What Comes from Silence
by Melissa Sipin
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
— Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
I sit in the backseat, across from the uncle who molested me at nineteen. No, revise that: twenty. Or was it twenty-one? Twenty-two? I don’t remember. Or was it twenty-three, when I first confessed? Or twenty-four? My memories are blurred. Everything is blurred: the sunlight forces its way through the tinted windows, my father chats in Taglish in the front seat with his new wife, and she sits besides him, quiet, pleasant, submissive, but kind.
It is the day after my father remarried. I have returned to Los Angeles, five years after I left it and my ever-growing family.
The new wife turns to me, holds my hand. Asks: Are you okay, anak? Ready to fly back to Virginia?
I answer back: Yes, inay. I am okay.
She smiles. We will miss you.
I call her inay; it pleases her, and her presence comforts me. She knows I am raging inside but not why. This silence is something we both know, something given almost at birth to Filipina women, ingrained within our bodies like the womb. This silence is the gauntlet among Filipino families. It goes without saying that discomfort, hiya, shame, or disturbance of the happy collective status quo is worse than silence. She tries to comfort me, continues to hold my hand. But I have always defied that silence. It’s why I told my father what his brother did to me. It’s why my father is uncomfortable driving my uncle and me back to their shared apartment building.
So much has changed since I left. The bank foreclosed on my father’s blue house on Neptune Avenue, and after a string of failed rental houses, he finally settled on living in the huge apartment complex my grandaunt owned on Western Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard. A familial village has been built in my absence; after my grandaunt’s rich husband became sick (he owned an empire of apartments and condos in Los Angeles), she took over his company and gave every family member an apartment—but only if they worked for her. My father was angry that he had to beg my grandaunt for an apartment. He’s always said I acted like her: batibot, small but terrible.
It’s why my voice is incessant. I do not stop talking. I am not quiet.
It is how I combat the silence, though my muscles are contracting, though my voice is shrill, though I sit fidgeting, angry I am forced to sit next to the man who molested me while I was asleep. I keep my mouth moving, like a machine gun, like bullets. I ask him normal questions about the weather, about his job as a real-estate agent, about his health, about his weak heart. I keep talking until his silence envelops mine, and not once does he look back at me.
My uncle is hushed. He stares as the cars pass us by. His hands shake. His hair is a mess. His thin glasses hang from his face. His lips are thin and purple, barely visible. He is skinny, too skinny, dying skinning, as if he is about to disappear.
My father asks him, Kuya, you going to the hospital soon? I’m sorry about your car. You gotta go to the hospital soon. The ticker needs to be checked.
My father laughs and turns to me. Well, we’ll drop you, anak, off at the apartment first.
My uncle breathes heavily. His frizzled head has turned into a muted gray, and it shines in the sun. We turn on Western Avenue, toward home.
I try to be strong, annoying, defiant. You couldn’t even walk to the car without heaving, I say to the uncle who molested me. Are you okay? Are you dying?
Three weeks later, he is dead. He’s found alone in his apartment, his young, mail-order girlfriend missing, his desk chair turned toward the bed, his body face-down, his arms clutching his chest, his stench filling the bare, roach-infested apartment. I am thousands of miles away from him, from my father and his new wife who find him.
I receive the text at midnight, my phone blaring in the darkness: Your uncle is gone. He’s dead. He’s gone, he’s gone.
I turn to my sleeping husband, the person who embodies my old and new life at the same time, and without weeping, I tell him, My uncle is dead. I feel the guilt rise from my belly to my throat. He died alone. It was last time I saw him. I pause and do not say what haunts me, and my husband, a man I have loved since age fourteen, who joined the Navy and gave me a ticket out of my family’s poverty, holds me close in silence. It’s a language our Filipino bodies know too well, as if it is the only thing we know how to communicate, to say, to breathe.
Grieving. I am always in a perpetual state of grieving. It’s something I’ve always admitted, something that made my father deem me a lost child. I was always running away when I was young. Most of the time, my father would find me hidden in the shoe closet, my knees bent toward my wet face. He would have to call me out softly, using a whisper, to tell me that I was home, that I was safe, until I crawled out, suddenly smiling. Other times, I ran away with a backpack filled with snacks, Goldfish crackers and Filipino pastries, and my father would find me beyond the rolling gate, sitting behind the wall of cactuses and beside the neighborhood liquor store. It became a game for him. It became my method of survival as an unmothered child.
