Filling the Silence
by Lynnly Damm
Runestone, volume 4
I’m sitting at a campfire with my dad on a warm, late-summer evening in Colorado. We’ve just finished a nine-mile hike, and even though he doesn’t always approve, we’re passing a tiny bottle of Jim Beam back and forth to dull the pain in our aching legs. He grimaces at each sip like it burns, like it’s not something he’s been doing nearly every day of his adult life, and I grimace at each sip because it forces my clenched jaw to unlock, and because I’m hoping the liquor will help the words I’ve tried to say for the last year come out.
When he decides we’ve had enough, he puts it away in a brown-paper bag and sets it at his side, and I suck a breath in between my shivering teeth.
“Dad,” I tell him, and I can see as his leg, the only thing I can see as I refuse to look at him, tense. “About me and Ema.”
“Go on,” he says, flat-toned. Maybe a little too quickly.
I remember waving my hand, as if hoping the gesture conveys what’s so hard to say: that the woman whom I’m referring to is my girlfriend, that she has been for nearly a year. The words don’t come out. It’s ridiculous, especially because she’s not ten feet away, messing with something in the car. I need to tell him, and it has to be now, before she gets back and has to be a part of the conversation. I hate the silence choking me.
“I’m sure you know,” I say, finally. “But—“
“I know,” he says. “But you can say it if you want to.”
I don’t. Well, I do—I want to share it with him. It’s big news, and it feels like the best thing that’s ever happened to me, but the problem is that I’m sharing it with him, and that feels impossibly hard to do. There’s a lifetime of instincts telling me not to do it—don’t talk about it, say as few words as possible to get the point across, and move on. He pats my knee and gets up to put the whiskey into his truck, then ambles away to the bathroom. When Ema comes over, I tell her, shame-faced, my bungled admission, and she shrugs. She knows that my heart isn’t pounding because we’re queer, or because I’m ashamed of us. After a year of being together, she understands how my family is.
If there’s one rule to my family, it’s this: never, ever talk directly about anything that could be considered unpleasant. Talk around it, blame it on something else, or better yet, bury it. Whatever you do, just don’t talk about it. When my cousin was in middle school, she unexplainably collapsed one day in class. When she woke up, she began having intensifying panic attacks about the event and what she described as the experience of her consciousness being separated from her body and not having control over it. They got so bad that she was hospitalized for several months. These panic attacks went on for years, until her doctor finally prescribed her medication and she began attending therapy for her anxiety.
At the time, my cousin was my closest friend, but we didn’t live near one another. Our grandparents, usually my direct families only contact to hers, told us only that she was in the hospital. Eventually, they told us that she had photosensitive epilepsy, and that was the reason for the hospitalization. They told us she was “fine now” but very sensitive about the subject. They told us not to talk to her about it. I didn’t. The next time I saw her, we talked about everything else. Eventually, I forgot about it, but I was always careful when we played video games, or anything else that could possibly trigger her photosensitivity.
I believed this misdiagnosis of my best friend for almost four years before it finally came up. We were playing video games together on my birthday, and we were probably about sixteen. I can’t remember what we were playing, but whatever it was, we lost. She threw herself backwards dramatically in frustration and ended up falling off the edge of the bed and hitting her head. She did things like this all the time, but right then, all I could see was her reacting to the game’s flashing lights. I didn’t know anything about epilepsy except for the warnings on games, so her reaction terrified me. I rushed to her side, hating that we were alone and that I didn’t know how to help, but my horror only made her laugh. She thought I was just overreacting, the same way she had been.
It wasn’t until I asked if she was okay two or three more times that she finally caught on that it wasn’t about her falling off the bed. When I finally asked if she felt alright, she asked what I meant and I told her that I’d heard about her, what my mother called, “condition”. I was afraid of telling her what I knew, because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings or make her self-conscious. Being sixteen, we both knew too much about what that felt like already.
She was completely confused by my question. Not only did she not have epilepsy, but she was never in her life considered to possibly have epilepsy. When I told her what my grandparents had said, and about her being “fine now”, she was upset. She’d been told, after her last episode, that because of her generalized anxiety she’d probably need to stay on her medication for years, at the very least. As of today, after years of hating the side effects and trying to “wean herself off of it”, she’s still taking it.
Her anxiety wasn’t something that she’d come home from the hospital cured from—it was a mental illness she’d have for the rest of her life. As a kid, she had been sensitive about it, obviously, but she’d never tried to hide it from anyone. My family never talked about it, not even once. If it hadn’t accidentally come up, it would have never been talked about.
