Reflecting on what was not said in a session with Leo
Pain of my father's silence, of being home without being seen, let me scoop you up from the place where I buried you. Out in the graveyard, in the cold silky earth, buried in a row of other pains long ignored. I’m kneeling in the dirt, scooping this pain of mine up in one handful, gently placing it into the pain-shaped hole in my heart. It fits perfectly. Pain, you belong with my heart. You are real, completely beautiful, fragile, quivering with the need to be held and loved. I am with you.
In this room, built with my father’s money, even acknowledging my pain – much less speaking of it aloud – feels dangerous. If I am not able to wash away my pain, the whole illusion of family harmony will crumble. I will again be the instigator of drama, the one who “makes a big deal out of everything”, operating with my own needs and nobody else’s in mind. I will become isolated again in my family, which feels like a black hole of hopelessness that may even prevent me from returning to Israel-Palestine. There is a need for harmony at home to go out into the world.
My pain buried, unspoken, ignored. Out of not wanting to cause harm, a belief that I am responsible for the emotions of my father. Out of fear of isolation, of bringing pain into a container not prepared to hold it. I invite my pain to reunite with my heart, hands holding my whole heart, without turning away. What do you want to tell me, pain in my heart?
I am angry at you for ignoring me.
Thank you for seeing me now.
Carry me with you, don’t forget that I’m here.
I see your yearning to connect with your father, Melanie, and it’s beautiful. You are a young child again, trying to do and say only the right things, afraid of messing up, of provoking the roar of anger from arising. And you are an adult, all too aware that your father may not have the capacity to meet his anger, his own pain with a fullness of presence and attention that can heal himself or you. Knowing this, your intention is to tread lightly, to meet him where he is, to not ask for something that he cannot deliver. It is an intention grounded in love and acceptance for who your father is, and a sign of your own maturity and growth. I am very proud of you, dear one.
At the same time, I want to take good care of my pain, the fear I have in being who I am at home. The longing to be seen for my aspirations, for my commitment to deep looking, for the beauty of my heart. Part of me is resigned to the idea that this may never happen fully at home with my blood family. I cannot deny the pain of this realization.
My dad may never acknowledge his pride for my work or for who I am becoming.
I am your daughter, Dad, from your own blood. Why can’t you see me, honor me, celebrate me?
Because I am in pain too.
His unspoken answer arises for me immediately, met by my body with knowing. My father grew up in a Chinese immigrant household where duty to family outweighed individual need. There was no question of obeying one's parents, to do so was one's duty. Perhaps my father feels that I have not upheld my duty to our family, that by choosing to leave San Francisco and move to Palestine against his wishes, I have disrespected him and all he has worked for: my physical safety, financial security, commitment to family above all. His silence now reflects his pain.
I am sad when you ignore me and deny the beauty of my life out of your own pain, Dad.
As I am sure you are sad when I act against your wishes for me.
Perhaps we are doing the same thing, avoiding the recognition of our own pain in parallel silences. His hurt over my disobedience, my hurt over his silence. Pain seen but not spoken of. To avoid causing harm or disrupting harmony at all costs.
The value of harmony in the family is rooted in the land of my grandmother's birth, in a small village in rural China. There, the family unit comes first, and each family member contributes to maintaining harmony. There is no protocol for meeting or resolving difficulty; family members either forgive easily or carry resentment long-term. Nothing is spoken in the open, but whispered, suggested, assumed.
My family continues to act out this ritual: my mother carries the burden of her two aging parents, accepting my father’s aversion to visiting a house with two unruly dogs. My father accepts my mother’s love of e-books and computer games at the kitchen table. My parents outsource the chores they don’t want to handle: housekeeping, cooking, gardening.
Much of the burdens of our household are spirited away with money. My brother, paralyzed by severe anxiety and depression for the past six years, can play video games daily and still afford his boba runs. My other brother addresses his social problems in therapy.
