The first communications regarding my father’s diagnosis came as a series of texts and missed calls delivered in staccato notes between my younger sister and me. Now, over a month later, the rhythm of shared information hasn’t changed much. Even stories about the mundane, arguably banal, flow of my parent’s everyday life seems to have been choked at the source. As I result, there are giant gaps in the narrative that we have tried to construct.
A recent email from my sister was succinct; satisfyingly full of facts regarding treatments, but devoid of insight regarding the emotional state of my parents. My sister seems uncharacteristically distracted and, dare I say it, disinterested.
I am a fickle and lazy correspondent, but I require no more than the few stripped down, telegraphed phrases gathered from 30-second telephone calls from my mom and the handful of four word sentences from my dad to know that they are not handling the emotional turbulence well. I can decode that my father has over-reacted and his usual mode of coping will alienate his physicians and make my mom’s life hell. I also know, that my father deals with his stress by becoming overbearing and I also know, without being told, that my mother finds this situation unbearable, but lacks insight or the skill to manage my father’s intractable nature.
The physical cancer can be treated in a rational, logical way, but the manner in which my parents are handling the stress will kill them. I resist the impulse to mediate partly because I feel unequal to the task and nonplussed by their inability to sort this out after 43 years of marriage.
I heard on a radio show that there’s this strange phenomenon some people experience when they fly in a plane. They get extremely emotional and even the most stoic travelers struggle to hold back tears when they watch cheesy in-flight movies – even commercials about overwrought expats who’ve lost their credit card send these people over the emotional edge.
I can relate to that.
Whenever I leave my parents’ house after a weekend visit, something overcomes me. I can’t ignore the crushing guilt and anxiety I feel. I can barely get to the freeway onramp without crying just a little. The thought behind this, the one that hits me the second I pull out of the driveway is: I could have been better.
I could have stayed longer and kept their company for a few more hours. I could have sat in the family room and watched TV with them instead of hiding in my room. I could have gone out to dinner with them instead of succumbing to my discomfort and taking off as quickly as possible. I could have resisted the urge to talk back to my dad for a relatively innocuous comment he made. I could have said “thank you” for washing my car – something he does every time I visit without fail. I could have told my mom how beautiful I think she is – something she probably stopped hearing decades ago. I could have let down my many, many walls of defense and had an actual conversation. I could have been nice.
Here are the things I wish I could say to them: Thank you. For everything. Thanks for making the crazy journey to come to this country so their kids – who weren’t even born yet – could have the best opportunities in life. Thank you for teaching us to be hardworking, intelligent, confident, and funny people. Thank you for finally letting me decide my own future, as much as they wish that I’d chosen a different path. Most of all, I wish I could say “I love you” because maybe that would cover everything. And this is what keeps me up at night: That I can’t say these things. That my parents might leave this earth never hearing the gratitude that should be sung from the mountains into eternity. That there could exist a world without them.
Eventually I fall asleep. Flights land, cars pull up to homes-away-from-home, and life goes on. Tears dry and I breathe.
Boys. Boyfriends. Husbands. Marriage.
When it comes to my family, romantic relationships don’t exist.
It’s not like my sisters and I have never had boyfriends. We’ve each had our share of relationships—serious or and not so serious—but we just don’t talk about them with our parents. Sure, they come over for the holidays, they try very hard to impress our father, they even stay the night. We just don’t call them what they are. If anything, they’re referred to as “friends.”
Unlike some parents who pester their children to get married and have children, my parents never addressed this topic—ever. When I was younger, I fantasized about what names I’d give my children—you know, like any middle school-aged kid does. One day, while driving in the car with my mother and father, I casually mentioned that I’d love to name my daughter Everett, so her nickname would be Eve (stupid, I know). Instead of playing along, my father immediately spat out “Why are you thinking about this? Why aren’t you thinking about your career?” I was 12.
I learned very quickly that idle thoughts about future families or relationships were not welcome. Career was king.
