My husband Mike and I sit in the third row of the audience, waiting for our Katie’s name to be called, waiting for Katie to graduate. Mike presses my hand and smiles. We are proud and grateful. There was a time when I could not have imagined Katie’s graduation from college. I remember that time…
Dress rehearsal of H.M.S. Pinafore was well under way at our community church. As a member of the chorus, I stood in my stiff, shiny-pink gown with nine other women, all housewives like me who had volunteered to do the show for “fun and funds.” One of the church secretaries entered, signalled to get my attention and mouthed “telephone.” I headed for her office, sure it would be Mike having to work late, or Joe, our eldest, calling from college, or Jimmy, held up at football practice, or Katie, our conscientious 16 year old, wondering what to defrost for dinner. “Hello,” I said. There was no answer.
“Hello,” I repeated, and heard a faint, muffled, “Mother, come home.” It was Katie. Something was wrong. “What’s the matter?” I cried. “Come home…come, please,” was the only answer. I hardly recognized her voice. “I’m coming, Katie, but what is it? What has happened?”
“I’ve taken sleeping…sleeping…sleep…” I heard the phone crash to the floor, and no more. For a brief, awful moment, I didn’t move, paralyzed by fear. Then I began fumbling in my purse for the car keys. “Please,” I managed to say to the secretary, “get an ambulance to my house. Get Katie to the hospital,” and then I fled to my car.
I arrived at the hospital just after Katie’s ambulance. They would not let me see her. Shaking with fright, I called Mike’s office. “Come to the hospital, Mike. Something’s terribly wrong with Katie,” I gasped. For the first time, I broke down in sobs.
The desk nurse took the phone from me and led me to a small waiting room from which I could watch Katie’s door. I still had on my Pinafore costume. I didn’t care. As the minutes steamrolled by, reality began to hit me. Katie had taken sleeping pills. SLEEPING PILLS! Deliberately. A word formed in my mind. I barred it. It formed again. I couldn’t bear it. SUICIDE! Katie had attempted suicide! No. Not Katie, NEVER!
Katie was the most loved and wanted child in the world, the perfect child, our pride and joy. She had honey-coloured curls and eyes as blue as the sky. Her teachers, from the day she entered nursery school, adored her, though at times we thought they praised her just a bit too much. In junior high school, when the other kids fell into the early-adolescent patterns that bewilder parents, Katie remained a joy. She didn’t giggle with the girls about sex, or go boy-crazy; she didn’t shoplift or smoke pot. She was elected a class officer every year, and three years in a row won the outstanding citizen award.
Mike and I never pushed her to achieve; she just did. She got good marks, was usually on the honour roll, played the piano, wrote poetry and did her homework faithfully. How we loved her!
My reverie was broken by Mike’s frantic arrival at the hospital. I rushed to him and we pressed each other’s hands tight. Just then a doctor opened the door to Katie’s room. We saw her still, sheet-covered figure on a table. Tubes led to and from her like wires on a switchboard. The doctor came over to Mike and me. They had pumped Katie’s stomach, he said. She was still unconscious, but they thought she would be all right. One of us should stay with her. We nodded, knowing we would both stay.
“Who is your psychiatrist?” the doctor asked. Mike and I exchanged incredulous looks. “We don’t have one.” Mike said. “I’ll send the staff man then.” His voice was matter-of-fact. “You’d better go into her room now. We may have trouble when she wakes up.”
Katie lay on a narrow bed. Mike and I sat, he at the foot and me at the side. I took Katie’s hand. It was cold, unresponsive. An hour passed. Two hours. An unspoken question thundered between us: why? Why indeed? Katie was good. Katie was successful. Katie was loved. Katie got along with her friends and teachers, with her brothers and even, wonder of wonders, with her parents. So why? There was no answer. When time had lost all frame of reference, Katie began to groan. As the groaning increased, her body began to move erratically from side to side. “Katie,” I whispered. “Katie, it’s mother and dad. We’re here.” Her groaning increased; her lips tried to form words; her body thrashed. Wiping her forehead, I put my face to her cheek. “It’s mother and…” Before I could finish, Katie spat out a mouthful of profanity that sent me reeling, stunned, back into my seat. Katie had never sworn before.