Now, this whole situation is potentially an issue of the grapevine—in talking to my cousin now, she’s told me that epilepsy in fact was a potential diagnosis while she was in the hospital, but was quickly written off as not the cause. But we debated about the possibility that I’d just happened to ask in the tiny window where they thought she could have epilepsy—my memory is that it was months, potentially over a year, after she was in the hospital that I was finally told. If that’s the case, then according to my cousin, they definitely knew the truth. I wish that I could ask them, but the issue is dead. We don’t talk about dead issues in my family—I doubt that it would go over well, me bringing up the past, and potentially catching them in a lie. It’s just not worth it, and I don’t want to hurt their feelings by accusing. The truth remains, as they say, out there.
Silence can be funny. Mimes, for example, are funny. Mostly creepy, but there was probably a time when they were funny. They’re like silent clowns, which is maybe a bad example, because clowns are creepy, too.
Humor can’t exist, for example, without silence. Without comedic timing, a joke is nothing. That’s kind of the way it feels, sometimes, being in a family that refuses to talk about things—it’s like a joke. There’s the long set-up, the great comedic pause, and then…nothing! Ha ha! There’s nothing and then you never speak of it again, not even to great aunt Alida, because she knows about it too but is also sworn to secrecy because this problem has probably existed for longer than even she has.
Even though I grew up in Texas, my parents (and their parents, and their parents) grew up in Minnesota, logging trees in the early 1900’s and then, starting with my grandpa, building Mills Fleet Farm stores across the Midwest. My parents grew up on the same street, married, and moved to Texas for business opportunities, which is when my sister and I came into the picture. I’ve often wondered if this mentality to not talk about hard things is a generational, or locational, quirk.
I know Midwesterners have a big tendency to “sweep things under the rug”, and I always experienced this silent, “let’s not talk about it” attitude hardest when in Minnesota for holidays. It was usually over winter break, which meant I was always around my family, and so the source, for me, was indiscernible from the location. Who knows? My family would never open up to talk about it as a subject, though they’d probably find the topic, talking about silences and nothingness, a funny one to write about. It’s likely they would make a joke about it.
My parents don’t believe in therapy, and until my mom was diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was in high school, also didn’t believe in mental illness. Even then, getting them to believe in it was a hard sell. Even when my mom started seeing literal demons lurking in the shadows of our living room, my dad chalked it up to the death of my grandmother (my mother’s mother), years before, since that’s when it had all started, and to her rampant alcohol abuse. Now, the whole situation is clearly a call to get help to learn to handle something bigger than yourself, but back then, it was just something she hadn’t recovered from, something that, in my family’s eyes, she could get better about but chose not to, so it wasn’t worth talking about. Her “acting out”, according to my family, was just her bringing attention to a personal ubject that no one wanted to discuss.
It took years for my mother to get psychological help, and the doubt in her mind that there was nothing wrong with her, I’m sure, didn’t help her to seek help. She would go to her therapist, and things would be better for a while, but then she’d stop going, and things would get worse. That seems to me like a strong basis for coming to the conclusion that mental illness is real and therapy helps, but my family didn’t accept it. I don’t think that she ever took medication for her schizophrenia, and I don’t think she’s gotten any better, except that now she believes it exists and my sister pushes for her to seek help. For a long time, though, even my mom didn’t want to talk about it.
The “rub some dirt in it and shut up” mentality, perhaps, is waning. My generation in the family—my sister, my two cousins who live here, and my cousin who lives in Nebraska (more Midwest!)—talk about things. Or, we try to. We believe in mental illness, and therapy, and that, just because you can’t see your problems, doesn’t mean they aren’t real, at least. Sometimes that feels like a big step, but it also feels awful to be what feels like the last ones in the whole world to come to this obvious conclusion. We’re the first ones in my family to go to college, and all five of us have either graduated or are about to.
At family gatherings, it’s not rare for us to get together and talk about, as we call them, “things”. Remember that time that your mom drank all the Christmas wine and then tried to fight your uncle? I always thought…! Can you tell me about that time with…? I’d always wondered…
There’s a lot of confusion during these conversations, and it’s a lot of fun to tell a story your parents told you as a kid about someone else in the family, and then hear two or three different versions told back to you that were told to everyone else. They’re always different, sometimes in surprising ways. It’s fun, I promise. There’s a weird humor to not knowing the truth about your own family. It’s like a reality show where there’s a lot of different options and, for some reason, everyone just picks whatever sounds best to them about the people they care about. Maybe that’s the punchline of the joke—you get to decide what’s funny and what’s not.
