By Catherine W. Crawford
I find myself lately wandering through the past. Sorting through layers of my life like an archaeologist, careful to brush gently so as not to damage what remains.
A six-bedroom house has many corners. We were once practically a town unto ourselves. Our doors never locked, our lights perpetually ablaze to ward off sadness and accommodate insomnia. It seems like a ghost town now. I look for tumbleweed. The two oldest kids live a thousand miles away. The extended family who shared our lives have moved on, grateful to be beyond the reach of the co-dependence that bound us. My husband Quinn, the central feature of the home, the elephant in every room, took his own life almost five years ago. The three young people still living at home maintain an uneasy alliance, each waiting to fall out of the nest and, gathering strength and a small amount of savings, flies away. The empty spaces have, like a dig, begun to give up their secrets; photos, notebooks, and revelations have surfaced. Some of these finds are mundane, some earth-shaking, and all leave me in wonder.
I have found my sociology notes, and copies of the tests that might have helped my younger daughter get a grade higher than a C last semester. I tore the house apart looking for them and here they are, right next to my desk.
I have found my phone charger, from three phones ago.
I have found many photographs.
In one, I am surrounded by pumpkins and kids, an autumn day eighteen years ago. My Autumn Self was always a happy one, endlessly optimistic, energetic, and creative. I have no doubt the woman in the photo thought her worst days were behind her. Losing a child, job changes, health issues, strange days when her husband was confused and erratic, early courtship days when people seemed conspired against them as a couple. What would we do differently if we could see what form our futures would take?
Another picture of all of us, smiles tired and wary, an evening birthday party about eight years ago. A stolen moment with cake and presents.
A photo I’ve never seen before. My eldest child, thin and tense, the way brides-to-be are, surrounded by her bridesmaids, bathed in sunshine at a bridal luncheon. Most of the photos seem to be taken in the fall, my hopeful time of the year. Too often, loving a person with a mood disorder means you cycle right along with them, and my husband’s cycles became ours.
I have found pictures of Quinn too, and they strike me in an odd way. I can tell his mood, what the day had entailed, what had not yet happened. It is always surprising to find photos of a man who hated to be photographed. He once (once? Maybe twenty times) told me how, as a ten year old, he ripped up every photo he could find of himself, systematically leafing through every album, destroying himself. I had always pictured this scene after a punishment from his mother, one laced with the poisonous guilt and deep shame she wielded so well. No wonder. No wonder. I grieve for the little boy who hated himself so much.
I married, at far too young an age, a man who was brilliant, angry, damaged. I thought the force of my joy could fix him. I thought children were sure to help. Although he said he wanted none, I ignored that statement, certain it was a wish to remain young. I had never been consistent taking a pill. I was just as inconsistent with The Pill. However, I barely thought about the adults my babies would become, the father I’d be giving them.
As the children grew, I wound the cocoon around us. The key was to keep the love coming—and keep the world away. I never knew the manipulation I was under, never knew the cocoon was his to weave, not mine.
I stayed home with my babies; I nursed them and homeschooled them. Through it all, Quinn encouraged me. My days were poured into the little ones. But the unwritten law was that all attention shifted to Quinn at the end of every day—and all weekend long. Even now, my memories of those days are rosy-hued and I miss them. Nowhere in these memories do I find me. I told my homeschooling friends my husband was very supportive. Very supportive.
I had no concept of mental illness, of bipolar disorder, of the long tentacles of shame and depression. My own upbringing had been gentle, structured, purposeful, with a sense of security so integral to my life, that I did not see my husband had none of his own. His narcissism was a thing of survival. He was a funny Pied Piper when his mood was high, organizing contests, making up rhymes and songs, dispensing tickles and compliments, and pocket money. And if they were naughty within earshot of Daddy, they were subjected to long shaming lectures; Quinn accused them of attitudes and even looks they could not have understood. There were tears, and shouting, and the next day a toy. A television, a bicycle, a puppy, the post-punishment gifts were ridiculous.
These gifts left the children confused but grateful that Daddy was no longer mad.
I can recall, with very little effort, the feeling of overwhelming relief when his rage was over, and all was temporarily ok again, as if the sun had come out and we were redeemed.
* * *
My hand traces the drywall that was pierced by shotgun spray a few months before he died. Examining the gun he forced me to buy for him, he accidentally discharged a shot in the house, which miraculously hurt no one. The wall was patched but the inside of the closet was not repaired. The holes lie just below some words an angry child once scrawled on the wall after a punishment. The words say, “Dad is an asshole.”
I have found his well-worn Zippo lighter. The sound it makes upon opening it, or rather the absence of that sound, was the first clue I had that he was dead. I hadn’t heard the sound in the hours before he died that night. I remember telling the 911 operator this fact.
I have found the journal he gave me for Christmas, 1981—the year the Mighty Quinn descended upon my life. We were soon engaged to the horror of my parents and siblings—and in a strange way, to my own relief. I would no longer have to see my mother’s face tighten as she heard Quinn’s car sweep up the driveway to take me away. I would no longer have to endure my father’s gentle, old-fashioned comments about character, and temperament, and the nature of a successful courtship. Or the lectures about how my education, my dreams and my goals, also mattered. Quinn and I would be away. Our grand story would continue, this time with new china and pretty towels, and a new name.
I hold the journal in hand, the pretty flowered cover now faded. On a romantic whim, I had dedicated the journal to Quinn, “the god of my idolatry” (I tended to speak in Shakespearean terms at age nineteen and sometimes quoted Elizabeth Barrett Browning). The first few pages are filled with gushing, overwrought nightly declarations of love. But as journals often do, it diminished into once-or-twice-weekly entries about my day. Quinn would ask how the journal was coming, and I would hurriedly write something heartfelt. After reading these entries, he would spend the evening pouting that my sentiments were “shallow” and “like something you would write in a letter to your sister.” My next entries would then gush about our “love” and the people who were thwarting that love around us.
In those pages I feel his manipulation, and my own desperate attempts to find a reason for it. I grieve that I only see it now.
I have been called “brave” by those who have known the outer edges of my life, but not the inner madness. I have been called “smart” as long as I can remember, but how smart was I not to see what I helped to construct? A brave woman gets a madman to a doctor. A smart woman does not buy a depressed person a gun.
He is gone now, that brilliant abusive boy, killed by his own hand with a gun he coerced me to buy, ostensibly, to protect us. Left in his wake are those five children, grown now, eager to flee this house, eager to try to escape memories of his illnesses, the chronic pain he suffered from a car accident, his despair at losing his job, his descent into a delusional world he insisted we share.
I have rearranged many of the photos on the walls, trying to incorporate those golden autumn days. I have loaded up the car with things that no longer fit into our lives. I am having more trouble finding a place for the memories, and where to put the girl who wrote the journal.
I have wrapped the journal carefully in tissue paper, unwrapped it, wrapped it again. I have flirted with the idea of burning it and just as quickly decided against it. I have held the journal to my nose, trying to detect the odor of Old Spice and Marlboros.
I have closed the nearest closet, and thrown away the sociology notes. One of the empty bedrooms will be reclaimed and a daybed and desk should just about fit. The artifacts will be cataloged, studied, dispensed with, put to rest. Here, at the end of all things, it is good to open my hands and let go.
Catherine W. Crawford, a Northern Illinois resident, wrote her first parenting piece when her first child was three. She is now a grandmother and finds that parenting never ceases to inspire and reward her.