We sweep under the rug things too painful to address, never letting strangers (god forbid) into family affairs. We don't visit my grandparents for Christmas dinner. My uncle is not welcome at my house. My father is silent about my time in Israel-Palestine. He refuses to pick me up from the airport when I return to California or to pay for my car's insurance, but somehow he keeps me on his Amazon Prime plan. I do not ask.
As the oldest daughter, will I be responsible for caring for my aging parents? What will happen when my father and mother die, when I’m left with two brothers and the assets and liabilities of my parents’ lives: a house, money, a list of things unaddressed.
How much of this is a story in my head that I play back when the pain of silence becomes too much to carry? What is true? Am I able to question things as they are, at the risk of causing more pain? At the risk of increasing my isolation? Right now, the stifling constriction in my throat is saying no.
A few years ago I attempted to address some of my needs, asking my parents to meet me in therapy so I could read them a letter I had written about my childhood. The weeks leading up to that meeting were traumatic: my father blamed me for bringing an internal family conflict into a therapist’s office, my mother thought I was making a big deal out of nothing.
During the meeting, I asked my parents about an instance of childhood trauma I have only body memories of, looking for help and clarity. Both of my parents rejected the implication of my body memories, saying in written word: this could never have happened, be careful of the consequences of this accusation. I felt shame for daring to give voice to my trauma.
Some parts of me were soothed by my parents’ response to my letter. My father acknowledged his fear for my brother’s health in infancy, that he had spent more time at my brother’s soccer games. He apologized for his anger and his role in cultivating my feelings of insufficiency. My mother repeated that she had done her best to meet each of her children, loving us all equally. Simple and clear in her understanding that life can be unfair, and that we can and should meet difficulty with consistency, cheer, and acceptance.
I saw my parents more clearly in that meeting than I had ever before.
And I saw their love for me. They showed up, despite their resistance and fear, and did their best in letters to meet me in my pain. In this memory tinged with shame, embarrassment, fear, and rejection, there is also unconditional love.
When I let the love of my parents settle in my body, I see my own aversion to bringing up the pain of silence. I do not want to hurt my father, fragile in body and gentle in spirit, despite any external gruffness. I do not want to hurt myself, to bring up tender wounds in a container not quite stable enough to hold them. In some ways, my silence is a mark of my love.
It is also a mark of my fear. By bringing up my pain, I am afraid that my family will again disregard me as making a big deal out of something small, deem me selfish or inconsiderate, stepping outside of my duty to family. And I am afraid of the dangerous nature of my anger, the kind of anger that wrecks havoc on harmony. Anger, that in the days leading up to my meeting with my parents, created separation between us. Separation that still exists today.
Today in the kitchen, slicing purple cauliflower for lunch, I enjoy the peace of a morning with my parents. My mom is playing games on her tablet, my dad surfing the web on his phone. My two brothers are playing a collaborative video game in separate rooms. Regardless of form, this is intimacy, this quiet ease of being together.
Why risk what is already beautiful?
Until now, I’ve settled on the answer that this peace is enough, that there is nothing to be gained by voicing my pain. That I can and should rest in appreciation and gratitude for my family, to cultivate true acceptance of each person as they are. To recognize my own belonging. For in me I see the love and sacrifice of generations. I see my mom’s wonder, my dad’s steadiness, the privilege of a good education and warm home. I do belong in this family, and it is a belonging that goes beyond choice.
I accept and celebrate the nature of this belonging, and I wonder if something else is possible. A belonging that comes not from where I come from but from who I am now. A full acceptance of my current self and choices.
Dad, how could you ignore me for months, refuse to answer my emails, not acknowledge my own dreams and aspirations?
Daughter, how could you ignore my wishes for you, go off to a foreign country where I cannot protect you, where you cannot be present for our family?
What is wise to do, given who my father is, who I am? Given the tools we have to handle our own emotions, the cultural roots of our silence?
I cannot bury the pain in my heart, and I cannot ignore my father’s pain. His pain is my own, his silence, mine. I carry his love too.
There are no answers but these.