We can never share these stories outside of our generation, though, and this sharing usually happens either really late or outside of the house. In that way, I guess the silence is still there—we can talk about it together, the five of us, but no one else can know. And we can only talk about it at major holidays, when we’re all forced together, and the events always have to have happened far into the past. If it’s any other time of the year, we rarely spend time together. Even my sister and I struggle to find time to meet up, and once together, to connect.
Between us, there are silences. My sister doesn’t talk about her problems, but my cousin asks me about the things she’s heard about her through the family grapevine. In the same way, everyone in my family knows things about me, though often times it’s a little skewed, and never seems to line up with who I recall telling. How much of this wanting to keep secrets is normal, human stuff, and how much of it is toxic? It’s one of the few tough things my sister and I talk about when we’re together: our fears of having the wrong moral compass. When a kid grows up without seeing the horizon, it’s hard to know where solid land ends and the sky begins, and it’s hard to come back from.
I’ve tried to get better about addressing the silences in my life, and tried to get better about talking to people about uncomfortable things. It’s not easy. It’s easy, in a weird way, to talk about the silence itself, though. For my senior seminar in fiction last semester, I had to write about something based in truth, so wrote my thesis about a girl growing up and coming out to her dad, the real “coming out” having happened to me a few summers before.
I wrote most of it before I realized that not once had I made the narrator speak. She’d been talked to, and she wasn’t a mute character, but she never spoke back in scene with quoted dialogue. I focused on this, and never really forgot about it. So it’s easy, I guess, to talk about not talking about things. What’s hard about silence is addressing it directly when the moment happens.
This last summer, my dad and his girlfriend, whom he’d been with for years after a messy divorce with my mother, got into an argument during a family gathering. They were in my dad’s truck, and rather than taking her back to where everyone else was, he let her get out and then drove off and got drunk. There are about a million things wrong with that whole situation, and when Sue (my dad’s girlfriend) showed up obviously upset, having walked the rest of the way back to where we all were, I was furious.
She asked me to call him and make sure he was okay. When I called, he didn’t answer, but an hour later called back and told me he was going to get a hotel for the night and then go home—home being in Texas, a thousand miles away. It didn’t occur to him that he’d come here with his girlfriend, or that all of their things were in the truck with him, or that without him, she didn’t even have her purse. He didn’t ask how she was at all. I told him I’d see him when he came back to where we all were and hung up.
Everyone wanted to drop the subject. Literally everyone. After all, what could be done? When my dad texted my aunt later in the night, telling her that he was going back to where he and Sue were staying, (hello, family grapevine!) I immediately wanted to walk over and talk to him. My sister quietly pulled me aside and tried to talk me out of it. He was drunk; what if he left again and hurt someone? At least he was somewhere safe, and it wasn’t even any of my business. Drop it.
It seemed like no one cared that his girlfriend was in the bathroom crying, or that he was doing the same thing to her that he’d always done to my mom—make it about himself, and then blame her for reacting at all. Because she reacted, everyone turned the other cheek. Another uncomfortable situation, another silence.
I eventually let it go for the night, because my sister was right. There was no reason for me, furious with my newfound sense of right and wrong and furious at being what felt like the only rational person in the room during the situation, to go bother him that night. He’d come back, and if he’d left, he really would be a danger to everyone else on the road. I went to bed, but I cried myself to sleep. I’d been living together with my girlfriend, Ema, for almost four years at that point, and I had been spending holidays mostly with her parents and sister. My perspective had changed.
Ema’s family was normal. Her family talked about things that were hard to talk about, and they did this amazing thing called “working through it”. Her mom suffered from mental illness, too, but her dad was supportive. It made all the difference in the world, and they made it seem so simple. She was (is) a beacon of how to be a healthy human being. She’d also been there with me that night, and held my hand throughout the evening as I fumed about my dad. “Why can’t anyone else see how unhealthy this is? Why can’t we ever talk about anything that’s not sunshine and fucking rainbows?” I asked her, over and over again. She didn’t know. It wasn’t her fight, and I think she was out of her depth. Even so, she was supportive.
Part of Ema’s family, on her dad’s side, are varying degrees of Mormon, and she spent the first eight years of her life in Utah. I’m not saying that her family is supportive and works together because of their religious history—but I’m not denying it’s a potential factor. One of the hardest things to get used to, when we started dating and spending time together in front of her family, was the fact that no one drank to excess. Sure, her dad would have a beer with dinner, but it was only one, and he knew that was the limit. Her mother, whose brother struggles with alcoholism, never drank. In writing this piece, I asked Ema why that was. Was it because of a history of alcoholism? Was it because her dad had grown up Mormon, but stopped practicing when he was a kid? Did her grandparents struggle with drinking? She didn’t know.
