As the canned air of the cabin erupts into a cacophony of prayers, you remember the patronising tone your father employed the first time he told you, “Big boys don’t cry”. You were seven years old and could not help the tears that trickled down your face as you watched the trials of Mowgli in The Jungle Book. You were not a wailer like your sister who made an art out of weeping. She could pause in the middle of crying, take a gift from a stranger and resume at the same pitch and intensity with which she started. You detested that in her. But you couldn’t help but cry at the sight of people in distress.
When your big aunt died, you had spent the weekend of her burial in a jolly mood at the reunion of families. Cousins were milling around the house and you had more candidates for your hide and seek games. This annoyed your sister because she had a habit of using her participation in your games as leverage for favours. But all the jolliness dissolved the moment your mother started to cry at the entrance of the cathedral. You wept through the funeral service and did not listen to a word of what the priest was saying; not because you were sad that your aunt died, but because your mom was weeping.
You wish to recall those priestly words as people around you show various levels of distress. A woman who had been chatty at the beginning of the flight is now sobbing in incontrollable bursts, her breath reduced to a raggedy rhythm that attenuates her loud cry momentarily. A man seated adjacent to you, across the aisle, is muttering words in Arabic and another is singing in a language that sounds eastern-european. You are the only stoic one.
After years of listening to male members of your extended family batter you with words about the need to ditch the tears and act like a man, you swung in the opposite direction like a pendulum in a grandfather clock. You shut down your emotions and reduced displays of distress to moments when they had to serve particular roles, wearing different faces like the costume of an actor in an elaborate stage play. Many of those moments involved attempts to impress women. Your last girlfriend (two months more and she would have been called fiancée) broke up with you on a night when she cried because you forgot to ask about her mother’s double mastectomy. You tried to explain that you had been busy, but she burst into tears and reeled off other times when you forgot things that were so dear to her. You tried to explain again but it just fueled her sobs. She became annoyed that you didn’t show any sign of distress at her sorrow. You were too tired to playact.
The same way you were too tired to cry at your twin sister’s burial. You had spent the preceding day trying to coordinate the arrival of sympathizers and by the time the internment started, all the energy you had left was employed in staying on your feet. Some members of your family expressed concern that you did not cry. You wish they could see the flood in your heart, struggling to break through the thick armour of decades spent trying to be a man. One of your cousins advised that you postpone your return. You shrugged. You had to be a man and move on with your life.
But this is not the time to be a man. Thirty-six thousand feet in the air, dangling above the ocean, five hours into a flight that is supposed to take two and the strongest of men would be allowed to panic—even cry. The plane begins a nosedive towards the sea and passengers lurch forward, their bodies held in place by seat belts. Face masks drop over the passengers, but no one seems to have the mind to make proper use of them. They are all saying prayers to their respective gods. You draw the mask to your face and wish you could remember the prayer the priest offered at the burial of your great aunt or the plaintive song they sang at the grave of your sister. The only thing you remember is your father telling you, “Big boys don’t cry”. You start to cry.
Featured image via flickr by Luke Ma