Maureen Stanton | Longreads | January 2020 | 26 minutes (6,448 words)
In the early 1990s I joined a stream of people strolling past the AIDS quilt spread across a gymnasium floor in Lansing, Michigan, the room quiet but for our muffled sniffling. I hadn’t expected the quilt — a patchwork of many quilts — to affect me so powerfully, the clothes and artifacts and mementos stitched into tapestries, with dates of births and premature deaths, soft beautiful tombstones.
Humans are the only creatures who cry for emotional reasons. Animals do not shed tears of emotion; apes have tear ducts but only to “bathe and heal” the eyes. Crying makes us human. In the 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, people who’d been replaced by aliens could no longer cry, a telltale sign that they were not human. In one scene, a man carries a pod containing the alien replica of a small child. “There’ll be no more tears,” he tells the child’s mother.
Some people are super tasters or super smellers, or even super see-ers, with an uncanny ability to remember faces. I am a super crier, or maybe a super empathizer. An astrologer once said that my soul bears the karmic burden of feeling others’ pain as if it were my own. This is apparently because of the placement on my birth chart of the comet Chiron, “the wounded healer,” named after a Greek centaur who could heal everyone but himself.
Once, in Columbus, Ohio, I choked up at Taco John’s, a brand new mom and pop joint, all spiffy with shiny stainless steel, but empty of customers. I could see the work and sacrifice the family had made to realize their dream — opening a taco shop. I could feel their hope when I walked in the door, but I could calculate the meager profit from my order against the cost of utilities, salaries, supplies. I could see their dream failing.
I nearly lost it again at Karyn’s Kitchen, a food truck in someone’s yard along the road to my house in Maine. Karyn probably figured she’d snag summer traffic on the way to the beach, but who wants to eat in someone’s yard? I ate there once out of pity — her husband’s “famous” meatloaf, which she served with mashed potatoes, steamed carrots, and two slices of white bread with a pat of margarine. When I asked her to heat up the cold gravy, she microwaved it until the plastic container melted and handed it to me like that. When I drive by Karyn’s yard now, I can’t stand to look at the empty space where her dream failed.
A woman in a laundromat once yelled at her small son, “No one wants to hear you,” and I got a lump in my throat.