Essay

There’s Strength in Softness

For my sixteenth birthday, my mother gave me the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling. She pasted small, pink-and-green cutout flowers on the sides making it less plain, placing it inside a plastic five-by-seven box frame. Composure and calm, according to Kipling, are virtues his son and the reader should have in varied situations. My mother signed the bottom and added, “This is just as true for little girls as it is for boys.”

Composure and calm were two characteristics I had never readily possessed but two qualities my mother seemed to have devoted much of her time trying to instill in me. Early lessons were implicit and based on observations of how she lived. My mother had one kidney and spent most of her life on dialysis three times a week. I have vivid memories of accompanying her to the hospital. At six years old, I sat right next to her as tubes filtered her blood.

“When do I do dialysis?” I once asked, twirling side-to-side on the chair.

“Be still,” she said. “Dialysis is only something I do.”

I was skeptical. She made the process look commonplace and natural. She never lamented about the brown fistulas bulging from her arm or about the excessive pounds she gained from prednisone prescriptions. After her kidney transplant, she was physically different. Her small frame grew rounder, her skin darker, her hair thinner. And then the transplant failed. But she never showed disappointment, not to me anyway.

Instead, my mother embodied calm and said, “If my great grandmother could lay ties on the railroad tracks, then certainly I can get through this.”

But I was different.

When I was ten years old, I found a book in our home that stood out among the others lined on the shelves titled, Why Was I Adopted? Intrigued, I plopped down to the floor, crossed my legs, and began reading. It was written in the second person, as if talking directly to the reader. The book described how one’s mother and father gave them the “gift of life,” but then it shifted to explain how “…sometimes something may happen so that the family you began with is not the same as the family you have now.”

I kept reading. The book described how the reader has two sets of parents: birth and adoptive.  Minutes later, I looked over at my mother, who had been standing in the opposite corner of the dining room.  Tears dropped.

“Why are you crying?” my mother asked.

“I feel sorry for these people.”

“Why?” she asked.

“They don’t know who their parents are.”

“You shouldn’t be sad,” she replied matter-of-factly. “Because you’re adopted.”

My stomach plummeted. I walked to my room and placed a pillow over my head to muffle the remainder of my sadness, which was now for me. There was no more conversation in that or any future moment concerning adoption or what it meant. My mother didn’t explain how this new information fits into my former reality. Instead, life continued as normal. I accompanied my mother to dialysis, but now I secretly wondered if every short, brown-skinned woman along the way was my biological mother.

By twelve, I’d realized I couldn’t control the frequency with which big droplets would form in the corner of my eyes and stream down my face, but I’d also learned crying among my family was unsafe. Therefore, when my parents sat me down to reveal my father’s diabetes diagnosis, I excused myself to my room, covered my head, and wailed. After two hours, my mother leaned against the door’s frame.

“Why are you so sad?” she asked.

“Now, I won’t have any parents,” I said, confident either of them could die any second from their respective illnesses.

She ordered me to stop and insisted my emotion was excessive. My mother’s reactions to my feelings began to cause a stir in my belly, which would rise through my body and turn my face rosy, whether I wanted it to happen or not.

So, by the time I turned sixteen, Kipling’s perfectly packaged words were just another one of my mother’s reminders to stay poised, no matter the circumstances. I tossed the poem on top of the other trinkets the family had gifted me and stuffed my mouth with more cake.

***

My mother died the day before I was to begin my junior year of high school.

I remember everything about that first Monday in September, the way my father’s shoulders tilted inward when he came home that morning; the quiet, yet familiar ride to the hospital; the eerie peace of the ICU’s walls. My grandmother’s arrival interrupted the stillness.

“Have you been in there yet?” she nodded toward the room where closed white curtains shielded my mother’s lifeless body.

“No,” I responded.

“Come on,” she said, marching toward the room’s door.

My grandfather lingered near the entrance, eyes glossy. He cleared his throat, reached into his shirt pocket, grabbed his handkerchief, and turned his back away from us. We left him and my father with the nurses.

My grandmother touched her daughter’s body and stared for a while. “It’s already hard. Do you want to feel?”

“No,” I replied.

Then, she looked at me and instructed me not to cry.

Her orders were familiar. Many of my childhood summers were spent at her Michigan home, playing parlor games that required calculated moves. When I made illogical backgammon plays, she’d berate me and question my intelligence, causing my face to turn hot and my eyes to glow crimson. Our exchange didn’t warrant tears, she said, just reason for me to learn how to play more intentionally. Afterward, I sat in my grandparents’ bathroom, surrounded by Pepto-Bismol-colored décor, rocking back and forth on the floor.

“I…just…wanna…go…home,” I repeatedly sobbed to myself.

When I opened the door, my grandparents stood there, smiling.

I just want to go home,” my grandmother said in a sing-song tone.

I blinked back tears and swallowed the saltiness that formed in the back of my throat.

But as I stood beside my grandmother, staring at my mother’s dead body, for the first time, I successfully did as I was told. My tears dried, and I practiced being composed and calm, just as Kipling had advised, just as my mother had tried to teach me, just as my grandmother demonstrated.

When my father and I returned home, I dragged the lawnmower out of the garage and trimmed the short patch of green in front of our two-flat. My mother had recently added this chore to my list. While family arrived and bustled with funeral arrangements, it seemed an opportune time to complete her final request. That evening, I drifted off into a hazy fog in the midst of others’ fond memories and the busyness of obligatory phone calls.

I went to bed early. I had school the next day.

“You can stay home,” my father suggested.

I ignored him. It seemed more important to remain dutiful to my grandmother’s words, to control my grief.