I’d never heard of the term unmothered until I met my fourth therapist. I told her I didn’t want to die of a perpetual heartbreak. Perpetual loss. A loss I couldn’t name.
Maybe it’s an emptiness inside of me because of my mother, I told her. I found a word that cements it, this emptiness, something that finally names it: saudade. A longing. An engraved hole that was carved in me when my birth mother pushed me into the world and abandoned me a few months later. Saudade: a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Something, someone who may never return.
I was scared I was borderline, but I am not. My therapist diagnosed me with PTSD, with symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and major depression. We sat in her small office in downtown Norfolk. Through her windows you could see the ocean, the small, quaint skyscrapers, the cars lined up along the cobblestone streets.
You are a victim of child abuse, she told me. She is a towering German woman with striking, short blond hair and soft, crescent-shaped eyes. She makes me feel calm. She is maternal, motherly. Something I’ve yearned for.
What you have is PTSD, she said. Children who are abandoned by their mothers experience great feelings of anxiety, abandonment, and negligence. It’s traumatic. Sometimes, I think growing up with one’s mother, even if she is abusive, is in some ways better than having no mother at all. Tell me about her. Your mother.
I’ve told my therapist all about my mother, every inch and myth I know of her. But when I write about her, I stop. There’s a mental blockage. There’s an emptiness that does not want to be spilled. I don’t want to write about my mother. What can I tell you about her: She was young when she gave birth to my sister and me, twenty—no, twenty-one, or maybe twenty-two. My first memory of her is blurred. She was always on the periphery. When she abandoned us, she didn’t leave Carson or Southern California. She simply went back to her mother’s house across town, rarely called, and never showed up on birthdays. But during the scarce times she did visit, she always came bearing gifts—makeup, clothes, bags, or nail polish.
There is one memory that stands out. Once, she took my sister and me to a Chinese restaurant on the Pacific Coast Highway in Torrance. She dyed her hair a dusty blond and was dressed in ripped-up shorts, a tight white tank, and cowboy boots she later gifted to me, since she thought I would eventually grow into them.
This is where she confessed to us: I only married your father because he got me pregnant. So here, here’s a condom. When you have sex, you don’t want to end up like me.
She threw three condoms at us, two for my sister, one for me. I was eight years old. My sister was ten.
I don’t know if this was the start of it, of understanding the kind of grief my mother had, which so resembled mine. From the look of her beautiful, dolled-up face as she threw the condoms at us, her daughters, her unmothered children, it was a convoluted grief, twisted with despair and rage. As the years went by, I continued to see less and less of her, because of my own chagrin, because I refused to see her. The night I introduced her to my now-husband, my childhood love, she brought us to a sushi restaurant, wearing a tiny, backless black dress and a seventyish-year-old white man wrapped around her. He grabbed her ass as we watched from across the table. He eyed me like I was something he could eat up too.
I was ashamed, not of my mother’s voracity or vitality, but of giving in, of letting my now-husband into a world I’d always avoided—the world of my mother. I’d evaded her ever since the condom incident, but I let her in then, when I was sixteen, because I wanted her to meet my boyfriend for the first time. But my adolescent intuition knew I’d made a mistake. I’d shown my boyfriend too much. I’d shown him the terrible desperation I could manifest and become. Her face, again, as that old man groped her from behind, was tinged with desperation and a need to be seen, loved. She has always been a beautiful woman, petite in frame with brown, oval eyes that matched her button nose and her short, constantly dyed hair. I don’t look a thing like her besides our height; we’re both small and disarming. Otherwise, I look like my mestizo father. She was always proud of this fact—that I was light-skinned and had my father’s Spanish nose, as if it were some kind of inheritance. Whiteness, due to her own self-hatred, was something she always admired and lusted for in men.
