“Two North” is a story about a Christmas when I was in grade school during a period when my mom was spending time on the psychiatric ward of our town’s hospital after trying to commit suicide to escape a physically-abusive husband. I was thirteen. It was a cataclysmic event in our lives but it brought us together into a two-person tribe like no other event ever has in my life.
I offer this story each year to my friends here at Eclectablog on Christmas as a tribute to my mother, a woman who went from being a pregnant sixteen-year old to retiring as an executive for the Chrysler Corporation in the short span of thirty-five years.
Much of who I am today is because of her and the lessons she taught me.
This may be read as a sad story, one full of tragedy and unhappiness. But, at the end, it’s story about the power of love to fill our lives in the midst of unhappiness and the unbreakable bonds between family members, whether it’s your biological family or, as Armistead Maupin calls it, your logical family.
Merry Christmas to all of you.
It was Christmas night and I was warm and felt very comfortable. Maybe the most comfortable I had felt in a long time. I wasn’t in my own bed but that was okay because my mom was there and I hadn’t seen her in awhile and it was nice to be with her. I was only thirteen but when I look back on it, it seems like I was older and I guess I was in some ways. Older than I should have needed to be, I suppose.
I was laying in the darkness, mesmerized by a spacey lamp, the kind you find in head shops or at Spencer’s Gifts, designed especially for moments like this. Christmas was over and, although my memory of the day itself is lost in the fog of time, I have a vivid and distinct memory of the little bits of colored light going up and down and around and around the lamp.
We had spent the day with my aunts and uncles at my grandparents’ house. My mom, Jacki, was pretty fragile and, although she was glad to be there with her mother and father and brothers and sister, she was just as glad when they all left and she could escape to the safety of the upstairs bedroom. We had gone up together and tucked into our beds, just single mattresses on the floor. My grandparents kept their house a sweaty 75 degrees and upstairs it was more like 80. But that night, the warmth felt good and comforting and safe. We laid there in the dark, unable to see each other in the dim light coming from the spacey lamp in the corner, and talked for what seemed like hours.
It had been a crazy few months leading up to this night, for sure. That summer she had gotten married to John, her fourth husband. Shortly after the wedding, he proved that his tendency to become physically abusive when he was drinking wasn’t just a passing phase. Although he had demonstrated this tendency while they were dating, Mom ignored all the warning signs and married him anyway. While it seems crazy that a strong-willed feminist could end up as a battered wife married to an unemployed hick, it is as much a testament to the power of manic-depressive illness as it is anything else. It’s strong mania that makes a guy like that look irresistible.
John had hit her a couple of times that summer and fall but each time we all somehow managed to convince ourselves that he wouldn’t do it anymore. One afternoon in the fall, I had come home to our house on the lake to hear them shouting at each other inside. They were in the front room, their bedroom. It faced the lake and had windows all around on three sides. I heard her scream and could hear her crying but I was unable to do anything. I was thirteen and scared and was sure my Mom could handle this because I sure couldn’t. I was paralyzed into inaction and to this day I think back about that time with some amount of shame, wondering why I didn’t do something. Anything. Anything but just sit there while he beat her up. But I couldn’t and I didn’t and I just sat in a lawn chair in the yard for over an hour as they battled it out inside. Later, my mom noticed me and came out. She knelt in front of the chair and looked up at me. Her face was puffy and purple and bruised from being hit by the drunk monster we were living with. Her lip was bleeding. She was crying. “Chris, I’m so, so sorry.” This redneck piece of shit has just beat the hell out of her and she was apologizing to me. Then she went inside and smashed out all ten windows in the front room with her bare hands.
Looking back on that time, the thing that amazes me most is how normal we all acted. As if it were perfectly normal that my my mom would have a black eye periodically. Like there was nothing out of the ordinary that the cars would be smashed up from an altercation that ended up with John driving his car into the back of Mom’s car and holding down the gas as she held down her brake. It must have torn her up inside. After her third marriage, she had gone back to school and managed to get an undergraduate degree in political science while raising two school-aged boys. She had become very active in the feminist movement and had proven to herself, her friends and her family that she was smart, independent and capable. Given the paucity of jobs for political science graduates, she ended up as a district manager for a newspaper in Ypsilanti, Michigan and then decided to move back the tiny town of Michigan Center where her parents lived. Shortly after the move, my half-brother moved out to live with his dad so it was just the two of us in our new house in the little backwater town. It was there she met John, a regular at the Page One bar.
When he was sober, John was a very engaging and charming man. He had a winning smile and a twinkle in his eye that certainly caught the eye of many of the women who hadn’t been able to escape the small town life of Michigan Center. When my mother happened along, she noticed him and he most certainly noticed her. She was brassy. She shot pool. And, unlike many of the other barflies at the Page One, she was intelligent. They worked their charms on each other and soon were living together.
Some people get sappy when they get drunk. Some people get overly jolly. Not John. John got mean. He got into fights at the bar. He argued with people. And, once he moved in with us, he hit my Mom.
For Mom, his punches knocked her out of the ring. Nothing in her life prepared her for how to deal with this. While many battered women stay in abusive marriages for the sake of their kids and because they have no other alternatives, my mom had been on her own before meeting John and was perfectly capable of being on her own again. Yet something kept her from leaving him, even after he had hit her more than once. In completely foreign territory and in her manic state, she allowed herself to deny all the bad things that were happening and enjoy all of the good things that the new relationship had to offer. It was only later, after getting married and committing herself to the relationship, that she “woke up” and realized the situation she was in. After spending many years becoming independent and proving to herself that she could do whatever she wanted, she was now married to a wife-beater, had what seemed to be very limited options and had compromised nearly everything she had come to believe in. To add insult to injury, she had given her teen-aged son front row seats to the entire thing.
