“Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything”
Something happened this weekend. It was heart-rending and immense and the repercussions will reverberate for a long time. And all weekend I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about it, because that’s how I deal with stuff. But I can’t. For many reasons. But mostly because I don’t have the words. Sometimes the only thing you can say is nothing.
As I thought about my silence this weekend – gagged by my own emotions, clamoring to escape – I remembered how many times in my life silence has carried me, lifted me, protected me, even beautified me.Words do have power, yes, but silence is the force behind them. Sometimes silence is an animal lurking in the dark, a presence all its own. But there are so many many types of silence. Silence can be the worst kind of heartbreak. But sometimes silence is a gift.
“I made a list of one hundred ways to kill you. And then I ate it so that I’d always have it inside me.” He, who claimed to love me, said that to me. And I answered him not at all. When I first wrote about being in an abusive relationship several of you questioned how I could not even reply much less not fight back or run away. At the time there was nothing to say – but I was already thinking of the way out. Sometimes silence is rebellion.
When my daughter Faith was born – still – the silence was deafening. A baby should never be born quiet. But the hush in that delivery room was so full that there was no room for words. She was as present as any of my other children were at their births and I think I felt it more since there was none of the usual hustle and bustle that surrounds a new one. Everyone waited – a pregnant pause, forgive me – for my reaction. I had no words. I had to wait for others to give them to me. “She’s so beautiful.” “I think she has your nose.” “Here’s a blanket to keep her warm.” The next day I still had no words. I barely had breath. And then the funeral. Who has a funeral for a baby that hardly lived? What could I say about a person that nobody really knew but me and even then my knowledge was limited to cravings for frozen lemonade and kicks that felt like flailing fish? I wanted the funeral but I didn’t speak at it. She was silent; I was silent. I remembered my grandfather whose dying words were, “It’s so beautiful! Can you hear them singing?” We couldn’t, but he could. And I hope she could too. Sometimes silence is a song to carry you home.
Another day I stood in a crowded outdoor market, looking for a cousin I hadn’t seen in 20+ years thanks to a family feud that separated us as children. I had not seen a recent picture of him and yet as I scanned the people around me, my eyes lit on a man with a strong, stocky build, a shaved head, piercing blue eyes. Without saying a word, I knew it was him. He looked like my brother. He felt like my family. What happened all those years ago? I didn’t know. I still don’t, really. Sometimes silence is a terrible chasm. But as I hugged him and met his beautiful wife and daughter, the weight of the past slipping off our innocent shoulders, I knew it didn’t matter anymore. Sometimes silence is the bridge across.
Silence is hardest for me when it means biting my tongue (sometimes literally) and watching my children struggle. It would be so easy for me to give my son the answer to his math homework that he has been crying over for an hour, and yet then he wouldn’t learn how to do long division. Or how to persevere even when things don’t come easily. I am so tempted to jump into my kids’ fights – to prove to them that nothing will ever be fair and by golly if they think an extra three raisins on their sister’s plate is bad then just wait until their best friend steals their girlfriend in college – but then they wouldn’t learn how to negotiate emotional waters with other people. I want so badly to help Jelly Bean, so independent, to figure out this world and yet just tonight at bedtime she put her tiny hand over my mouth and said “Mommy shhhh! You go out now.” Because she needs the silence of her own thoughts without the baggage of mine. Sometimes silence is permission to not have all the answers.
So I asked her this weekend, as we sat on the hospital gurney together: of all the things that needed to be said, what did she want me to say? And she answered, “Nothing. I want you to say nothing.” Which was good because I had no advice, no wisdom, nothing to offer her but me. Sometimes silence is just sitting and being. A presence. A hand to hold. A shared grief. A knowledge that you are not alone in this. I will stay. I will always stay with you.
I’m a girl who likes to talk a lot. A lot a lot. I hate romantic comedies simply because 99% of the plot lines are based on the hijinks or horror that ensues when people don’t talk to each other. When in doubt I err on the side of saying too much rather than too little. But words are only as powerful as the silent spaces that contain them. If there is no silence, they run together in one frenetic blur. Learning to appreciate the power of silence – of stillness – is one of the great overarching lessons of my life. Sometimes silence is simply saying “I’m listening.”
If this post doesn’t make any sense, I’m so sorry. I’m trying to work stuff out. How do I feel all the feelings, again? But if something here did resonate with you, please help me out – What does silence mean to you? Tell me about a time when you were silent. Either that, or tell me what I should say. Sometimes silence is the answer to the prayer you didn’t think anyone heard.
Updated to add: Thank you for all your concern! Just wanted to say that my kids and I are all totally fine! The “her” in the 3rd to last paragraph isn’t Jelly Bean, no worries! I just wrote that badly:)