For Mental Health Awareness Month, I teamed up with Australian-based Pinay artist, Rosell Flatley, in featuring this short story, “The Mad Aunt.” Shortlisted for the Ivy Terasaka Short Story Competition in 2008, “The Mad Aunt” is an examination of a spinster aunt who has a mental breakdown on her 62nd birthday, which can be interpreted as a breakdown, or a major epiphany. As the story unfolds, we see how mental illness can develop from a long family history fraught with emotional abuse, and in the end can oftentimes be devastatingly misunderstood by loved ones. We also see how culture, shame, judgment, isolation, and gender particularly play as factors in affecting an immigrant woman of color’s struggles with depression and suicidal ideation, all while questioning what culturally-sensitive resources and non-judgmental support are available to her, if any.
While this may largely be taken as a tale of disempowerment, this story also shows how empowerment can come at the price of abandoning the family unit for the sake of saving one’s own well-being – a controversial decision considering the weight and authority of family in many Asian cultures.
As Rosell echoes in her own words whose poignant and stunning visual creations explore cultural identity, the female form, and mental health, “Our culture suppresses our emotions. Mental health is still a massive taboo in the Philippines.”
A fan of Rosell’s work, I paired her piece, “Don’t ever doubt your instincts because crazy shit happens” with “The Mad Aunt.” Exhibited as part of her Unfolding series in Sydney, Rosell’s visual pieces provide thought-provoking commentary on the very things that can make a woman go mad, stemming not just from societal pressures of perfection and beauty, but also personal demands and criticism coming from those closest to us.
THE MAD AUNT
I wake up. It’s morning, the third Saturday of July, though you can’t tell it’s morning as the orange curtains in my small bedroom are drawn closed. I put my arm over my face. I don’t want to get up. I haven’t eaten, haven’t taken my medication, haven’t seen my psychiatrist. It’s been two years since I retired from being a nurse and I spend most days in bed.
I look over to my right where my dresser stands with framed photographs of Tatang and Nanang at their wedding as well as framed photographs of me when I was thirty. Strewn along the borders of my dresser mirror are loose photographs of my twenty-four nieces and nephews.
Nanang will try to come in but I’ve locked the door. Oh Lord, please let me die. “Ukininam!” I yell to myself. She knocks on the door. I lie in bed, still with my arm over my face. It smells like Ivory soap. I contemplate whether I should shower. Nanang continues to rap on the door, not loud, but consistent and annoying. She then tries to turn the knob and finds it locked. “Wen?” I grumble with a crack in my voice. I want to cry but can’t.
“Get up, Nena. It’s time to eat. Aren’t you hungry? You can’t lie in bed all day. Open up,” she scolds me in Ilokano. After more than thirty years of living in this country, she has never bothered to learn English. She was fifty-five when she came to America after I petitioned her and Tatang. She is illiterate. Tatang had been lucky to have received an elementary school education up to the sixth grade from the barrio and spoke English fluently but never encouraged Nanang to learn to read and write. When I was ten, I tried to teach her but she scolded me, telling me she was too old to learn.
“Open up, Nena! Someone has stolen my blue dress and the money Tatang left behind the dresser! You have to help me look for it. Did you take it?”
“No,” I say, angry, but I don’t think she can tell in my voice. There is no blue dress and Tatang never left any money behind the dresser. She has lost her mind, diagnosed with dementia three years ago. She can’t tell what time of day it is anymore and she doesn’t know what country she’s in either. Sometimes she even forgets Tatang has been dead for three years.
The morning routine – she’s going to call Rudy, my younger brother, the boastful PhD Yale graduate and Nanang’s prized Mestizo-looking son. He thinks he can help me. I wish Rudy would leave me alone. I wish Nanang would die. I wish I could. Oh, please Lord, take my soul this morning.
I hear her shuffle around with her raggedy slippers behind the door to the kitchen to call my brother. I wonder how at the age of eighty-seven she still manages to hobble her little legs with her Dowager’s hump around the house. I imagine her small wrinkly index finger speed-dialing “1”. Rudy had shown her how to speed-dial and programmed the phone so dialing “1” would automatically ring through to him. I’m surprised she hasn’t forgotten how to speed-dial with her dementia. I laugh out loud to myself.
