Remembering Alana

 

I remember the night before Alana’s birth.  Two year old  Sarah snuggled in bed with me when a thought hit me so hard it was like someone narrating my life announced, “This is the last time there will only be two of you.”

It was a lie.

Four years ago I lay in bed planning the day. My house sitting vacation at Sarah’s complete, I braced myself for Monday at a job I hated.  On Sunday I’d attended a NAMI caregiver’s course and was eager to talk to Alana about it and what I’d learned.

If only the day had gone as planned.

Instead, on my commute to work, Alana’s boyfriend called me. I answered the call after almost blowing through a stop sign because of a thick, ground obscuring fog. I half listened as he rambled on that he and Alana had fought, but she couldn’t find her purse, and wouldn’t leave without it.  I neared the interstate ramp and pulled over and asked him what he wanted me to do. He told me to come over. He’d leave the door open for me.

Have you ever called 911 for someone you love? I mean real 911, like they’re not responsive and they’re not flexible, and they’re not warm, but you call 911 and start CPR because who knows…miracles happen.

Just not for me.

We prepare for the arrival of our children, but there is no what to expect when your child dies textbook to follow. There are no parenting discussion boards that cover cremation vs burial, church service or not, writing an obituary, and packing up a short life’s worth of belongs. The rituals of death are meant for the old and the sick, not for a vibrant 27 year old spending the weekend with her boyfriend.

When Alana was killed it killed a part of me that can’t be fixed. It took the spark of joy her smile summoned. The feel of her fingers pressed into my back when she hugged me tightly. A million text messages about things only we would find amusing. A belief that I could be happy.

I didn’t physically crawl into the casket with her the last time I saw her, but part of me might as well have. As much as I want to get over it and move on, no amount of therapy, medication, exercise, meditation, or positive thinking has helped. Instead I get up each day, put one foot in front of another, apply my happy mask and hope it doesn’t slip and expose the broken, sad person beneath.

And underneath all the pain, sadness, tears and despair, I can finally understand a small piece of Alana’s struggles with depression and marvel at the effort it took her each and every day to be the bright, smiling person she presented to the world.

If she were here I’d ask her forgiveness for the years I remained silent while family members discounted her mental illness as her being dramatic and bullied her about being unreliable and discounted her need for treatment. It wasn’t until late in her illness that I finally stepped up and became the mother she needed and deserved. I’d apologize for that, too.

Alana wanted me to write about living and loving children with mental illnesses. I wish I could honor her wish, but instead I’ll end with a Facebook post of Alana’s that illustrates why she would have been a great advocate for mental illness if only her life had not been cut short.

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I miss her today and everyday. Alana Concetta Carpenter 8/17/87 – 10/20/14

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My Grandmother’s Abortion

Grandparents

Grandparents (Photo credit: ☺ Lee J Haywood)

 

My grandfather told me about my grandmother’s abortion long after her death.

 

A bit of history. My grandmother was mentally ill. Though I have memories of homemade oatmeal cookies and games of Go Fish, I have more memories of profane outbursts, outrageous accusations, and bizarre behavior. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, my grandmother cycled in and out of treatment, tried and failed numerous drugs, and, at times, terrified me with her mood swings.

 

All the while, my grandfather stood by her.

 

As she approached her sixties, the good times became more infrequent. By the time she was in her seventies, they stopped. There was no mistaking something was wrong with her. She became a bright-eyed, bird-like woman who twitched constantly and did the Thorazine shuffle within the confines of their single-wide mobile home. Taking her out in public was an unpredictable experience. One day she could be smiling and eating happily. The next, she’d be pinching men in the buffet line and making inappropriate comments to the waitress.

 

My grandfather endured all of this because he loved her.

 

For many years I didn’t know what had happened to trigger her mental illness. I knew she’d been in Bellevue Hospital in the early stages of her disease. Fifty years later and my grandfather would still get tears in his eyes describing how the orderlies would tie her up, put her in ice baths, treat her cruelly. Prompted by the bruises he saw, he bribed the staff in hopes of better treatment. When she finally was released, he vowed never to put her in an institution again. He tried to keep that vow.

 

He told me about the abortion only when I’d finally summoned up the courage to ask why she’d been in Bellevue in the first place.

 

According to my grandfather, she had always been prone to worry and anxiety. She got worse during her pregnancy. The day after the birth, the nurse found my grandmother, with her infant son in her arms, attempting to jump out of the hospital window. She was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis. Whether she had command hallucinations telling her to kill herself and her child or delusions that the baby was possessed, I don’t know. Either way, the outcome was the same. Instead of going home with her husband and firstborn, my grandmother was committed to Bellevue Hospital.

 

My grandfather visited as often as he could. He gave the orderlies as much money as he could spare. He raised my father for three long years before she was released. Life slowly returned to normal.

 

And then she got pregnant again.

 

My grandfather, an Irish Catholic, and my grandmother, a Protestant, found themselves in a heartbreaking position. The doctors told them continuing the pregnancy would result in another psychotic break. This time, they told the couple, she wouldn’t recover. She would most likely spend the rest of her life in an institution.

 

Fifty years afterwards, my grandfather still agonized over the choice they’d made. Not the choice to have an abortion. He never wavered in his belief that continuing with the pregnancy would have robbed his son of a mother and put his wife in a hellish place. He agonized because instead of taking my grandmother to a clean, sterile place to have the procedure performed, he was forced to find a back alley abortionist, forced to choose between losing the woman he loved to mental illness or to the possibility of post abortion infection or death.

 

It was a decision they didn’t take lightly. It was a decision made by the two people most aware and most impacted by the consequences.

 

Today the politicians talk about abortion and, in the case of those who wish to outlaw the procedure, they talk about the parameters that should be used to decide if an abortion can be performed. If, as has been suggested, abortions should be allowed in cases of rape, incest or if the pregnancy puts the mother’s life in danger. But who gets to make these determinations?

 

Will rape and incest victims be forced to provide police reports, medical exams, and sworn statements attesting to their rape?

 

If the mother’s life is in danger, how will that be defined? Will someone compile a list of acceptable medical reasons with rationale? If the mother suffers from mental illness, like my grandmother did, would she be able to argue for the exception or is there some level of certainty that will need to be applied to meet the criteria. For example, if there’s a 30-50% chance of a woman having another psychotic break, is that enough to justify an abortion or will the woman be forced to complete the pregnancy and hope she beats the odds?

 

Because every time the politicians and the right to lifers talk about their anti abortion strategies, I think about my grandparents, a husband and wife who made a personal decision about their lives. The people who must live with the consequences of their actions should be the ones to decide. Not a committee. Not a politician. Not the courts. The people involved.

 

I’ll end with a quote by Frederica Mathewes-Green, a pro-life author and speaker who thinks society should work to prevent the situations that lead to abortion, rather than demonize the women who need one. She said, “No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.”

 

I’m sure my grandmother didn’t want an abortion, but when she needed one, I wish she’d had the option of a safe and legal one.