We’d always had handguns at Mom’s house and Dad’s house. They kept them unloaded and securely locked in their safes. There was no mystery or excitement about them. In fact, they seemed rather useless because in an emergency, not one of them could have accessed them quickly to actually use them. And, even if we could, Mom and Dad told us never to get them because an assailant was statistically more likely to overpower us and use the weapon on us.
So the guns were kept with the mortgage papers and Great Aunt Lynn’s wedding ring.
Year’s later, when I was just a teenager, Mom’s depression got bad. The crying. The staying in bed for days weren’t things that happened just once a month. They were every week. Sometimes she’d be fine and cheerful in the morning and a different person — sad, dark and angry — after school. We didn’t need Grandma to come over anymore to make sure we were fed and to school on time. We could take care of ourselves. So we just tried to carry on with our lives as best we could, doing homework, hanging out with friends and going to our after-school jobs. It was hard sometimes to come home from cross-country practice or a babysitting job to find mom curled up on the kitchen floor in the dark. Hard to hear her tell us to go away when we asked what was wrong and if we could help. But you can get used to things being hard, especially if caring and asking does nothing to change the situation or just makes it worse. And of course, the family does not talk about mental illness so there’s no adult to help us. We adjusted to stepping over her to get to the refrigerator so we could get something to eat.
One Saturday afternoon we came home to find the safe open and a note from mom on the kitchen table saying she had left, and she’d taken the gun (as if she hadn’t made that obvious) and she may never come back. And so we waited for hours to see if she would come home alive or if a police officer would arrive to tell us she’d been found in her truck having blown her brains out.
Laura sat at the kitchen table, and Mike stood at the counter. I sat on the stairs. We looked at each other for very long silent stretches. About every half hour someone would wonder aloud what would happen to us, would we live with Grandma or with Dad, would we have to change schools and friends when Laura was almost ready to graduate. And what would we do without our mom even if we didn’t do much with her. And would I go to college. I’d been saving all my birthday money, and Christmas money and babysitting money for college since I was 8… all the money that didn’t go toward heating bills or tax bills for the house.
She did come home that evening and was angry at us. I don’t know why. She didn’t talk to us for about a week. And then when she did everything was suddenly great and she took us to the mall to go shopping.
The first time she took the gun to “commit suicide” I was scared. And then it happened again and again until we stopped wondering if she would do it and just felt exhausted by facing the same old questions about my own future again and again. We all came up with our Plan Bs.
It felt a little gross to feel numb about your mother committing suicide, worse than stepping over her in the dark. So we didn’t tell anyone about it. We just didn’t talk about that kind of thing in this family. And it always was all about Mom anyway.
Today as the national conversation about guns and mental health focuses so steadily on individuals with disorders having access to guns and what they might do with them, I always think about the families of those individuals. How, even if no violence happens, and it’s just fear or threats, they are still collateral damage.