A friend of mine lost his son abroad, a very tragic thing, as you would well imagine. We were at the cargo terminal of the Douala International Airport to wait for his mortal remains. Yes, the young man had become mere cargo!
When my friend and his family arrived shortly after us, I felt awkward, not quite knowing what to say to him. I also noticed the same feeling of unease among other friends, who greeted him, said a few words of consolation, and then drifted away in small groups to talk uneasily about one thing or another.
Soon, our friend was left standing by himself a distance away. I was wondering what to do next when an elderly woman came up to me and said, “Pa, make wuna no leave wuna friend he one, ooh. Go hold he hand, ah beg.” It was as if a knife had just been put through the rope that was holding me in place.
I walked up to him, took him by the hand and led him to an empty seat by the corner. We sat down and I was still not sure what to say to him. Without a word, I merely put my hand on his shoulder, squeezed it gently and felt a shudder run through his body. He then turned his head towards me, looked at me for a few seconds and then buried his face in my shoulder. It was then I felt a torrent of hot tears drenching my shoulder and running down my right arm. I heard him sobbing, violently at first, then the sobs began to die down. I kept tapping him gently on the shoulder, still not sure of what to say. I decided that words were not appropriate at that moment. When he finally lifted his head, I reached into my pocket and took out some paper tissue, which I handed to him. I also felt my nose clogging up, which is always a prelude to a flood of tears, which I also let flow, albeit less audibly.
He looked at me and, in a voice full of embarrassment, said he was sorry his tears had dampened my clothes. I again tapped him gently on his back and told him not to worry about it. “Without your tears, I would still be dripping with the sweat from the hot, damp Douala weather anyway.” He said that was true and we burst out laughing; with that, I saw him sit upright and I could literally see the tension and stress of a few minutes earlier disappearing from his body, and I was glad I had given him my shoulder to cry on.
This brought to mind a story I read on social media of a four or five-year old boy who had gone to a neighbour’s house. The man had just lost his wife and was in great pain. The kid climbed on the man’s lap as he wept, said nothing to him and just sat there for a long time. When he came back home, his mother, who had seen him sitting on the man’s lap, asked him why he did it. The kid’s answer was simple: “I was helping him to cry”. In his own way, he had given the old man his shoulder to cry on.
Contrary to what many may think, crying is therapeutic. I believe it was the American President, Abraham Lincoln, who once wrote to his son’s teacher with a number of recommendations, among which is my favorite: “Tell him that there is nothing wrong in crying”. Indeed, let the flood of tears flow and the result is always a feeling of great relief.
In many Cameroonian societies, however, it is almost unthinkable for a man to be seen shedding tears, especially in public. But shedding tears, whether in private or in public, is curative. It lightens the soul and the mind. Wherever and whenever possible, give your shoulder to someone to cry on. You would be doing them a great favor.
Douala, June 17, 2016