Am I like her? I asked myself as I went through my own Rolodex of men. But I always returned to my childhood love, a man, who, ironically and cruelly, resembled my father. He loved me, even in his brokenness. He wasn’t a perfect boyfriend. He lied, he led me on, and once, he chose another woman over me because his mother said I was too dramatic—our fights were always theatrical. I imagine my mother’s sadness and despair, each so entangled with the other, developing like a tragic film I thought I had enough power not to repeat, like a horror story I was afraid of becoming.
I sit beside the wall near an outlet, charging my phone, obsessively checking Facebook, refreshing it every minute, and I’m angry. I’m angry with my father.
Anak, you don’t mind, do you? he asks, holding his new wife’s hand.
It is not a question; it is a thinly disguised command. Something my father always does when he feels uncomfortable, when he feels like he is failing, when he feels tied to obedience as the youngest brother, when he feels something called utang na loob, a debt of gratitude, a debt of one’s inner self. It’s something he wishes I, his youngest daughter, had: respect for one’s elders, for one’s community, for one’s familia, without question and with full compliance.
We need to pick up your uncle, he continues. His car broke down on Dolores Street and Main.
We are at a family party in Carson, a suburb of Los Angeles. I haven’t been back home for years. Family members accost me, aunties grabbing my shoulders, asking where I’ve gone off to, whom I’m married to, why I left.
My face answers my father: I am red, cross, silent. He knows what his brother did to me. He knows. But it doesn’t matter. Utang na loob. My father and his wife leave, to complete their debt to my father’s brother.
The words my father said after I had finally confessed his brother’s sins come back like the flood: I don’t know why he would do that, anak. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.
I don’t. The repetitions haunt me. My phone does not refresh. It’s dying, and I want to throw it against the wall. I have an hour or so before my flight takes off, so I’m sitting on the floor, impatiently waiting to return across the country, away from my father, away from my memories, back to a city where I am mostly alone and my Navy husband awaits me. He loves me, I remind myself. I don’t seem to believe it.
I look back at my phone, which is charging at a turtle’s pace. I flash back to my uncle, to when I was nineteen, no eighteen, no twenty, when I awoke to him cradling his penis, moaning above me, his hand an inch above my exposed breast. In my heavy sleep, my uncle had taken off my shirt, and I lay on my father’s living-room couch half-naked, with him hovering over me, a man who looked like my father, a man who once acted like a second father figure.
I turn off the memory, turn away from him, his heaving, his cigarette-incensed breath. I am folded into the fetal position on my father’s living-room couch. I am back at the airport. I am twenty-seven years old, when returning home erased every age I ever was, and I collapse into a child again.
I do not weep. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.
I never had a name for what I did whenever I was pained, triggered, or felt abandoned, but the symptoms, the consequences were always the same: I became overwrought, emotional, like a weeping child. My therapist called it PTSD. Another therapist described it in Freudian terms: that the ego, if it has grown immaturely, reverts back to the time it was harmed, mangled, distorted. It was as if a moment, a tone, a voice, a look, from a stranger or from a friend, especially if it were mean-spirited, could force the ego to be eight years old again, kicking and screaming and hiding in shoe closets whenever it was triggered. When a writer friend explained to me that she, too, was unmothered, she urged me to listen to Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s Warming the Stone Child: Myths & Stories about Abandonment and the Unmothered Child.
Estés uses fairytales, folklore, and mythology to explain what she calls “the unmothered child within.” Abandoned children grow up without an internal mother, a guide who directs and protects them against the throngs of negativity and chaos on the outside. Because of this, the unmothered child develops a heightened sense, a heightened understanding of what comes from silence—call it emotional intelligence, intuition, or empathy:
And I will tell you frankly that most of the people who are the greatest healers living on the face of this earth are unmothered children. One of the great gifts of the unmothered child—and also the healer, and the writer and the musician and all those in the arts who live so close with their ear against the heartbeat of the archetypal unconscious—one of their strongest aspects is intuition.
Estés uses the German fable of Little Red Cap to demonstrate an orphan child’s clairvoyance: as she sits on the bed with the great, big, bad wolf dressed as her grandmother, whom she has never met before, Little Red Cap senses there is something amiss. So she strikes a deal with the wolf—she ties a string around her ankle as she steps outside to use the restroom, for fresh air. But once outside, Little Red Cap takes off—slips out of the string and saves herself from her own doom. There was no hunter with a shotgun who came to her rescue and killed the wolf in the original fable. Little Red Cap saved herself.