She then screams from the kitchen, “Nena! There’s a strange man at Rudy’s place who keeps answering the phone. Then there’s a long beep and silence!”
“Nanang! It’s the answering machine!” I yell back.
“What?” she yells at me and then I hear her say confused into the receiver, “Hello?” and then to herself, “Ay, awan.”
“I told you! It’s their answering machine!”
“What?” she yells again from the kitchen.
“Susmariosep!” I roll over on my pillow. “Forget it,” I whisper.
The room remains dim. I don’t want to know what time it is. Beneath the covers, my body feels like a fireball but doesn’t sweat. I can’t get up to shower. Rudy will pay his usual afternoon visit to check up on us, and his wife, Julia, will come and make me my usual lunch.
“Nena! Get up! Why do you lie in bed all day?” Nanang returns from the kitchen and begins to cry like a baby behind the door. I imagine her sobbing, wiping her eyes and nose with her duster which she has been wearing for the past four days. She hasn’t bathed in days and I don’t feel like giving her a bath today. Rudy doesn’t notice these things when he visits. And if he did, he wouldn’t bathe her anyway. He’d tell me to do it. Luckily, she smells like medication and baby powder.
I slowly sit up and flatten my hair on both sides with the palms of my hands. My hair feels greasy. It’s been a few days since I’ve washed it. I lay my hands, palms down, on top of the covers. Dizzy and sick, my blood rushes to my head. My brain feels like it’s swelling and ready to explode. I want to cry but can’t.
I slide my legs over to the edge of the bed, plant my two feet on the floor, take a deep breath, stand up, see big black dots with bright yellow sunbursts, and drag my legs to the door. My body feels heavy. I unlock the door, then run back to bed and cover myself with my sheets over my head. My heart is suddenly racing. A pulsating heaviness rushes through my legs, arms, chest, and head.
Nanang turns the knob. There she stands, four feet, eight inches tall with her back severely hunched over at a forty-five degree angle. I want to hug her and say it’s alright and then strangle her. I want to die. Please Lord, let me die this morning.
“Balasang ko, please get up! You can’t lie in bed all day. Tatang would be very mad right now if he saw you. Get up!”
She strokes my back while I am buried beneath the sheets.
Sleep. Drifting. In. Out. Sleep.
More sleep. My head feels heavy. Nanang presses the cordless phone to my ear while I lie on my side. I hear Rudy at the other end telling me everyone is coming over. Everyone.
“It’s your birthday and I’ve called everyone over to celebrate. You better be up by the time we get there,” he scolds and then clicks his tongue at me. I hang up on him.
Will I step out of this box made for me? I am scared I forget how my own voice sounds. Does it make sense when I speak? I prefer isolation where no one criticizes me.
I slip the note under my pillow. It’s now 4:00 PM. I lie in bed all afternoon. I was twenty-six when I wrote that note, when I still allowed my mind to leak outside of itself and be recorded on a piece of paper as proof of my existence.
I get up and stand in front of the mirror, comparing my image to pictures of me on the dresser when I was thirty, the beautiful woman with tan skin, almond-shaped dark eyes, radiant smile, and ebony hair falling in thick waves. Is that me? Was it? My cousins from the barrio told me I was beautiful. I laugh. Could I still be beautiful if I truly wanted to be? That woman in the pictures has the kind of classic beauty that never gets old.
I look again in the mirror. My hair is a mess, graying here and there. My eyes have a heavy look these days as if a great weight were ready to burst and the dark circles under my eyes drag the light from within me. That woman in the mirror – her decrepit appearance is not so much the result of her age. She’s just gone mad.
My legs feel weak standing. I return to bed. I remember it’s my sixty-second birthday today. My orange curtains remain closed – the entire room dim. It’s hot, dry hot, like the inside of an oven. My hands are clammy, but I still can’t sweat, can’t cry.
