started a spree of death and destruction throughout my beautiful country. I find myself feeling various emotions; a vague, ever-present sense of anxiety; sadness, frustration…And sometimes my dad’s “dadism” is really right.
When I find myself pitying my son who has been evacuated to a kibbutz far from his home because his absolutely gorgeous large airy new house was built in an area deemed to be a security risk I stop myself and remind myself that, Thank God, I have nothing to complain about, he is alive and I know where he is.
When I feel sorry for another of my sons who is currently serving his country in the North after having removed his family from the war zone to take up residence in his wife’s sister’s house I stop those thoughts and say “thank God, he is a soldier in the Israeli Armed Forces and his wife and children are no longer hiding behind barricaded doors, but are safe and sound with family”.
So maybe Dad was on to something after all, thank God we all still have our feet!