What makes me most sad about this is that my parents are a wealth of information about everything. They don’t hesitate to give advice (or, until recently, demands) about my choices when it comes to my education, my job, my housing situation, what bank I should patron, what foods I should or shouldn’t eat, if my hair looks too messy to leave the house. A lot of times, I’m annoyed that they give me unsolicited advice, but at the end of the day, I trust their words over anyone else’s.
But when it comes to relationships, they’re silent. Instead, I get all of my relationship advice from TV and movies, which I’ve found paint extremely unrealistic pictures of relationships and expectations, and friends who, let’s face it, are trying to figure it out for themselves.
I know that no matter how much advice you get from your parents about relationships, heartache is inevitable. And I have suffered my share. I’ve learned things the hard way and put myself back together with the help of friends. I might have become better for it.
But still there’s this huge blind spot. I wish I could hear what they have to say.
I felt ugly. For as long as I could remember that’s how I felt. I didn’t know where the thought originated. It wasn’t as if someone ever said to my face, it was just a fact that I came to accept, that I would recite to myself in the mirror. I made a subconscious decision that if I couldn’t be beautiful like the friends I had grown up with, I would at least be the best I could at what I knew came naturally for me—school.
My freshman year of college was the first time I actually came to confront these feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. For the first time, I was surrounded by oceans of people smarter than me. All the studying in the world seemed to account for nothing. I had nothing to turn to define me or make me feel better about myself. I realized the stark reality that I my intellect could not assuage my lack of self-worth and low self esteem. I realized the futility of seeking my worth in what other people thought of me, the accolades, the As, etc. I realized for the first time I was working for others affections, working for them to notice me, and everything that I had built myself up as actually meant absolutely nothing. It was here that I had to confront the painful truth that academic accomplishment had only shielded me for a time.
Freshman year of college I verbalized for the first time in my life, the lie that I had lived under for as long as I could remember—the lie that I was ugly. And when I finally uttered those words to another human being, I actually felt its power begin to break over my life. It was as if I was blind to it this whole time, and when I finally was able to name it, and recognize it as a lie, that I began to get free from it. I began to cry when I said it, and simultaneously I realized that I had not cried for over a decade. Somewhere down the line I had stopped feeling because I was taught that my emotions didn’t mean anything.
That same year I had two repressed memories come back to me. The first was recalling that I had been molested by my older half-brother when I was 9 years old. And the second was of my mother would put me in front of a mirror whenever I cried as a child, and telling me I was ugly. It was painfully difficult to reckon with these truths and spent much of undergrad seeking out counseling and healing from these deep wounds. I mention these incidents because my path to realizing my own beauty, worth, and self confidence came only as a result of working through these painful things. For once I knew the obstacle of loving myself was rooted to specific times in my past where I felt particularly unloved and unlovely. I found freedom in knowing that my feelings of ugliness and paralysis came from somewhere, from incidents in my past that had allowed insidious lies to creep in.
I began to see my family in a different light. I saw how my mother’s way of getting me to stop crying was inextricably linked to the ways she had trained herself to cope with her husband’s infidelity. I saw how my brother’s sexual perversion stemmed from his own lack of receiving love from our father, and the ways that we were all intertwined in cycles of sexual perversion so pervasive in Filipino families.
Almost a decade later, I know that I am free because I have fought to break the silence over these hidden things that were never (and still not) ok to mention to my family. I have found that I am not alone in my pain or in my experiences and have garnered hope through those who have dealt with similar issues. I was able to overcome because I had friends come alongside and help me process my emotions. It meant the world to have the support of women who had struggled with similar issues. They taught me to live victoriously instead of wallow as a victim in self-pity. I found solace and hope in knowing that I was not alone and I learned the power and importance of speaking out about what was considered shameful. I know that I am free because the conscious decision I make to choose the truth that I was created beautiful inside and out, especially on days when I don’t particularly feel it.
Over the years I have had the honor of helping many women who are struggling with eating disorders, the same issues of loving themselves, and feelings of insecurity about their bodies. Many times women have confided in me about their experiences of sexual abuse and are surprised to find that they are not alone, that someone actually understands how they feel and has learned to contend for truth over the lies. I know that I have freedom from these lies so I can help set others free. When I speak about my experience, I know it begins to break the silence for those who have been unable to speak about their experiences.