“No one ever told you?” I asked, eager for answers.
“I’ve never asked,” she said.
“But would they tell you, if you did?”
Of course. Unequivocally, yes. I pressed her more, wanting to get details right, and each time she had an honest answer. It probably wasn’t Mormonism. With two gay uncles, her family had struggled with religion and it wasn’t a part of their life anymore. It probably wasn’t even the alcoholic uncle—it was just that her mother, struggling with mental illness, couldn’t mix alcohol with her medications, and her father, in solidarity, simply didn’t drink much either. Was she sure? Of course. There was no hesitation in her answers. She struggled to see my perspective—why wouldn’t they tell the truth?
When we woke up the morning after my dad’s fight with Sue, Ema and I had to walk to my car to get something. Seeing us going through the trunk, my dad walked over with a cup of coffee and a smile on his face. He said good morning, as if nothing at all had happened. I exchanged looks with Ema. The next day, it was harder to find the rage. It was so easy to just let things slide under the rug, especially when my dad and everyone else seemed to want it that way.
“Dad, I need to talk to you,” I told him. Immediately, he looked uncomfortable. I could see on his face that this wasn’t something he’d planned for, and, now stuck in the situation, he didn’t know how to handle it. The smile slid off his face.
We went for a walk. I didn’t want anyone else to have to see us arguing, see my hands shaking as I struggled to do the right thing.
“Sorry about the scene last night,” he said, once we were alone, going for a light tone again. “You know how it is.”
The anger came boiling back up to the surface. Oddly, it didn’t help. It just made me sick to my stomach. Yes, I did know how it was, in his world, and in the world I’d grown up in. It wasn’t healthy, and I was sick of it. Sick of saying nothing. “You can’t treat people like you treated mom,” I told him. “You just can’t.”
“Hang on,” he said, immediately on the defensive. “Don’t take her side when you don’t even know the whole story.”
I told him that I didn’t need to, and that was the truth. I was mad at his reaction to the situation, something that was indisputable and solid. I’d laid awake for what had felt like all night thinking about what I was going to say to him, and I had this Wonder Woman image of myself, a new bastion of feminism and morals, telling him off. I would be strong where the rest of my family wasn’t, and he would see the light. It wasn’t just him that was wrong, but it was a start. I would begin to correct a lifetime of harms that everyone else had turned the other cheek to.
Instead, I think I managed a few strong sentences. I know that I told him that I was disappointed in him, because I remember the surge of child-like thrill at acting the parent. I don’t remember much else, but I know we argued. My memory of this moment is nothing but his reactions—he was defensive, he was angry, and he wanted to talk about anything else. Several times, he tried to change the subject, and then eventually he blamed the whole thing on everything but himself. He hadn’t made her get out of the car, he’d stopped and she’d gotten out. He hadn’t gone to get drunk, he’d been out looking for her, as if we weren’t in the middle of nowhere and she wouldn’t have just turned around and gone back to where everyone else was. He hadn’t even been drunk, even though we’d talked on the phone and he’d been slurring in his speech worse than I’d ever heard anyone in my life.
It got too tiring to talk to him, eventually. We walked back to the cars. He thumped me on the shoulder, I think, and said something light. Maybe he made a joke. I don’t think I laughed. In any case, I hadn’t made a difference. My words, finally released from my mouth, had gone straight through him. I’d spent my whole life assuming the curtain was reality, but now that it was pushed back, there was nothing there but more curtains, more misdirection.
But, I told myself, at least I’d said something. The silence was no longer on me. I told my family, my aunt and my grandma and my sister, later that day, that I’d followed through with my intentions from the night before. I don’t think anyone reacted—I don’t know if I expected one. But later, when we were alone, my aunt touched me on the shoulder.
“I’m glad you said something,” she told me, quietly.
I wanted to ask her why she hadn’t said anything—he was her brother, after all, and they were about the same age. I wanted to ask why, now that the door of opportunity was cracked, we never talked. Instead, I just thanked her and let the subject drop. It was a start.
University of Minnesota
Lynnly Damm is a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota and holds a degree in English and creative writing. She lives in Saint Paul and aspires to work as an editor for one of Minnesota’s nonprofit publishers. This is her first publication.