Estés, a Jungian psychoanalyst, breaks down the fable even further. According to Jung, every part of a dream, myth, or fable is part of the psyche. Little Red Cap is an orphan child’s intuition; the big, bad wolf is the negative, shrouded, and dangerous voices that threaten and trick the orphan child; and the eaten grandmother, who never meets her grandchild, is the thing within that is missing, the emptiness that is consumed by the wolf’s rage and hunger.
In a sense, folklores and myths are part of a collective psyche, a culture’s shared consciousness, our way to pass down utang na loob and kapwa—the value of togetherness. Maybe this is why, when I was a child, my grandmother would tell me this Filipino myth that haunted my dreams and perturbed my waking moments every time darkness fell. It is the story of the aswang, a vampiric, witch-like ghoul. The fable goes like this: Aswangs are shape-shifters. They live among the townspeople. In their human form, they are quiet, shy, and elusive. At night, they transform into many creatures of their choosing: cat, bat, bird, boar, or, most often, a dog. They enjoy feasting on unborn fetuses and small children, favoring livers and hearts. Some have long proboscises, which they use to suck children out of their mothers’ wombs. Some are so thin they can hide behind a bamboo post. At night, many are separated from their legs, and their upper bodies fly into the night, filled with bloodlust. They are fast and noiseless. Others make noises in their silences: tik-tik-tik.
But the hidden fable, the forgotten fable, the destroyed fable of the aswangs is this: they were the priestess-rulers, healers of their tribes, who vehemently opposed the Spanish when they came to the islands in 1521. They were called babaylans. The Spanish friars, to condemn and steal the power of the babaylans, spread around the myth that these women would transform when darkness fell and become aswangs, baby-eating demons who were torn within, who split in halves when the moon shone and their true, damaged selves emerged. It worked. The myth of the aswang is resilient; they are still feared by many in the Philippines, and my grandmother would use this myth to scare me at night, to warn me. If I become anything like my mother—elusive, quiet, shy, a querida who runs away from her children to save her own hide—then I, too, like my mother, would become an aswang. A broken, torn woman who flies endlessly in the night, alone, without hope, without sustenance, always flailing about like a lost, hungry child.
Estés gave me another term, another framework to describe what I did whenever I became incessant: collapsing.
Collapsing is where, when someone is angry with you or someone acts in a way towards you that is quite negative, instead of remaining as an adult with adult responses, one goes into a psychic regression and gets hooked—so to speak with a fish hook—on very old feelings: feelings of being worthless, of being unprotected, of not knowing what to do next. Of wishing to be invisible, wishing to even die, in order to avoid the terrible pain of rejection and separation one feels.
I think of my father. Did he collapse the night I told him his brother touched and undressed me in my sleep? Was he confused? Did he revert back to his eight-year-old self, who thought his older brother was the king of the world, was everything he wanted to be? I don’t know why he would do that. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t. His body shivered as he said it, his face turned from me, his arching white face, bleached from papaya soap, sad and wrinkled.
I think of my uncle. How, the night before he molested me, he caught me at the side door and asked if I had any money, urging me to give him cash now, that he’d pay me back, that his real-estate job wasn’t so hot, wasn’t going too well, that he wasn’t going to gamble the money away like all my aunties and uncles said he would. Was he collapsing when he molested me?
I think of my mother, the aswang. I look at all the old photos my grandmother kept of me. I never had baby albums. My sister did. She was their first child, something they didn’t expect but wanted to love. I was the second accident. I turn each photo of my mother and me: her laughing face, her carrying me with anxiety, her crumpled-up nose when I kept crying during a trip to see the Golden Gate Bridge. I turn the picture over. It’s dated August 1988. Four months after I was born. A few days before she left for good.