The following week, my grandmother’s back was as straight as the wooden pew we sat on as a choir member sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” my mother’s favorite hymn. The reverend praised my mother’s strength through illness, and I struggled to keep myself from shrinking. My grandmother’s smile glistened every time someone extended their arms for a hug or offered condolences. My stomach twisted up in knots. My grandmother’s stoicism was an enigma that commanded reverence. Not only had she advised me not to cry, but I also never saw her mourn. So, I continued the charade. I wondered if she was acting too. I dare not ask.

Every so often, she’d study my face. “Don’t be sad,” she’d advise. “Your mama will always live right here,” she’d say, patting her heart.

But I found the idea inconceivable. Why would someone’s soul want to live in a place of hurt?

After witnessing my grandmother’s unwavering demeanor, I assumed never grieving was the goal. Part of being a woman meant being unaffected, even during the most disturbing conditions.

***

Twenty-one years after my mother’s death, I’d ticked off the college, marriage, and motherhood boxes. I’d made it through young adulthood by feigning apathy and shunning unnecessary emotions. And when my or others’ feelings were too heavy, my words dripped with sarcasm.

“You’ve got that dry humor like your mama used to have,” my grandmother said, admiring the quick-witted tongue I’d inherited. “There’s something to that nurture versus nature thing.”

I beamed when my grandmother praised me in this way. My mother did a great job raising me, and I was doing a great job with my children. My mothering confidence was so high that I took a job in another state, leaving me to independently raise my daughters.

“I’m never gonna like Georgia!” my then nine-year-old daughter whimpered during our first week.

Before our move, she and her father cozied up on the couch and watched an animated series called Justice League. As soon as the intro music began, she’d hop off the cushion, stare at the television, and repeat one of the character’s mottos as if she were reporting for duty with the League.

My husband wasn’t at our new place during the week, so she was stuck with me. Instead of the couch, I sat on the bed and tapped away on my laptop, rarely making eye contact. Instead of listening to superheroes save the world, I howled with laughter as Judge Judy pounded her gavel on the bench and verbally abused plaintiffs and defendants.

“Don’t you miss Daddy?” she asked me one day.

“Yeah,” I said with the strength of my grandmother and mother. “But what do you want me to do? Cry about it?”

She crinkled her small round face, furrowed her brows, then climbed out of bed and went to her room.

I continued typing.

That moment stayed with me. It bothered me that I seemed to have said the wrong words. It bothered me that I didn’t know what to say afterward. Subsequent therapy, self-help, and introspection gave me the whys of my behavior and introduced me to new ways of engagement, but one more step was required to heal—a conversation with my grandmother.

As a forty-something-year-old woman, I was still nervous to ask my grandmother questions that held weight but talking with her was necessary. I found a quiet place in my home and dialed her number, secretly hoping she wouldn’t answer.

“I have a question,” I casually said after pleasantries. “How did you feel losing your oldest daughter?” my voice trembled.

“Kathy,” she started. “Like I told you. Keep your mama in your heart. Your mama has always been in my heart. Before she died, she said, ‘Make sure Kathy’s alright.’ So, I did. No questions.” Her voice trailed off into another topic. Before we hung up, she promised to send a letter to further answer my question.

I read the handwritten letter with anxiousness. Her words outlined how she met her first husband, my mother’s father and how he fought in WWII. The letter detailed how he returned on heroin. it described how my mother was born with club feet and explained why my mother adopted me. But, she did not share how she felt about her daughter’s death.

I folded the letter back into thirds and stored it next to the faded-brown Kipling poem, which sat on my nightstand.

Her answer was clear and asking her to dig deeper was useless. Creating the empathy I desired was my work to do.

Doing the work meant turning to other cultural customs. Yoga, for example, has shown me how to enact self-compassion. Like many Americans, I initially began practicing as a form of exercise. Later, I realized yoga entails more than turning the heat up and twisting yourself into a ball.

“Sthira-Sukha,” the instructor reminds me as I’m standing in a triangle pose. It means, there’s strength in softness.

She encourages me to relax my body to become stronger, especially if the pose is challenging. It is impossible and hurtful to try and hold my arms at an angle for several seconds while locking my knees. The flexibility and power required to practice have nudged me to develop a level of gentleness with myself that I wasn’t raised with. I’ve learned to be in tune with my body in each moment and to become aware of where I can be softer. Poses aren’t intended to be conducted while clenching your teeth and holding your breath. Neither is life. Off the mat, I’ve given myself the permission I’ve been waiting for: permission to feel and release pain. I’ve become softer by crying when necessary and by releasing emotions through deep exhales.

Finding a gentler way to exist has influenced how I interact with my daughters, who are now young ladies. Our conversations reflect a natural place where we can discuss topics with openness. I’ve cultivated spaces where I actively listen to them when they express themselves. No matter what they reveal about their young adult lives, when necessary, I now offer a hug that lingers way too long. When I do this, I tell them I’m making up for all the hugs I should’ve given when they were younger. They roll their eyes at the impossibility. Their bodies are tight with the awkwardness of this new way of being, but they also allow our embrace to remain. Hugs are powerful. I can feel their muscles relax as they allow me to mother them. And in those moments, I hope they’re also learning there’s strength in their own softness.


Illustration by Cassandra Orion
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Filed under: Essay

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K. E. Garland (she/her) is a creative nonfiction writer based in Jacksonville, Florida. She uses personal essays and memoir to de-marginalize women’s experiences with an intent to highlight and humanize issues. Her most notable work is a chapter published in the all-women’s anthology, All the Women in My Family Sing (2018), which personalizes the effects of being an affirmative-action hire. Recently, essays have appeared in the anthology, All about Love (curated by the Lungs Project), the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, PULP Mag, and The Mighty. She is a wife and a mother to two daughters.