In 1952, my mother swept us up out of our adobe house at 2215 Indian School Road in Albuquerque and drove us out into the desert in our Plymouth Dodge. When my father came home from one of his first days on the job as a forest pathologist with the USDA/Forest Service, we were gone.
As he was preparing himself to call a friend to help him try to find us, the phone rang. It was the FBI. They said my mother had called them and told them that someone was going to kidnap us and that she had heard this dire threat on the old Phillips radio sitting in its alcove off the dining room.
We were found with a flat tire somewhere east of Santa Fe. I was in the back seat with my infant brother; she stood in the wind and dust outside the car with the door open, shaking and crying.
In a few days, my father went before district court in Albuquerque and requested that she be committed to the New Mexico State Hospital. It was the only way for her to get treatment; his insurance didn’t cover mental illness.
She was loaded into an ambulance while I watched from the window of our dining room. My father got drunk, broke down, and my aunts who came to attend this act in the family drama threw him into the shower to sober him up.
In those hours after she was taken away, I became a mother. I undressed my brother, bathed him, put him in clean diapers and footed pajamas. I sat in the rocking chair in the room we shared, and held him, singing to him, and called my father to help me put him in his crib.
In those hours, I became a wife. I went with my father back out into the kitchen and asked him if he wanted me to make him a sandwich. He was already back into the scotch, sitting at the dining room table with his head in his hands. He said he did.
In those days, electro convulsive therapy was brand new. My mother was hooked up and shocked many times. She was administered the anti-psychotics of the day, so that she paced up and down the hallways of the hospital like a wraith, utterly lost.
One day we went to see her. She came down the hall toward us and didn’t recognize us at first. Her front teeth were missing.
I swallowed my sadness, tending to my brother. My father drank his away that night and many nights thereafter.
My aunts took care of us some of the time, as did my grandmother, who by then was frail and fearful.
Our house was enveloped in shadows and became the repository for the secret of secrets; shame was born. When I went off to school in hand me down dresses and a weak smile on my face, I wanted to disappear.
Instead, I tried to excel. I did my homework. I went stoically from one task to another with a great sense of self-importance. It was obvious to me that I was It. I would be the one to hold our family together.
We always hoped that she would get fixed and come home and go back to making gingerbread in the brown pottery bowl in the kitchen. We hoped that they would stop fighting every night, terrifying us. We needed for our house to be a safe place to be. It never was.
When she came home for a few weeks, a few months, she would throw herself back into running the household, and me, with a vengeance. She bound me to her and forced me to endure hours of loneliness. At first when she was angry I tried to stay out of her way. Within a short time, she would unravel and I would find her sitting in a chair shaking with terror at the voices she heard.
“Please help me. Please help me.” she would say, clawing at her arms, running her tongue over her teeth, utterly disheveled, not having bathed or changed out of her nightgown. This would terrify me and enrage me. I had no idea how to deal with how I felt.
I concealed my anguish until I could go out into the yard and throw things. I would go out behind our house and scream with my hands over my ears.
Things got easier and harder when my brother could walk and then run. Keeping track of him was a big job, but it helped me keep track of myself. We read, drew, and told each other stories. As we got older we buried ourselves in books. We got a television and glued ourselves to the Western dramas of the day. We taught ourselves and each other how to transcend, how to wall ourselves off in our imaginations from the German opera that was our family’s daily life.
I always believed that my mother was acting some terrible part in a dark, dark play, that she could pull out of her spells if she wanted to. That she didn’t or wouldn’t haunted and angered me. By the time we had moved to Colorado and I was in junior high, I had begun to yell, throw things, and terrify her back. WW Smackdowns have nothing on what we went through behind closed doors in our rented tract house.
I could be a school girl some of the time and the rest of the time, I was a young lioness in training, knocked around by a snarling, vituperative mother, relieved when she was hauled away, privately exulting when I heard that she had been zapped again, given another round of shock treatments. When she was home, I protected my wounds and deep grief by going on the offensive and besting her with something said, or in knock down drag out fights when we went at each other.