In my quaint living room, the usual batch of about fifty family members invade my two bedroom home – drunk, loud, and rollicking. Rudy thinks throwing a birthday party will cheer me up. Sometimes I wonder where Rudy comes up with these ideas. I imagine the usual chairs lining the hallway and both sofas fully packed with relatives taking up any available space on the arm rests and on the floor. I hear my nieces and nephews chattering away and the giggles, screams, and coos of my grandnieces and grandnephews.
Rudy thinks I am sad because his daughter, Marisa, is engaged; my sister, Teresita, thinks it’s because her son, Edward, is having his first child. They all had their theories, even my nieces and nephews – all their theories reflecting I am a spinster.
It’s more than that and I am ashamed to tell someone the reason.
Before I was born, Tatang and Nanang were determined to see all their children graduate high school and college. You see, we would be the first ones from our barrio as Tatang had been the son of poor farmers and could only afford to go to school up to the sixth grade. Most people from our barrio were illiterate and their livelihood was solely spent farming the rice paddies and tobacco fields which were more important if one’s family were to eat and survive. Tatang didn’t want that for us. He didn’t want us to struggle for our survival.
Being the first born, I was leader. I helped raise my eight brothers and sisters – Rudy, Erlinda, Mariano, Annette, Maria, Carlos, Alvero, and Teresita – changing their diapers, walking them to and from school, packing their lunches, cooking their dinners, washing their clothes, tutoring them, sometimes doing their homework, bathing them, and reading them their bedtime stories.
Since eighteen, all I heard was: “Manang will be taken away from us if she marries or goes away to college. I still need to finish high school . . . . I still need to finish college . . . . I still need to get married . . . . I still need to buy a house. . . . I still need to have a baby . . . . I still need to move to America” and so on and so forth.
Nothing in the world has been more important than helping family – the source of one’s happiness, pride, and identity. To be without, you were nothing. There was no “I”. It was always “we”. Nanang had been sure to drill these things into my head. I don’t know if I necessarily believed it. I don’t know if I ever did.
While I had suitors, Nanang drove them away from the house. The usual visit went as follows:
“You are a good-for-nothing who can’t take care of Nena. Nena would have to take care of you. Your parents are lazy and therefore you are lazy. What would we want from you anyway?”
On one occasion where the suitor lost his parents to illness as a boy, Nanang insulted the young man severely:
“You are wasting our time. Our family does not mix with orphans. You are an orphan and obviously are worthless. You couldn’t give anything of your name to our grandchildren because both your parents are dead.”
Of course the young man stormed out while I sat obediently next to Tatang and Nanang, listening to Nanang berate the young man. Tatang had been humble and kind but never challenged Nanang. I used to think Tatang was weak while Nanang was strong with her domineering attitude, but strong people are never insulting and cruel.
From barrio to barrio, news spread of Nanang’s reputation, of her vicious verbal attacks against any suitor, so they stopped coming to the house. Nanang told me they stopped coming because they probably realized how ugly I was up-close with my big sunken-in dark eyes. Nanang was cruel. She was the reason why suitors didn’t come. I never argued with Nanang though. No one did.
Meanwhile, she told me Erlinda, Annette, Maria, and Teresita were beautiful and worth marriage, and that my purpose as the eldest was far more honorable than marriage and children, that I was destined to be a leader to the family, as if I were Moses leading the family into the Promised Land.
After each brother and sister graduated from college, I helped plan their weddings, initiated the family exodus from the barrio to Manila and then to America, petitioned Tatang and Nanang to come here, helped raise all my nieces and nephews from the time they were born, and bought a house for Tatang and Nanang so I could take care of them. So it had been for decades and decades and decades until Tatang passed away three years ago and I became the sole caretaker of Nanang, who, following Tatang’s death, was diagnosed with dementia.
Since I had no children, it was natural for everyone, especially Rudy, to assign me the task of taking care of Nanang. How could I say no? Hiring a professional caretaker was out of the question as she only spoke Ilokano and her needs could never be adequately met due to the language barrier.
But I can’t take care of Nanang, not anymore.
