This next chapter in my history is extremely difficult to write. It has a purpose in that the period of my life that it opened was six years of the darkest night of my soul. It is important to bring forward because of its impact on the rest of my life; and yet it must be brought forward in such a way as to not be sensationalist nor disrespectful of others. A warning here: it concerns the death of a child. While death itself does not feel ominous to me, and death of loved ones who have lived wonderfully long lives is still understandable through its sadness, it took me years to understand any part of the reasoning of a life being cut short at such a young age. It would take the understanding that a lifetime of potential cannot be measured in solar years; that sometimes the potential for one lifetime gets reached in a short amount of time. The lessons get learned, the gifts get given, and the soul moves on to the next level.
When we moved back up to the Bay Area, we lived at the Sivananda Yoga center in San Francisco. We had been there for a few weeks, when my sister contacted me. The people at the center had related the various episodes from the past year or so. She had been coming to the center and acting pathetically frenetic. She had been talking of spirits and taking hours-long salt baths while talking to herself loudly and incoherently. She had been committed to a psychiatric ward for a seventy-two hour hold. People talked to me as though I could make her stop. They looked to me as though I had some responsibility, or some sort of understanding that I could explain it all to them. I had hoped to be able to be at the Yoga Center without her knowing, but it’s a small community and the news reached Sacramento in a couple of weeks.
Mike and I went to Sacramento to visit her and her family, and were introduced to their six month old infant, another beautiful baby girl. Five year old Tara was subdued and she seemed to not want to be too near her mother. Knowing the bond that Tara and I had previously and my desire to have a child of my own, my sister cavalierly remarked as she gestured to the baby, that I “could have this one”. My sister was obviously not well, and her presence made me feel very uneasy. We left thoroughly confused and overwhelmed by the afternoon. Not once in that afternoon was there any mention of any of the mental and emotional difficulties that my sister had been dealing with. There was no mention of needing help; if my brother-in-law had any concerns, he did not mention them. Perhaps he was doing what so many in the family did for so many years and walked quietly around my sister’s moods so as not to have her become reactive. He thought she was taking her medications and so it gave him reason to think all was under control.
I received a telephone call from her a week or so later, her voice was so different that I wasn’t even certain that I had been talking to my sister. The eerie tone of her voice as she spoke phrases not ordinarily hers lodged a chill in my spine. It was at that moment that I fully realized how mentally disturbed she was. I talked with her husband, saying that she must be in a hospital immediately; there had been enough of trying other means to reach through her tangled web of delusion. No more appeasing our Mom, who wanted him to wait three more weeks until she could come and help. He was exhausted and troubled and he knew the time had come for re-hospitalization. We talked late into the night; we agreed that he would call me at work the next day to report on the progress of having her committed to the mental ward at the hospital in Sacramento. My husband was not in our room when I returned from the phone call and I was left to sit alone and try to calm down and rid myself from the eerie cloud that still hung over me from the sound of my sister’s voice.
The next day was the Wednesday before the Memorial Day Weekend 1979. I got a call at work as promised and my brother-in-law told me that he couldn’t get a bed for my sister until the following Monday. He declined my offer to leave work and drive up to help him, saying he could handle things for a couple of days if I could get there for the weekend. I got time off for Friday afternoon and started preparing to deal with this person who was my sister and yet I didn’t know her at all. There was nothing left of her for me to know. She had become a many-faceted reflection of her psychosis and there was nothing that I recognized of her. I prepared myself to accept that the mood swings, the downright bitchiness and the anger were in fact something much greater than I could have imagined.
And then, late that night, her husband called.
My wail pierced the silence, coming from a depth inside me that is as ancient as time itself. I felt my body crash against the floor, crushed by the weight of the words “She’s killed Tara.” All at once, consumed by my grief and confusion, I was united with all the keening women of the ages. I knew the meaning of the death keen as it echoed from a place so deep inside that it felt like it came through me, not from me. I felt my spirit leave my body, hover over my head, and I then saw myself on the floor from the upper corner of the room. Never have I cried as I cried that night; the sobs and wails came, and came again, from the dark volcano inside my soul.
The entire household gathered around me. My husband, who had been consistently absent from me for weeks, was at my side and holding me up as I just kept repeating in the phone, “We’ll be there. We’ll be there.” Tara was dead, and my soul ached as only grief can make it ache. I went through the process of readying to drive to Sacramento, calling my father, and detailing other arrangements, all without any difficulty. I could do this because it was only my form functioning. My spirit was flying through the dark sky in confusion and despair. For one brief moment, I connected with Tara, but she was on her way to her own destiny and was a fast-moving light of color that moved past me.
The following days were a long exhausting blur as we all tried to see a way that this horrible tragedy could have been prevented. Each of us—all of us—had done what was right at the time. My sister had maintained such an even disposition that her husband, who knew her best and who had carried the heavy load of the ups and downs of her insanity, felt that she had been improving. The doctors who examined her had not understood how great her psychosis had grown. There was no fault, no blame–just an overwhelming misjudgment of this woman’s mental state.
During the next months and years, I would ask a million questions, all summed up by the same word: why? Why did this happen? Why was it that one life would go so tragically haywire? Only eighteen months separated our births, and for our entire childhood we shared the same room. Yet, our realities were so completely different. Why and where did our courses become separated and take such divergent directions? Why did she become a paranoid schizophrenic? How deeply lost in her mind must she have been that she mistook her lovely daughter for a demon that needed to be vanquished? Why did no one realize that her outbursts and violent rages were more than mere temperament? How did she live her life so that the depth of the psychosis was not fully seen? Why didn’t people deal with it effectively once it was discovered? Why had we all missed the tragic point? She had lived in her disease for years and no one had noticed the depth of it. Everyone was blinded by the beauty and the intelligence she embodied and her adept manipulations that covered her alternate realities. We’d missed the mark and the price of our ignorance was that Tara would be with us no longer.
Tara’s death shook my spiritual confidence to the core. What are the laws of karma that take the life from a five-year-old? What horrible trick of Nature allows a mother to not recognize her own child and cause it such great harm? My sense of security was completely shattered. There was no more certainty about tomorrow. Death was not something that waited patiently until a life was long and complete. My own hopes became more intense, more of a necessity. For who knew how long one truly had? Or, had with loved ones?
I stopped all spiritual practice, immobilized by my pain and grief. I was also very afraid that what I had been experiencing was actually insanity, and not spiritual growth. Sitting to meditate was impossible. The stillness it allowed me was quickly filled with sorrow and confusion, and sobs would lunge from my body. It became less painful to keep myself physically moving, and not allow myself to be in the quiet. Over and over I would see her and hear her talk to me in long dreams from which I awoke feeling shaken and lonely for her. It was nearly six years before I finished with the heavy grieving and let it give way to peaceful remembrance of her. During those six years, I did no spiritual practice. I was afraid of what I might encounter and fear would not allow me to open up to my own possibilities.
Brittany Kelly said:
That is a powerful story. Thank you for telling it. More stories need to be told about living with a relative with a severe mental disorder and how it affected their lives so people can move forward from how that affects or affected them.
Kate Cowie Riley said:
Thank you, Britt,
I agree that the families of those who have mental disorders are for the most part overlooked. I struggled a bit with how to tell this part of my story. I didn’t want to sensationalize it. I wanted to tell it in a very honest way and show how it changed my life.