I had no other way to keep myself safe but to scare her away from me. This scared everyone else. My father and brother were passive; they would retreat and hide. I would confront. I would go after her burning with anger to shut her up, to interrupt the volley of terrible things she would say to me.
At her malformed feet, with their hideous yellow claws, I learned rage. I never learned love.
A lioness with scars and wounds retreats into her cave to recover, and every so often goes out to make a kill. She camouflages herself in the tall grass and watches and waits. No one wants to become a wounded animal, but trauma makes that happen. Just ask someone coming back from Afghanistan without legs, sitting in Walter Reed.
My facade and persona for many years has been someone kind, loving, gracious, who when triggered, drops to all fours and grows fur and fangs. This is why I’m alone. This is why I don’t have a husband or children. This is why I can’t tolerate being close to anyone for longer than a few hours at a time.
Yesterday, one of the cats that lives with Doug, my companion and “wasband” climbed up under the couch in the den and had three kittens. I thought we should get them out and put everyone in a box. He got very upset, twitching around, adjusting his glasses, resisting. He said they would be all right. I said we couldn’t know that.
Something about his behavior, his unwillingness to step up in the face of something that needed to be done, a situation concerning the safety and welfare of our vulnerable animals, flipped my switch. In him, in these moments, I know who I see. I am often prepared for this to happen, but yesterday, my arm shot up and I cleared the counter top of two cups full of pens and pencils; things flew all over the floor. Suddenly I was standing outside myself, looking at an enraged woman sitting in a wheelchair morphing into a harpie, with eyes of fire.
He rose over me, his face dark, shouting at me.
There we were. Two adults who care about each other, with a twenty year history together, each of us reliving something that was indubitably not about the fact that there was a new nest of kittens under the couch.
I hate who I am in such a moment. I am putting nearly everything I have into becoming a kinder, more loving person who doesn’t have to be ruled by anger.
In a few minutes, we both retracted our claws. That love had just been mocked, rendered nonexistent, that we had carved into each other, hung like smoke in the air between us. Deep within myself I felt myself dive off my life raft and let myself sink.
I sat very still in my wheelchair. I said to myself: “Let it pass. It’s like a storm. Let it blow over.”
I got up and got the “plumber’s friend” and plunged away the rest of my anger, unstopping one of the kitchen sinks. We hung in, trying to move together to a different place, a country of gentleness between us, to return to talking about art and music. I put on Bonnie Raitt. I talked about my manuscript and that I am going to have to buy MS Word after all, because Open Office documents lose their formatting when they are attached to an e-mail.
I went in to the den and for the first time in three years I lay down on the floor. I have no idea how I did it, as both knees are gone and one is wrapped and the other is braced. I heard tiny mewings under the couch. I ripped the lining along the seam and reached in and pulled out three golden tiger kittens. Their dried umbilical cords were wrapped around a leftover afterbirth, and they were attached to one another.
I asked Doug to bring in scissors. We cut the cords, and got the family of cats set up in a private place in a box in a bathroom cupboard, the door ajar. I could not get up without his help.
During the moments of detente, the subsiding of our anger and fear, I could have left. But I looked into the eyes of my beautiful young Golden who lives there and will one day be my new service dog. I looked at the other cats, who looked back at me. I looked at Tess, my matriarch Golden who lives with me and one day will be gone.
I looked at Doug, and down at my own hands, and out the window at the twilight.
There is the past and there is now, there are the New Mexico years and last night. There is the person I am trying to leave and allow to die, within me, and the one that takes refuge in her own small household, losing herself in writing.
From my window I see couples pass with strollers; they seem to be happy, to get along. I imagine that if I asked them about their parents they might tell me that they are celebrating 50 year wedding anniversaries and enjoying retirement.
But perhaps I am looking at an illusion. After all, the front of a house is its facade. The person who smiles at us when we walk past her could become a dark, carrion eating bird at nightfall, or something dragging a newborn gazelle into its den.
Writing this makes me want to go out into the field where my mares are, and ride one far, far away, at a dead run, as if taking up a life in another world could fix all of it.