To my nieces and nephews, I am the spinster aunt, the one who has never been kissed, never been touched. I’ve heard them whisper before whether I even like men as they have never seen me with a boyfriend. They do not know about my many suitors, or my small fingers trailing in the dark, or my Arnel who writes me love letters.
We met almost forty years ago when we worked as nurses in the same hospital together while I still lived in Manila. But you see, I already had plans of emigrating to America. America would be my new home. His pursuit was useless. He married another nurse from our hospital a few years after I left the Philippines, but he continued to write me. The letters were scarce but every once in a while, a brief note would come and I would remember how much he loved me. When Tatang was still alive, he had suspicions about the letters but he never opened my mail and the letters were scarce anyway.
Arnel and I never kissed or touched, but I can still remember feeling his love through his glances in the office, his notes, his flowers. Since losing his wife to breast cancer three years ago, his love letters now flow in through the mail every week. And every week, I am glad Nanang is illiterate.
Two years ago when I accompanied Rudy and his family for a visit to the Philippines, Arnel paid me a surprise visit at my cousin’s house where we stayed. He had stood in the doorway, handsome at sixty-one, with a huge box of sweet pomelos, my favorite fruit. He remembered from my letters! I was startled. What could I do? It had been nearly forty years since we last saw each other. I ran upstairs and locked myself up in my niece’s bedroom. I couldn’t see him. When my niece went to fetch me, the excitement was too much. I screamed into her pillows and giggled hysterically. You see, it felt as if Elvis Presley were paying me a visit. I was nothing but the shy-struck, speechless fan.
I could hear Arnel downstairs awkwardly chatting with Rudy. I couldn’t come downstairs that evening. I just couldn’t. It was the last time he would pay me a visit before I left the Philippines and flew back to America.
After Arnel left, Rudy came into the room with a smirk on his face and said, “It’s good you didn’t come downstairs. He’s just out to steal your money anyway since you live in America now. That’s how they all are. You’re sixty. I’m just saying you should be realistic. You know what I mean?” My eyes began to well up with tears. “Don’t look like that. It’s nothing. You are better off as you are,” he said sternly. After he left the room, I cried, my heart draining away. Sometimes I wonder if Rudy is right. Arnel’s letters still pour in through the mail every week, which I keep hidden in my closet. When we returned from our trip, I made my first attempt on sleeping pills and was then institutionalized for three months.
Amidst the camaraderie in the living room, my youngest niece, Anna, Rudy’s daughter, affectionately whom I nicknamed Ning-Ning, quietly enters the sweltering room and sees me, this massive lump completely covered under comforters and blankets.
“Auntie Nena, do you want to talk?” she whispers. She sits next to me on top of my covers. I hear myself heavily breathing. It’s hot and I’ve been lying in bed since morning and still can’t sweat. I poke my head from underneath the covers and see beads of sweat immediately gather on her forehead.
Ning-Ning is a beautiful sixteen-year-old artist, athlete, and youth activist. She has a sweet American accent. Like her American-born sisters and cousins, she can understand Ilokano but can’t speak fluently as my brothers and sisters foolishly decided not to teach any of their children believing that if they had, it would have only interfered with their American educations.
Ning-Ning is bold and outspoken at her age, someone I had never been. She is not at all like her sisters or mother. I imagine she’s already broken many hearts.
“Oh, Ning-Ning, help me solve this,” I whisper beating my fist violently against my forehead. “Please, Lord, let me die.”
How did I let Tatang and Nanang, Rudy, Erlinda, Mariano, Annette, Maria, Carlos, Alvero, and Teresita, dictate my life this long? as if life were simple enough to take care of them while I gave up having friends, a husband, children or even the convent? Tatang and Nanang had to be taken care of, and without me, they were helpless. I felt guilty and torn. How could I ever leave?
Tatang and Nanang told me to help the others with their studies, weddings, moving to America, buying their houses, and caring for their babies. And then the sweet faces of the babies whom I welcomed into the world each year. Everyday I watched them grow and they were mine. While my brothers and sisters along with their spouses worked, I made sure to work the graveyard shift at the hospital so they would never be latchkey kids. It was me who greeted them home from school, preparing them their merienda. I forgot myself when I felt their small arms around my neck. Their kisses. Ning-Ning was my last baby. My nieces and nephews are grown now, half of them already married and having babies. I am not allowed to watch their babies as I am considered old and crazy.