It must have been a very difficult moment of realization for her and it happened right before Christmas.
I was very close to both my grandmother and my great-grandmother and spent quite a bit of time with them. In fact, even as a young teen in eighth grade, I would pedal my bicycle to their house every day after school and spend an hour or so visiting with the two of them. My visits were an excuse for them to start cocktail hour and when I got there, they would each make a large tumbler of Kessler’s whiskey and Squirt and we’d look at magazines and catalogs, hook rugs and watch Match Game and Family Feud. As Christmastime approached that year, I began to spend more and more time at my grandparents’ house. Things at my own house were not that great and the familiarity of their home was comforting and safe for me.
One afternoon a few days before Christmas, my grandmother came home from the grocery store and found a note on the counter:
I’m going to be gone for awhile. Please take good care of Chris.
My grandmother’s face faltered for only a moment then she said, “Okay, looks like you’re having dinner with us tonight. Let’s go out to eat! Where would you like to go?”
But her breezy words couldn’t hide from me what I knew in the pit of my stomach was obvious. My Mom was not going to be back that night and, given her past, this note did not bode well for her mental state. For a while I pretended not to notice the hidden message I couldn’t miss in my Mom’s note. My grandma’s behavior made it clear to me that she hadn’t missed it either. Finally, it was too much for me and I went back to my Grandma with the note in my hand.
“What does she mean ‘take good care of Chris’, Grandma?” I asked her, not wanting to know the answer. Grandma was quiet.
“She’s going to commit suicide, isn’t she?” I asked.
Grandma moved next to me and then hugged me tight against her chest, rocking gently back and forth. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
“I don’t know, Chris. I just don’t know…”
Later that night, right before bed, the phone rang. My heart leaped as I eavesdropped on my Grandma’s end of the conversation.
“Oh, dear. I see. Where is she now?”
“How is she? Is she going to be okay?”
“When can we visit?”
“Okay. Thank you.”
She hung up the phone, her face pale and sad.
“Your mother took a bottleful of sleeping pills then drove to her therapist’s office. They took her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. Now she’s on Two North. We can visit her tomorrow.”
Two North. Even as a kid, I had heard of Two North. Two North was the “Loony Bin” at Foote Hospital in Jackson. It was the ward where people with mental problems were taken, the crazy people. And my mom was there. On Two North. She had tried to kill herself and now she was on Two North.
Merry Fucking Christmas.
The next day after breakfast, my Grandma took me up to the hospital. We took the elevator to the second floor then followed the signs to the “Psychiatric Wing”. We came to a set of swinging doors that were locked tight. Over the door was a small plaque that read “2 North”. My grandmother pushed a button on the wall that rang a buzzer somewhere behind the door. Shortly thereafter, a nurse came out, spoke briefly to my grandmother then allowed us to enter. The doors swung closed behind us and I could hear the “click” as the doors locked automatically. The locks on these doors were meant to keep the patients in as much as it was to keep unwanted visitors out.
The nurse led us to a room with a television blaring and people in bathrobes sitting in groups or alone, some smoking cigarettes, some staring vacantly into space, others talking to people that weren’t there. My mom was sitting on her own, quietly smoking a cigarette and looking out the window.
“Hi, Mom. How ya doin’?” I asked her.
She gave a small sob and grabbed me, hugging me close. “Chris, I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. Oh, I’m so sorry…”
It was hard seeing her there, so scared and alone. This wasn’t like my Mom at all. My Mom was strong and normal. She was happy, not sad and scared. I looked around at the room we were in. Many of the other patients on Two North were quite mentally ill and they frightened me. I wanted her to come home with us in the worst way. I told her that.
“Honey, I need some time to figure things out. I can get help here and it’s safe. I’ll be home soon, I promise. I might even get to come home for Christmas.”
We didn’t stay long. What do you talk about in a situation like that? My Grandma gave her a few things she had brought along, cigarettes, toothbrush and toothpaste, some stuff for her hair. Then I hugged her and we left. I didn’t cry. It seems like I never cry.
Over the next few days before Christmas, I stayed with my grandparents. I avoided my friends. What could I tell them? That my Mom was on Two North? Everyone knew what that meant. It meant my Mom was crazy. Nuts. Mentally ill. I really didn’t want to talk to them about it.
On Christmas morning, my Grandpa went up and picked my Mom up from the hospital. I don’t know what gifts I got that year although I’m sure my Grandma was the one who bought them. But the best gift I got that year was my Mom being home on Christmas day.
Somehow we made it through the day. We all knew my Mom and I had to get away from John but that discussion was for another day. We were just glad to be there together as a family, making small talk and pretending everything was normal. That’s how my family deals with things. We’re pretty good at it, too.
Later that night, in our snuggly cocoon upstairs, my Mom and I talked. We talked and talked and talked. We talked about my dad who I had never met. We talked about what we were going to have to do next. We talked for hours.
The next morning I woke up late. My Mom was gone. She had gotten up early and had my Grandpa drive her back to the hospital. Back to Two North. She wasn’t ready yet for the real world. She needed some time, some space, to get her head together.
Over the next year my Mom would leave John and we would find a small apartment in town where we hid out, afraid of violent retribution after the divorce papers were served to him. The apartment was small, cozy, and warm. I started a new school and my mom started a new job as a paralegal, helping people work their way through the legal system. Typical of her, she did her own divorce without a lawyer.
The apartment was a haven and the two of us grew closer than ever there. It was strange place for both of us but it was safe and gave us time and space to get our heads together. And the only crazy people there were me and my Mom.