Sense of Strength

My cousin buried her reddened eyes into the palms of her hands. Her black curly hair spilling over her, showering her with its grace. The church was crowded and loud, but darkened with a heavy silence that weighed on the shoulders of the living. Perhaps the loudest silence came from the heartbroken sobs coming out of my younger cousin, a usually bright and giggly kid. Her bright clothes directly contradicted the expressions of her face as she pressed her hands so tightly to her that I thought if she removed them there would be imprints of palms pressed onto her cheeks and eyes. Tears still streamed down her face as I opened my mouth to share my half baked wisdom when an uncle patted her on the back and said “Be strong.”

Those few words swept me into a violent current down a river of rage. It sent me back to times where I had heard those words, or told myself the same, and it angered me that he had noted her tears were a sign of weakness. Something I had believed for most years of my life.

Leading up to this day, that I knew would be filled with heartbreak, I felt the presence of this overwhelmingly large question: what does it mean to be strong?

For me, strength had been shown by example growing up. My family and those who raised me endured hardship but instilled in my sister and I that perseverance was simply in our blood flowing and garnered from those before us.

I never doubted for a moment that I wasn’t strong.

But the largely vague definition had led to me learning a narrative that had nothing to do with strength: that expressing too much emotion and not being able to handle them by yourself was a sign of weakness. Growing up, somewhere along the lines, I specifically associated crying with weakness. These tears that left my eyes showed the world my limits. The less I shed, the more drought I created in the lake of life, the stronger I proved to the world.

I learned to follow the rules of what I thought being strong was instead of letting myself flourish and grow into my own strength.

As I tumbled down the river’s violent currents, I came upon a moment steeped in deja vu. I was at an event similar to this, near a church, some a hundred sobbing faces. I remember sweating in my itchy Indian attire and crying as I stood holding my sides. A chechi (translates to older sister: a term out of respect) came from behind and engulfed me in her arms. I hadn’t seen her in five or six years, I wasn’t even sure if she remembered my name.

She held me as I stood there and cried and didn’t need to say a word. As if her soul had silenced me with comfort and nurturing. She didn’t need anything in return, she didn’t have to be there for me at that moment, she could’ve walked underneath the shade of a tree but instead she directly walked under the blistering Texas heat to where I stood.

She walked into the sun to hold me. Even with no words, she had everything I needed to hear.

I had been riding the waves of strength for what felt like centuries, unknowing of what it exactly was. I felt tossed around and sinking in the currents of what this power was. I felt weak and inarticulate in trying to search for a real meaning for this term. As if I was swimming blind folded. I was searching for a waterfall. A drop, a rush, an aha moment that led me to the answers of what this word was.

As I held my cousin, the word seemed a little clearer.

Strength is being brave enough to be there for those who need it. It’s being brave enough to express every crevice of your being. Strength is standing up for others. Strength is crying, it’s laughing, it’s grieving, it’s knowing who you are and being proud of the syllables that spell out your name.

For a second, as I saw her tears and remembered mine, a few drops of knowledge were poured into my incredibly shallow stream of my sixteen years of wisdom.

As my cousin continued to hide her face, I placed my hand on her back underneath the tie of her salwar kameez. Another hand I placed on her shoulder, the incense of the church surrounding us like halos, light peering in through the windows as if it was trying to get a glimpse of the scene. I whispered all that I had learned to my baby cousin: “You don’t have to hide, you don’t have to be strong with me.”