He stood at the bottom of the stairs, staring up at me. “Where’s your mother?” His eyes blazed with worry.
I pointed to Taylor’s room.
Daddy bolted up the stairs. I leaned far to the side, out of his way, then hovered again perched at the top of the stairs. Daddy pushed open the door and I caught sight of my mother sitting on Taylor’s bed, her arms around him as he wept. She looked up when Daddy stepped in and slowly lifted her arm. She had the gun in her hand. It’s ugly, cold metal caught the light.
I rose to my feet, my hand resting on the stair railing. Daddy looked back and, seeing me there, quietly closed the door behind him.
Would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give?
—The Ghost of Christmas Past, A Christmas Carol
I watched Alistair drive away with Taylor. They were going to the VA hospital in Charleston to get Taylor the help he needed. When the car disappeared, I let my fingers drop from the curtain and slipped down onto the sofa and buried my face in my palms. I wanted to cry, but I was too tired for that much emotion. I was exhausted emotionally and physically.
I slumped on the sofa and rested my head back as a wave of anguish washed over me. How could my son be so miserable, so despairing, that he’d want to take his own life? Even though when I took the gun from his hands and he’d sworn he wasn’t going to pull the trigger . . . who really knew?
I was a failure as a mother. No matter how much love I showered on my son, it wasn’t enough to stop his feelings of helplessness. Or the nightmares. I’d felt sure that being home again, surrounded by all our love and support, would fix him.
I lifted my head and took a sweeping gaze of my home. The living room was draped with pine and holly. I felt the sting of disappointment. At this season when we should have been coming together as a family, we were falling apart.
I jerked around to see Miller standing in the hall. Then I felt a sickening wave of self-reproach. With all the worry over Taylor I’d forgotten all about him, my second-born.
He pushed back a shock of his brown hair from his forehead. “Mama. I don’t feel good.”
I rose and hurried to his side to wrap him in my arms. Poor Miller, I thought. His stomach was probably tied up in knots after all he’d just been through. Taylor was being taken care of. Now I needed to worry about my baby.
“You’re probably just upset about Taylor. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
After a pause Miller asked haltingly, “Was he going to kill himself?”
I looked at Miller with a mother’s eye. He looked pale, with dark circles under his eyes. Such a horrid question for a child to ask. I swallowed my guilt that he’d seen and heard more than a ten-year-old should have. How could I explain such complex matters in a way Miller could understand but not be frightened? He was too bright for me to gloss over the facts. He deserved my honesty, I thought, even if simplified.
“I don’t know. He was thinking about it. But, honestly? I don’t think he would have gone through with it. You interrupted him at just the right moment. You were his guardian angel.” I said a quick prayer of thanks that Miller had arrived when he did.
“Why’s he like that?” Miller cried angrily, cringing in my arms. “He’s acting weird. It’s like the same guy didn’t come home.” Miller choked back a cry. “I don’t like him anymore.”
I squeezed Miller tight, brokenhearted to hear him say that about the older brother he’d once adored. Yet at the same time understanding. What reassuring words could I offer him when I, too, no longer recognized this stranger? I took a breath and spoke in as calm a voice as I could muster.
“I know you’re having bad feelings about Taylor that are hard to admit, but that doesn’t mean you don’t love him, right?”
Miller shook his head.
“We have to remember it’s not his fault. You’re right. He’s not himself. Your brother has something called PTSD. That’s short for post-traumatic stress disorder. Try to understand that he’s seen horrible things in Afghanistan and he can’t get them out of his mind. The bad thoughts keep coming back, even when he sleeps. He has nightmares.”
I could feel Miller nod against my chest. “I hear him.”
I closed my eyes. How could he not? Miller slept down the hall from Taylor. “He’s going to the doctor’s office now. They’ll help him. He needs some medicine that will help him feel better and sleep.” I released Miller, then lowered to meet his gaze.
His blue eyes looked back at me, filled with worry.
“Don’t be angry with your brother. Try to understand and be patient with him. He’s in pain. Wouldn’t you want help if you were in trouble?”
Miller leaned into me, resting his head against my breast. I put my hand on his head, holding him close. “We have to be strong for him now. Like he was strong for his country. He’s our hero, don’t forget.”
Miller stepped back and released a long, shuddering sigh. One that spoke of how long this bubble of anxiety had been in his chest.
“Can I watch TV?”
I normally wouldn’t let him watch TV on a school night, but we all needed to find some relief today. I wanted a glass of wine but wouldn’t have one until I’d heard from Alistair.
“Sure. . . . Did you eat lunch?” When he shook his head, I said, “I thought not. You must be starved. Do you want me to make you a sandwich?”
Miller scrunched up his face. “I’m not that hungry.” He seemed depressed, exhausted. His arms hung listlessly.
I stooped, kissed his cheek, and then ruffled his hair. “Go on, now. Just relax, okay? It’s been a tough day for all of us.”
Feeling helpless, I watched him climb the stairs to his room. My baby was afraid and lost, and the best I could offer him was a sandwich? I shook my head, fed up with my fantasy of how a good mother should behave. The belief that I could fix whatever ailed my sons if I just loved them enough, fed them good food, was a myth.
The PTSD was taking a heavy toll on my family. Taylor was getting help. I decided that it was beyond time for me to get professional help as well. I needed to learn about PTSD and how I could help Taylor. Letting him slip into isolation wasn’t healthy. I could no longer expect his anger, mistrust, and depression to simply go away. Allowing Miller to be confused and frightened was unacceptable. And for me to continue giving easy answers and blithely telling everyone that everything was going to be okay was naïve. This was my home. I felt determined to do what I could to increase my loved ones’ sense of comfort—and I had to be realistic—safety.