Tatang, Nanang, my brothers, my sisters: they couldn’t be grateful. I had fulfilled a long-time tradition, and I was cursed with it because I am the first-born and a woman. They have their lives while the only duty remaining before dying is tending to a dementia-stricken old woman who constantly scolds me for everything wrong in my life and screams at me daily like a broken record accusing me of stealing her clothes and her money. Why couldn’t she die? Why couldn’t I? Please, Lord, let me die. Am I not done?
Ning-Ning now lies down beside me on top of my blankets, the armpits of her blouse drenched in sweat.
“You’re a fighter. You’re going to get through this,” she whispers as she holds me in her arms. Days like this are not new to her. She knows I’ve been this way long before she was born. I remember when she was five and her favorite nickname for me was “Auntie Panty” in her ecstatic baby voice. I then would hold her in my arms tickling her so she couldn’t stop giggling. Now she held me.
Even as she tells me I’m a fighter, I cannot tell her why I’m like this. I want my voice to be loud and screaming but I can’t say the reasons aloud. I see the words swirl inside my head, listen to them as they swim and flow about, but I can’t say them. So I whisper what is easy for me to say, “Please, Ning-Ning, please Lord, let me die.”
A month ago, she decided to get me out of bed by taking me to the beach. There, she urged me to scream. I couldn’t. When we walked to the pier, I asked the fishermen what they caught and peeked into their pails of fish. When we walked back to the car, I couldn’t go back to Nanang, no, not back home, “Noooooo!” I screamed.
Why was Ning-Ning bringing me home to Nanang? I didn’t want to go back. I punched and jabbed at her while she sat at the steering wheel, trying to stop her from bringing me back to Nanang, when she calmly turned to me and said, “If you don’t stop beating me, we’re going to crash.”
I wasn’t beating Ning-Ning. I would never beat my Ning-Ning.
“Your father thinks this is all my fault why I’m like this. I don’t know why I’m like this,” I say pounding my fists against my forehead, cheeks, and ears. After each blow, I note bruises on my arms from a few days ago. Ning-Ning doesn’t stop me. She just watches and in her calm voice says softly, “Stop, Auntie, stop.” I stop for a second and then begin again – pounding my fists against my forehead, cheeks, and ears. Still, she doesn’t stop me but watches and says in her soft low voice, “Don’t believe anything my dad has to say. You know the answer. You just need to think about it and you’ll know.”
When I was institutionalized, my brothers, sisters, and their spouses paid their occasional hospital visits, but Ning-Ning saw me every visitor’s day. She pushed her parents to talk about me but like everyone else in the family, they refused. They just wanted me to be happy and were angry at me that I couldn’t.
“Ning-Ning, when I was twenty, I remember your father telling me that he would hang me or any of the girls if we ever got pregnant before we got married. That’s what he said, his eyes bulging out of his face, you know the kind. It didn’t matter if we were raped. I’m older and he said that to me!” I laugh, not that it’s funny, but there’s no other way to say it except to laugh.
“Yes, Auntie, I know what you mean,” she returns with a slight laugh. It isn’t a true laugh but more so a sound to let me know she understands. Did Rudy threaten her too with the same words? I feared his temper, screaming and anger. Why did he loathe me so much? Did I not care for him when he was a boy, holding him before he went to sleep or when he woke up from nightmares crying? I suppose because I’m a woman and he only has daughters and he hates me, hates all of us.
Suddenly, Nanang and a stream of about ten guests enter making the room even more unbearably hot.
“You need to eat . . . . You need to get out of bed. . . . Come on, wake up. . . . Get up . . .” all the voices seem to say at once.
“Anak ni diablo! Ukininam!” scolds Nanang as if I were an unruly ten-year-old. Upon hearing the old crazy woman berate me in front of everyone, I rise from underneath the covers and quickly raise a hand, ready to strike Nanang when Ning-Ning yells at me to stop. But no one would’ve ever known if no one had been around.