Mike left to get the nurse. They returned at once, the nurse carrying some gray bands that looked like army belts. She proceeded to strap down Katie’s ankles and wrists, working coolly, wordlessly. Katie heaved under the restraints, her face drawn tight, her back arching to pull free. As the nurse ran a damp cloth over Katie’s cheeks, Katie snapped like an animal, biting the nurse on the wrist. And out came a new string of curses.
So the night passed. For short spells Katie rested. For longer ones she twisted, pulled, screamed and spat her hate. When an intern untied her arms to examine her, she swung a fist and bloodied his nose. And she kicked the glasses off a nurse who tried to change her bed sheets. Finally, around six a.m. she fell asleep.
When Katie woke up later that morning, she tried to speak, but her mouth was too dry. I held a glass of water to her lips. I untied the straps that held her. She smiled. Mike and I spun toward each other. We held back tears. “Where am I?” Katie murmured. “In the hospital, Katie,” Mike answered. Katie rubbed her wrists. “I dreamed…I thought I dreamed.” She stopped, her face a frown of confusion. “I can’t believe it…all those things…I sort of remember…I hated everything, everyone.” “Us, Katie, mostly us?” Mike asked. “No. Mostly me,” she said, and closed her eyes.
A little later, Dr. Mathews, a staff psychiatrist, came in. He asked Mike and me to leave. Then stayed with Katie for an hour. When he came out, he took us into a small office. “Katie is a very upset young woman,” he said. “She doesn’t think much of herself. That’s why she took the sleeping pills.” “But she’s wonderful, always has been,” I blurted out defensively. “She must know it.” Dr. Mathews kept calm. “She knew you thought so, and she tried to be, felt she had to be, what you thought she was. That’s what she was telling you last night.” “Why that way?” I asked. “Why didn’t she just tell it to us before? We always talked.” “She didn’t want to disappoint you, didn’t want you to think she wasn’t as nice as they all thought she was. We all want to be loved, you know! She thought acting nice is what made people love her. Even her parents. She doesn’t think she is a person, so dying doesn’t matter. That’s my concern now.” “Then she might do it again?” Mike asked. “Yes. That’s why I want to put her in a psychiatric hospital for a while.”
Mike and Dr. Mathews continued talking, but I didn’t hear them. My mind blacked out. I came back into the world, dizzy and unbelieving, to hear them decide on the hospital to which Katie would go. “You know she’s not the first. There’ll be other young people there,” Dr. Mathews said. He got up and walked around the desk to us. “She loves you, you know.” “And we love her,” Mike said. “Then, why?” I pleaded.
“Love is not enough. You can’t exist as the reflection of someone’s love. You have to be your own person.” There was a long silence. “She will be.”
We returned to Katie’s room. She was lying on her back, her head to one side, her hair falling across the pillow. Outside she looked peaceful, like the Katie we had thought we knew. Inside, where we had never seen, seethed resentment and self-loathing, bound up by the image of our love as painfully as her wrists had been bound during the night.
Katie spent five months in the hospital. She missed that year of school, and decided not to go back in the fall. Instead, she got a job in a local store. We said nothing; we were learning to understand. By December, she felt she was ready. She returned to school as a junior and graduated a year and a half later. And that September she entered college.
Mike looks over at me and pats my hand. Katie’s name has been called. As she walks to the platform, the speaker announces her achievements, a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude, with election to Phi Beta Kappa. Katie finds us with her eyes on her way back to her seat. She smiles and gives a little shrug of her shoulders.
Afterward, everyone congratulates us. Mike and I smile, and say polite thank-yous. Only he and I and Katie know that underneath this ritual of manners lies the real “thank-you.” For something she has struggled for and won far above her graduation honors. For that struggle, she has, at last, her reward.
She has HER SELF!