“Every woman has a grave deep inside her.” – Michelle ‘Mush’ Lee
I feel for this woman, my mother.
I think their love was forbidden. But it’s not the kind of prohibition that stays in one place; no, it’s the kind that multiplies and moves on. I think I’m not supposed to know, much less write about how our family – her parents and siblings – did not approve of their courtship for reasons I can only imagine from their collective silence. I think they met in the Philippines before she immigrated to the United States in 1978. I think he served in Saudi Arabia for the U.S. Army during the time of their courtship. I think that I cannot simply ask my mother about my father without opening a floodgate, as if I am actually asking her to bore a hole in a dam that protects her from drowning. I think that I am asking about shame. I think my asking her to open up is a breach, is asking her to re-live what we both lament but cannot yet accept. And because I empathize, because I know that my questions require her, this woman, my mother, to undo a silence that has kept us afloat, then I think this is how shame multiplies. How can I ask my mother to unravel this silence? What are we both afraid of? When will we heal?
I write extensively, privately, publicly on what happened when my father passed away twenty years ago. I was six years old. This meant that I was so young that I didn’t know what was going on. Could you imagine a little girl smiling at her father’s funeral? My second book, Like a Solid to a Shadow, was incited by the memory of taking this photo. There are pictures as proof in my family photo albums from that year. My brother remembers running away from the burial site, our oldest cousin chasing after him, when he saw our father being lowered into the ground. I remember my mother’s guttural bawls, calling back for my father in Ilocano. I remember remaining silent, everyone looking at me, their eyes just above the ground where I stood because I thought that was what I was supposed to do for my family at that time. Could you imagine a little girl not saying anything at her father’s funeral? Now, I cry, remember, bury my feelings when his death anniversary comes. My father dies every time I tell someone new that I am fatherless this way. He lives every time I think about him. I write to respectfully remember, but also to resurrect his stories.
“Have you ever heard a butterfly scream?” – youth poet
When she pretended to choke herself with her necklace in French class, I knew something was wrong. My best friend in middle school, Gladys, sat next to me, pinching and pulling the back of her necklace to press its front against her throat. “Hey dude,” I think she called to me, “what would you do if I killed myself?” Keeping my eyes on the instructor, I whispered, “What’s wrong?” I was familiar with these thoughts. She replied, “I don’t know. Just wondering.” I couldn’t bear to look at her because her words mirrored my own insidious ones that arose years before I had ever met her.
Our close girlfriend, Patricia, also contemplated self-injury. Patricia’s family troubles continued with us through high school right up to when I left San Jose, California for college in La Jolla, and up until our friendship ended when I graduated. In fact, it wasn’t until I was a student at UC San Diego where I majored in Ethnic Studies and minored in Urban Studies & Planning that I acquired a language for the injustices I had seen and the ineffability I had felt as a young Pinay. I was acquiring a language for my rage. I actively sought out Asian American History classes and seminars, worked with professors and made appointments with counselors and staff in order to seek answers to questions that had erupted in me. I began my own research projects with Ethnic Studies Professor Yen Le Espiritu as my advisor. I thought the rigor of my intellectual work needed to match the stirrings in my heart. These questions, “Why don’t I know myself? Who am I? Why can’t I talk about the things that have been on my mind for years?” had always been inside me.
We Pinays, we were screaming butterflies. It wasn’t until college that I learned that Pinay contemplation and Pinay suicide rates were a public health issue of my generation. In so many phone conversations, text conversations and women’s healing circles, and within myself, there was always an understood and accepted silence when we worked through our problems, our traumas and histories in a private space. We worked and thought together, alone and in our writings.
In many ways, I still feel a little girl inside me asking questions, seeking answers, hating being shushed, working towards understanding and critically remembering and writing in her diary. My little girl, she is safe with me. She is my anthology, my empowered sense of self, my father’s daughter, my mother’s interpreter, and a source of friendship.
Janice Lobo Sapigao (@janicesap) is a daughter of Filipino immigrants. She was named one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s 2017 Women to Watch by KQED Arts. She is the author of two books of poetry: Like a Solid to a Shadow (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2017) and microchips for millions (Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc., 2016) and three other chapbooks. She is a VONA/Voices and Kundiman Fellow, and the Associate Editor of TAYO Literary Magazine. She co-founded Sunday Jump open mic in L.A. Historic Filipinotown. She earned her M.F.A. in Writing from CalArts, and she has a B.A. in Ethnic Studies with Honors from UC San Diego.