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“Can we go a day without crying?” my thought’s tone betrays my annoyance at him, where compassionate concern should probably reside.

Then I flash to a time, nearly eight years ago now – my goodness, is that right? (My breath catches at times’ fluidity under my feet.) I remember the same question forming in my mind while watching my oldest son, who was four, maybe five at the time, have yet another meltdown. I vaguely remember the exhaustion he produced in me; so much energy spent – both his in his crying and mine in my deciphering. Every day, it seemed, there had to be tears.

Eight years later, here I am again. Only this one is eight, not almost five. And what is so ingratiating about his crying is that I often don’t hear the nuances of his tones. I can’t always discern the amount and type of attention (if any) needed.

A mother should know these things, shouldn’t she?

I don’t remember the moment I realized that I knew my babies’ cries. I remember worrying while pregnant with my first, that somehow, I would fall short as a mother, and it would be because I couldn’t distinguish the tone of their cries and respond accordingly.

“Oh my, Honey,” the nursery room nurse cooed to me as I changed my son’s first diaper. “You act like you’ve done this your whole life! You’re a natural. And look at that! You already know how to cradle his head and hold him to you. My, oh my.”

Maybe the crying thing would be instinctive, too.

Turns out, it was – or at least it has the feeling of being instinctive. But now I wonder: was it instinct or simply time spent together from day one? And not only that, but in each one of my boys lived the happy freedom to express their needs and have expressed needs met. They were allowed plenty of time, space and safety to develop their particular “cries.”

Not inconsequentially, this time allowed me to develop the correct response – melting compassionate concern over a real hurt, or firmness and a little “suck-it-up” over a perceived injustice. Time fine-tuned all us: them in the nuances of their crying and me in perceiving and responding to the underlying meaning.

But what if those cries aren’t ever heard and answered? What if every wail simply screams into empty space; the sounds carried on invisible waves, never reaching the shore of another’s ears?

In the answer space of my question, I see a child with only one crying pitch: that of frantic. The child looks suspiciously like my own. His wails come at me and I see him, before I know him, standing alone on a dirty road; his broken oversized sandals caked the same earth tones as his barely visible toes. He is surrounded by people strolling past him – maybe even bumping into him now and again – as he cries and drools. The tears and slobber cut clean lines down his dusty face. No one stops. No one answers him. There are other children around him, either ignoring or taunting him.

I hear him. I hear him before I know him. His frantic wail has not fallen on deaf ears. Just ears too far away to matter.

Yesterday afternoon, from my upstairs bedroom, my writing was interrupted by his cry outside. I stopped, frowned and leaned toward my backyard window. He was playing football with all his siblings and some neighborhood friends. The cry had more of a yelling quality, muted in its tone with a quick upswing at the end of each breath, holding for affect then dropping suddenly to start the process over again. As quickly as the cry began, it was gone. In its place I heard his high pitched and feverish arguments against some perceived injustice keeping him from victory.

Yep. That’s what I thought. He’s just mad over a call. I realize I’m beginning to feel comfortable in his crying territory and I appreciate his ever-developing variations. Less than five minutes later, I hear this same wailing again.

I keep writing.