As soon as Mother left, I promptly relapsed. I never again had those frightening visions, but the feelings that had accompanied the hallucinations—the crippling weight and the terror—returned again and again. The same drug dose that had worked one day would send me spinning into confused sleep the next. Dr. Betts kept juggling the medications to find the right combination.
I think I was testing Stewart, trying to ask, ‘Are you really with me? Will you take care of me when I need you? Or when Sis is not in the room and Mother has gone back to Atlanta, am I actually all alone?’
Also I felt that I could not measure up to Mother’s standards—having the meat, the vegetables, and the starch for supper all hot and ready at the same time, along with a choice of three beverages. And if I couldn’t win this competition, I just wouldn’t play.
Stewart was still trying to carry out his duties at the church. Several times he left me alone with David when I was scarcely functioning. Once some friends stopped by to see us, took one look, and bundled David and me off to their house, where we listened to Mozart all evening. Another time Ann Dickens came by to visit. David was crying. His diaper was clean, and I had just given him a bottle. “I don’t know what to do when he cries,” I said frantically.
“Let me rock him,” Ann said. She rocked David and listened to me talk about difficult transitions, and when she left, just before Stewart returned for supper, David and I were both calm.
Finally some of the church officers had to tell Stewart, “The church can manage without you for a while. You need to stay home with your wife.”
And he did—for as many hours as he could stand. On one of our appointments I heard Dr. Betts joking with him. “How are you doing? Manic patients are exhausting to be around. They wear me out.”
“I know,” Stewart laughed. “They were the ones I avoided when I was a hospital chaplain in Atlanta.”
To break the monotony, Stewart allowed himself a few pleasures. An old friend from college had invited Stewart to an NC State basketball game. The friend’s wife was planning to stay home because of an allergy, but Stewart persuaded her to come to our house and keep me and David company so that he could go to the game.
Or Stewart would pack us all off to visit people when he couldn’t stand being in the house any longer. The drugs made me absent-minded, and I was afraid of forgetting something essential when we departed on one of these outings—diapers, pins, baby powder, formula, a needle in case the nipple on the bottle was clogged. Finally I realized that
I could keep a diaper bag permanently packed so that I wouldn’t have to assemble all these items each time. But what if we forgot the baby?
One of Stewart’s favorite hobbies was shopping for bargains at the K-Mart, and one morning he dragged me out for a shopping expedition with him, in search of those blue light specials—even though I was in a complete Zombie state from the tranquillizers. I decided that, because of my love for him, I could bear the humiliation I felt.
In my humbled state, I could not trust myself. I had to take advice from any available source. A neighbor saw me pushing David in his carriage after lunch and said, “I always liked to do that. Then I would go home and the baby and I would both sleep.” So I went home and lay down while David napped, even though I was not sleepy at all. When several older friends said, “I wish you could have a maid like I did to help with my baby,” I got busy and found someone who could come in to baby sit and do light housework once a week. Stewart let me take all the responsibility for that step, and were both surprised that I could keep up with the various slips of paper on which I had written suggested phone numbers and that I could make the arrangements.
“Sometimes you have to push yourself,” Mother had said.
“Don’t push yourself, honey,” my father told me over the telephone.
Once again the issue was whether to push or not to push. And once again I didn’t know what I should do.
I found that rocking David and singing to him calmed both of us. The words to the old spirituals seemed to capture my feelings. Mother had sung them to me as a child, her voice bouncing lightly on each note in precise rhythm. I let my voice linger and swell. Sometimes sobs would block my throat.
Stewart was relieved that he only heard me sing, “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” one time. More often I sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I laughed at the words to another song I remembered:
Noah, he built him, he built him an arky, arky
Built it out of hickory barky barky.
Perilous voyages were firmly fixed in the memories of the African Americans who composed these spirituals. And those anonymous poets seemed to know about how it felt to ride the waves:
Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down,
Oh, yes, Lord.
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground,
Oh, yes, Lord.
Almost anything could become a test of my fragile grasp on reality. Once Dr. Betts wrote the wrong name on my prescription. Had I changed identities? I got a card from the framing shop saying that the Sister Corita print needed to be picked up. But there it was, framed, hanging in the dining room, where its message had been comforting me all along. Had time reversed course? The man who came to fix our furnace said, “Lady, that old switch must have come over on the ark.” And the ad on the radio beckoned: “Come see lions, tigers, elephants, and the grandest collection of animals since Noah.” Did the whole outside world know about the song I’d been singing to my baby and the animal illustrations on the nursery wall? In between the circus ads there were frightening warnings of possible tornados.
I became aware that the days when I had something scheduled on the calendar—even something as mundane as a trip to the grocery store—were the days when I stayed in touch with the real world. On days when the calendar was blank, I was more likely to lose contact. I was the kind of person who always lived several steps ahead of myself. Meetings, assignments, appointments, and parties had given structure to my life. What would be written on the calendar now that my main task was to support an infant’s life? “Wash diapers,” “Fold baby clothes,” “Sterilize bottles”? I began to write some of these tasks in the blank spaces on the calendar and to make lists of weekly and occasional household tasks so that I could see how I would be filling my time. Or I invited friends to visit and duly entered their names like an appointment. I realized that I needed to learn to live in the moment. Perhaps I could even allow myself some unstructured time to sit with David and enjoy his company.
‘What do I want to do with my life,’ I asked myself. ‘What will it all add up to?’ I wanted to be a good mother, but I didn’t want to be the Madonna. Did I want to be a saint? That sounded scary. If I were a saint, it would have to be a secret—even from myself. Otherwise, I would be very unsaintly in my conceit. Was there such a thing as a secret saint?
What about Ann Dickens? Or the clerk on my recent solo trip to the grocery store, who told me patiently where twenty different items were? Or the friend who got a sitter for her own children and came by to give Stewart and me an afternoon out—an act of kindness she performed to mark the day and hour of her ex-husband’s re-marriage.
One evening I heard Stewart talking on the phone to my mother. “I don’t know,” he was saying. “We might need you to come back.”
“What for?” I demanded. “To take care of David? I don’t need her to take care of him.”
“No,” he patiently explained. “To take care of you. Someone’s been having to be here to take care of you.”
I never again allowed myself to get out of touch with reality for a whole day. I had some bad hours and then only bad moments and finally only the ups and downs that are considered normal. Dr. Betts had assured Stewart that my condition would be “self-limiting.” Apparently, it had run its course.