“Get out!” I scream.
“Just give her some space,” Ning-Ning says calmly. “Auntie Nena, you’re dehydrated. If I bring you a glass of water, will you promise to eat something? I’ll eat with you.”
A pause. “Yes.”
I struggle out of bed and saunter into the living room holding Ning-Ning’s hand. My nieces and nephews look at me shocked. My hair is a mess, I am in an old torn-up duster, and my eyes weigh heavy above my cheeks. I am embarrassed. While I eat, my nieces and nephews stroke my hair. Leave me alone, I think, but I don’t say it. I need to eat. I haven’t eaten the entire day and the spoon feels heavy in my right hand. I eat in small bites while the usual statements from my brothers and sisters swarm like mosquitoes in my ears, “Get better . . . . Cheer up . . . . It is your fault you are like this.”
And from Rudy, the stabbing words, “You are full of bull! There is no real reason why you are like this. You want to be like this! You have taken on this goddamn white man’s disease, this bullshit they call depression. You know there’s no such thing. It’s something the white man made up for you to believe and you believe it. You are full of bull! You just need to appreciate what you have. Look at you. You cannot even take care of our mother. You are irresponsible and full of bull!”
His words smolder into my brain. I wail aloud. There’s no other way to communicate to him or anyone else in that room. They can’t understand. They don’t even try to.
“I am not full of bull! I’m tired of you telling me who I am! I took care of you, remember? I put you through college! I helped pay for your wedding! I took care of your babies when you and your wife were too busy making money!” I yell back while bits of chewed-up rice and drops of spittle fly madly from my mouth. I must look like a mad dog.
Rudy, however, isn’t the type of man to concede to any truths placed before him or be scared of me. Rudy is proud, always has been, and as the eldest male in the family, even though younger than me, I know he believes he is right about everything and could never be rebuked as he was being rebuked now by me. A woman. A crazy old woman. I am beneath him. I am nothing.
“You are full of bull and you are crazy!” his words boom using his voice to overpower me. This is the first time I stand up to Rudy. Everyone, however, is used to Rudy’s behavior. No one has ever dared match or challenge his yelling and screaming. It was what got Rudy to win at the end of the day. No one stopped him. No one stepped in. No one protected me. This was how it was with Nanang. This was how it continued with Rudy. And it continues where everyone just watches because this is how family operates. That this is normal. To rebel, to be unhappy with the structure, means you are stepping out of line and you are wrong, like I am wrong now.
“What you need is electric shock therapy! They should’ve given it to you when you were in that loony hospital!” Rudy yells, violently swinging a finger in front of my face.
Why couldn’t anyone see? Was I the only one? Then a small voice booms on my behalf, “Dad, stop!” Ning-Ning yells with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Anna, you shut-up! Ukininam! You don’t know your Auntie Nena like I do. She is crazy! You think you know her. I know her! You don’t!”
I’ve had enough. I grab Ning-Ning’s hand, run back to my bedroom, and lock the door. In the living room, Rudy continues to yell while small, hushed, timid voices try to calm him down.
“I’m leaving, Ning-Ning.” I run to my closet and pull out my freedom – a small suitcase with my account books, passport, naturalization papers, cash, Arnel’s letters, and some clothes. I have to go. It’s time.
“Where will you go?” she asks sitting on the edge of my bed, her hairline damp with sweat.
“I’ll give you the address.” I give her a small piece of paper with the address and on its back is the note I had written to myself thirty-six years ago. “I know you won’t tell anyone. I need to go. Ning-Ning,” I pause, then correct myself, “my Anna, don’t ever be like me.” I then take her into my arms, inhale her sweet sixteen-year-old scent for the last time, and kiss her on the cheek.
“Go. Go,” she whispers with a worried smile.
So in my old-torn up duster with my hair still disheveled and in my house slippers, my darling Ning-Ning watches me carry my suitcase, quietly walk out of the bedroom through the living room, past Nanang, past Rudy, past the fifty family members, through the front door, get into my car, and drive away.
**Shortlisted for the Ivy Terasaka Short Story Competition, 2008