My mother, in one of her angry tirades, confessed that she, too, was unmothered. She was the middle child of her parents. Her father had two wives and twenty-two children. She was of the second wife, born somewhere in the middle, and between the insults she hurled at my sister and me, she said her mother forced her to become a call girl, a slut, a whore. Her mother marketed her for money. My mother’s family, I heard, was always low on money. I don’t know if this was true. But from the origin stories I’ve heard of my mother, it fit the bill. Her first husband, my father, cheated on her with my half-brother’s mother, so she left a few months after I was born and married a white man who took her to Hawaii. She gave him two beautiful, biracial daughters, and because, somehow, Filipino families keep in touch with each other, my aunties nicknamed the daughters after my sister and me: “Little Rachel” and “Little Melissa.” My mother’s second husband died of a drug overdose on a family trip to Hawaii. I always imagined he died in the ocean, face down, his back burnt and orange from the sun, the water rushing into his lungs as he floated away toward the horizon, a kind of freedom. This was the first time I learned about death, about suicide. The tsismis, the family gossip, rumored that he was depressed. Those puti people, my father once said, killing themselves over emotions. What about their family? What about the people they leave behind, the people they’ve shamed? What selfishness.
I must have been eight or nine when he said this. I must have been hiding in closets. I must have been running away with Goldfish snacks in my backpack by that time. He looked at me with eyes that condemned me: Anak, why do you act so sad? It’s like you’re puti. As if you deserve better than this, than us. We’re your familia, anak. We love you.
This was the truth of things: though I was unmothered, though my mother saw me only briefly growing up and crowded my childhood with her tragedies, there was love in my life. I don’t know if my mother ever had love. Her beautiful, biracial children ended up with their father’s family, who blamed their son’s suicide on my mother. After that, she had an affair with her white boss, a Toyota salesman, and birthed him a son she eventually abandoned. Her third lover was a womanizer, and he too died in a body of water. It was a yacht accident. He took his mistress on a date, they slept on his boat, and once it was dark, he decided to take a swim, alone. He didn’t notice the yacht was not anchored, that it kept drifting away inch by inch until it was too late, until he was gasping for air, until his sleeping mistress was miles away and the water devoured him. His family, in their grief, also took the son away from my mother.
Unlike her, I had love. Incessant, dysfunctional, untamable love, love that demanded that I know it existed, whether it was from my endearing father or my tyrant grandmother, his mother, who raised me. It was the only love I knew how to give—needy, crazed, defiant, but love nonetheless.
There has been love that sustained me, I told my therapist.
She nodded and continued my thoughts: It’s why you’ve come so far. You could have ended up any other way.
It’s my grandmother, I replied. I am only here because of her.
My grandmother was a fire. I learned my defiance from her, the wife of a Filipino major in the US Army Forces, Far East, a prisoner of war during World War II, a woman who single-handedly brought most of her siblings and children to the United States under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. She was the woman who taught me to own my voice, to speak when silence became drowning, despite the pots and pans she threw at me when my sister snuck out at night or the bullet-like insults she’d hurl at me when she caught me at fourteen kissing my now-husband, my childhood love: querida, maharot, slut, whore. She reminded me that I was loved, that she wanted to be loved. Maybe I learned every explosive tendency from her, from the way she would beat her chest any time she thought I had failed her, her fist hurling toward her heart over and over, her head raised to the whitewashed apartment ceiling, performing the sign of the cross: Diyos ko, Lord, Father, who art in heaven, what kind of home is this? Take me now, take my life now.
But she left her love around the numerous houses and apartments we moved into and packed up. Growing up, we were always moving in with this uncle, this aunt, that relative, those church friends. It was my grandmother who always ensured we weren’t homeless. I even lived with the uncle who molested me in my youth, and not once did he try to touch or undress me under my grandmother’s hawk-like surveillance.
