Silence was something I was accustomed to from a young age. I reveled in the silence that pervaded the house early each morning—where bleary eyes and mugs of coffee often made their appearance. With four older siblings, I grew to appreciate the short-lived moments of peace in our home. I loved the moments of shared silence between the five of us—where simply being in each other’s presence replaced conversation. Silence was always a friend, something I basked in, something that comforted me. I had never seen it used to exclude, hide, or protect.
It was 7 o’clock in the morning, on the Monday before Thanksgiving. The house was empty, with my parents at work and my siblings across the country at school. From the moment I woke up, a strange feeling had built in my chest—something was not right. The house was too quiet, the air was heavy with tension, despite me being the only person present. Trying to ignore this sensation that was consuming me, I went about my normal routine. I brushed my teeth, got dressed, and ate, all with this discontent churning in me.
The tension in the room was broken by my cell ringer blaring. I jumped up, alarmed, and grabbed my phone. I checked the caller ID and saw an unfamiliar number centered in New York. I’m normally not one to answer phone calls from a number I do recognize and almost ignored the call. Just as my thumb hovered over the circular red button, something inside me screamed out to answer it. A sense of anxiety engulfed me again. My heart started pounding, my breath quickened, and I answered the call and asked, “Hello?”
“Bella—” someone called out, before the line was disconnected.
I recognized the voice of my brother, who had moved to Manhattan for college three years prior. All sense of logic was gone after that moment. Suddenly, my mind was flooded with the worst-case scenarios of what had happened on the other side of the call. My heart lurched in my chest, my hands refused to stay still, and my lungs were on fire. I turned on my phone again and tried to call his cell—no response. Running out of options, I texted my sister in New Jersey and asked if she had heard from him. Minutes later, the only response I got was, “I’ll explain later.”
And so I waited, on the single red couch in our living room, for later to come. Thoughts raced through my head for hours, wondering what could have possibly happened. My mind was an abyss of confusion and unease, and my phone stayed clutched in my hand all day.
Had I been more observant, I may have realized much earlier on what had happened. After all, everyone in the house seemed to be shouting it from the rooftops. When my parents came home that night, they did not explain to me what had happened, they showed me. I sat in the living room, peering over a book, and watched my parents’ interactions from afar. I saw the way they frantically spoke to someone on the phone, jaws clenched and lips tight. I saw the whiteness of their knuckles as they grasped at a pen and began to write furiously on paper. I saw the tension in their shoulders, almost immovable right in front of my eyes. Yet, most importantly, they showed me in their silence. This was not the serene, peaceful silence that I had grown to love. This silence was thick with emotion, with panic, with things left unexplained. Had I not been lost trying to navigate my own thoughts that day, I may have understood the language that my parents were speaking. This language was never spoken aloud and never spoken of. This language was never taught to me, but something I had to learn from my own experience. This was the language of distress.
My parents spoke this language so naturally and with such fluidity, that it amazed me to watch their interactions. They communicated very obviously—boldly, even—yet in complete silence. As I looked back at them from the living room, I watched the way their eyebrows danced and how they hunched over a paper between them reading, Mount Sinai. I watched as an outsider looking in, observing the way my dad’s jaw clenched and my mom threw down her glasses. After what seemed like hours of observing them, my parents called me to the table. As I sat down, I became engulfed in the suffocating atmosphere of the unspoken words between us. I waited at the table, hands writhing together anxiously; the unbearable silence was broken with a single phrase: “Your brother is sick.”
This ought to have been some type of revelation to me, but it was not. I stared across from my parents, waiting for them to elaborate. But they never did. I looked at the fear in their eyes and the resignation on their faces, and knew that there were many things left unsaid. Seconds ticked away on the clock above us, and my face began to grow hot with embarrassment. I scratched at my neck and looked down at the table, searching for any clue to what my parents were trying to tell me. The only thing I could see was the wrinkled paper with the name Mount Sinai and a phone number unfamiliar to me. Yet still I sat, anxiously cracking my knuckles and picking at my nails, willing myself to understand their language. Frustration bubbled inside me like a volcano waiting to explode. How could I not understand a phrase so simple? Why were these four words so difficult for me to understand? We were met again with my once familiar friend, silence. The screech of my chair on the kitchen floor was the only thing heard for the rest of the night.
I spent the night replaying the interaction in my head. The way my father’s scratchy voice barely managed to choke out that my brother was sick. The way my mom looked at my father, concerned, and then dropped her gaze down. The way my dad’s mouth opened and closed, as though he was fighting for control over his words. “Your brother is sick.” I spent too long pondering that phrase. The more I tried to understand what my father was trying to say, the angrier I got. I so desperately wished to understand and hated being shielded from something as important to me as my brother’s health. Resignation overcame me when I realized there was nothing to do. There was no Google Translate for the language of distress.
Looking back on that day, it’s clear to me now what my parents were saying. The abandoned call, the unanswered texts, the crumpled paper in my mother’s hands—these were all clear signs that I could not read. It was only after my calls were returned and my texts were answered that I slowly began to understand my parent’s language. On the day that I finally visited Mount Sinai, everything fell into place. I prepared myself for the smell of sterile medical equipment, the bad shows playing on the wall TV, and perhaps even an IV pumping fluids into an arm. I didn’t imagine my phone being locked in a case, my bag being searched upon entry, or the unnerving silence in the hallways. The whiteness of the room was unsettling—no pictures, posters, decorations, or television. The walls of the room were as blank and empty as my brain the night my parents sat me down at the kitchen table. Upon entering my brother’s room, I found myself surrounded by silence. My nerves heightened as I feared that once again, I would remain an outsider, an observer to a situation that I was present in. I turned and took a deep look at my brother: the way his once-perfect dark hair was now matted together from grease and how his bright face was now burdened with bags under his eyes. We made eye contact, and he gave me a tired, defeated smile. “Hey, Belle.” he called out, “Miss me?”
It was at that moment that I realized why I was never taught the language of distress: it’s not meant to be taught. This language thrust itself upon me, hidden only until I face it head-on. I spent years peering into the kitchen, desperately wanting to understand how my parents conveyed so much meaning in only a few simple words. Their silence had seemed like a betrayal; they took something I found comfort in and twisted it into a means to exclude me. Yet in one afternoon, I realized that the hushed voices and meaningful looks between my parents were not done out of exclusion, but protection. Behind every tense muscle in my father’s jaw, or sharp sigh in my mother’s voice, was another explanation they would have to give to me, another long talk at the kitchen table. Their effortless, silent communication was merely a way for them to hide reality from me a little longer. Only now do I understand what they were hiding—the blank and unsettling nature of Mount Sinai and all those within it. Soon enough, I welcomed silence back no longer as a traitor, but as my long-familiar friend.