Once, when that uncle was living with us on Ravenna Avenue, he brought along his son, who was close to my age, a son he repeatedly beat and threatened, a son who became my close brother, someone I love dearly. He, too, escaped Los Angeles, running away with his mother to Hawaii, far away from his father and his beatings. I remember my grandmother left my cousin and me at home to go grocery shopping, to buy us milk and cereal and cookies. Hours passed (she was an obsessive coupon shopper, saving money at every corner because of our poverty), and we noticed there was light coming from the kitchen. My grandmother had left a pot on the stove, and it was burning. My cousin and I were both young. My older sister at drill team practice, our fathers at work, our grandmother at the grocery store. We were afraid and at a loss for what to do to put out the fire, so he filled another pot with water and threw it on the raging stove. It exploded. We ducked under the table. I held him tight. The water evaporated, and the ceilings and the walls were blackened with ash. We survived. To this day, I described this as the genesis of my phobia for fire, the mark and embodiment of my childhood, of how my family taught us how to love. We protected each other despite our failings, despite our mistakes, our angry voices, our need to be seen, our negligence, our abuses. But I knew it was not enough. So did my cousin-brother. And so we left, escaped as far as we could to the corners of America—him to Hawaii, me to Virginia.
I think of my mother’s second husband who killed himself, his body face down, the ocean swallowing him up in a kind of paradise. Was he escaping his family too? It was a lingering damnation that followed me, no matter how far I traveled from my father or my mother or that uncle: Will I want that one day? An ocean around me, the chance to forget myself, the chance to repeat the things my grandmother always threatened when she felt unloved, the will to commit something that could end the emptiness within: Diyos ko, Lord, Father, who art in heaven, take me now, take my life now.
It’s days after my uncle died, cold and alone in his apartment, thousand of miles away, and my husband and I fight. I picked the fight with him. I’m angry, lost, enraged at something I can’t name. I collapse and hurl every insult I know could sting. I’m anxiety nervosa, and he stands there, takes it in, just like my father, his eyes darkened toward the floor and his back turned from me, not knowing how to calm me, how to fix me. We’re collapsing. It’s one of those long, unending fights where we don’t know what we’re fighting about: his silence when I told him my uncle died, my anger that my uncle died, his incessant efforts to show me I’m loved, or that none of it was enough.
In my head, I imagine that I build a wall. That I’m a dark, sickly creature skinny as bones, cut in half at the torso. I am the aswang. I transform into a cat, a bird, a dog, a werewolf. I scratch and claw myself. My hide is made of razors. I build this wall like a fortress, like a prison, like an escape route, so much that can I see myself in third person. I keep building until the only thing I can see is my eye: I am the eye, I see the eye, I screech and yell, tik-tik-tik, the wall is a cage, and slowly I place enough blocks where the eye is hidden and the creature that is me cements the final hole and I am engulfed in darkness.
I tell my husband to leave. He does.
A memory flashes: I am fourteen or fifteen or sixteen again, having a tantrum, collapsing like a child, angry that my now-husband left me for another woman, because I was a woman he couldn’t handle. I grab an extension cord in his dimly lit room and begin to choke myself with it. For attention. I was always dramatic. I was always needy. It was my version of beating my chest, of saying Diyos ko, Lord, Father, who art in heaven. In that memory, my now-husband leaves me. We break up. We go our separate ways. I end up in college, he ends up in the military, but we find our way back to each other, always yearning. But we are older now, no longer fourteen or fifteen or sixteen again, and I do not claw at myself, do not pick up an extension chord, do not beat my chest and cry out for God.
In my silence, I choose not to become the aswang. I choose to meld my two halves—the abandoned child within me and the adult who continues to stand—and promise not to transform, become something I am not, any longer. Maybe I have always been unbecoming, unraveling like a once-closed fist, becoming less of what my mother left me and more of what I always was: not alone, but wanted, not abandoned, but cherished and held dear, in mercy, in love.
I think of my mother’s name. Mercedita. Mercy. I think of the sound of my mother’s name, slow and sweet and heavy. It means a thousand things, and at the same time, it’s the embodiment of silence and acceptance.
My husband returns. He is not like before. He is not the boy who leaves the choking girl. He insists that I know he loves me. He carries me like a weeping child, the way my father used to carry my sister and me, when my father used to say he was a tree, that we were his, that we were safe. My husband carries me and I ask him, I beg to know if he needs me. He replies that he does, and it’s the first time I let myself break down the wall. I let him in, and I believe him this time, and the next time I collapse again, I say to him: I need to be loved. And he says back: And you are, you are, you are.