My ex-wife Mirren killed herself. It took her more than twenty years and all her many meds. Ten years ago she let her mother find her dead on the living room sofa, in the middle of the day.
The only way I can write about this is to cry, and to believe I just learned of it. I might never write of this again. I might never see so clearly this way to remember, to carefully lift her from the wreckage.
I usually keep her as a sketch in my heart, on a clutched curl of paper I glance at once or twice a year. Not tonight. Tonight I lay her images before me. I close my eyes, and allez-oop, I fall into that place again, of first and devoted love.
Damn. This is still not the best or right way. I am dodging, like always.
The right way is: I loved Mirren with all my foolish boy heart and soul and breath. Half of every breath was hers. My only appetite at nineteen was to see and touch and move beside her, to make her laugh and smile at me. To sleep in her presence. To read what she read, to share brushes, paint, dinner, and moonlight with her, always.
I loved her merry eyes, and bright, wicked laugh, usually cracking out from behind her adult thumb-sucking.
I loved her determined, squat, radical-lesbian-feminism, her stubborn militancy –– and her pretty, girlish way.
Before and after me she was a gay woman. Before we moved in together, she was living with Diane and her lover Joni, in a sort-of three-part relationship. When she was with me she was bisexual, I guess. We were, well, enthusiastic with each other, but she was still a woman-identified woman, philosophically, and down in her grit, day to day. I was her satyr, her wild boy, and knew my place. I loved her utterly.
She was a poet, so she had secrets. These she tracked in stacks of journals and scrapbooks. She showed me only some of this, and I honored her demand to not look, ever. I wish now I had. Perhaps I could have seen it coming. Most of what she showed me was ornate and incoherent. It was her perversity, to tease my bourgeoise heart with experimental writing forms and elliptical, stream-of-consciousness poetry.
She might or might not have been raped by her cop father, growing up. She was unreliable, often psychotic and mostly hospitalized during her thirties and forties. She was so energetic at acquiring every possible diagnosis from a long line of psychiatrists and other professionals that none of us knew for sure, not me, her friends, her brothers, or her poor mother, what was really true.
There must have been something, some dead aorta in her quick heart, to explain how she ruthlessly cut herself for over twenty years. So much so she had surgeries to repair the damage –– and then she worked over the fresh repairs. Near the end she removed some parts of herself. She made us see the ruins. So yeah, maybe he did that to her, but maybe not. Too many slightly-off details in her partial stories, and everyone who knew her, who loved her, needed something, some extremity to account for her broken world, and she knew this, too. She was noble enough to feed us a good explanation. I don't know.
I met her when I was a street-wise hippie of thirteen. She was sixteen. We crushed bad on each other. She was beautiful and exotic, a committed artist. I guess I was funny, and some kind of authentic. What seemed hard-core to her and everyone else was just my broken-home blues. We had no washer or dryer, and my mom was often gone, so fending for myself looked like a commitment to the "values" of tuning in and dropping out; my creative use of a paltry wardrobe looked like some giddy commune style. She thought I was the real thing, and no one, not her, not my friends or schools, saw my poverty and neglect for what it was. I was sort-of lucky, with that.
It was 1968 and I was sleeping with every girl I could. We wanted to be together, Mirren and I, but it was a bad time for classic romance. We went with others now and then, and hurt each other, off and on, but we were expected to be cool about it. Hippie cred was important to us, so we pretended it was OK. Also: I was a total jerk.
And she either really was, or just pretended to be, a virgin, until she was eighteen. We groped a lot. Then we drifted away for a few years. In 1974 I heard she was working with autistic kids at a facility, so I looked her up, got a job at the same center, and within months we were married.
Mirren was a great painter. She often applied her paint crudely but with decisive colors, then refined the surface, letting slivers and bits show at the edges of the subtler top strokes. She was bold and knew what she wanted.
Her best work was of a frozen waterfall. Think "Nude Ice Descending a Staircase." The piece was unforgettably beautiful. Pure her. Almost real yet imprecise, distinctive shapes with uncertain edges, and indelible overall. A cold pour hiding broken stones, but lit from within.
Her essential secret was dementia, initially diagnosed as late-onset schizophrenia. She was to end up with a dozen diagnoses. Whatever it was, it was a result of bad chemistry, of unkind and unkempt misfires in her brain, and then all the terrible decisions she made as a result. She self-medicated with street and swapped-for prescription drugs.
This will turn out like every other effort I've made to write about her, a litany of horrors and mistakes, if I don't say some things. Before she left me, and went mad, she was kind. She was funny, and fun, and happy. We had three dogs, screwed-up kennel rescues, and she was passionate about them. We loved them and we loved each other. We had the impoverished island of two. We never stopped turning the kaleidoscope of romance, so we did not see clearly how grubby we were.
Disco came along and made us look ridiculous. We were suddenly not hip. I looked fey and affected, a quaint 60s pixie-dust type. Out-of-date, and I couldn't make the transition. She could, though, by spending more time dancing with women at the Kansas City gay clubs. And so our slow estrangement began. We stayed together less than three years.
In 1975, at the moment we conceived our daughter Molly I hallucinated butterflies. I wasn't high. We both felt a kind of instant, conjoined, hormonal zetz. Her eyes flew open, and she looked at me sideways; her first words to me: "Wow. Wow." My first words to her: "I think we just made a baby." Then she said: "I think so, too."
A couple of months later I was out on an errand with her former roommate, Diane. We came home and Mirren, looking pale and strange, told us she was pregnant. We both looked at her for a beat, then we turned to each other and went wild, clutching each other, jumping and whooping it up. After a minute we settled down and walked closer to her, to include her in our joy. She recoiled a bit; it was at that point we saw the full effect of her shock and dismay. We held her. She said the right things, mostly, but she looked like her world had ended. I cringe now when I remember us hugging, doing a jig, in front of a lost new mother, who had secrets.
Molly's very first steps, and Mirren's face, seeing her walk.
Years later, after our divorce, Mirren told me she only got with me to get pregnant. Years after that Diane, who became Molly's godmother, who is still my oldest friend, told me Mirren had chosen me to be the father, yes, but that she fell truly, madly in love with me. Neither of us quite know, still, why becoming pregnant meant such despair for her. Perhaps it was because of her father. Perhaps she saw our end, one way or another, in having a child. How becoming a mother and wife was just too much for her artist soul, and it would end badly. Perhaps she was even then starting her descent into the maelstrom, triggered by new hormones, and fear –– or perhaps her madness coming on was inevitable, and it was just bad timing. Bad luck.
When she killed herself I went to see Molly, who was living in DC. I stayed a couple of days. Molly was preparing to fly out to Denver. She held up OK. Kind of frantic, and numb. Her mother had been a powerful but oblique presence in her life. Mirren waited until Molly was grown up and well-begun, and it took all she had to put off the end to her suffering. I write this to testify: Mirren was a decent human being, very badly wired. Mostly, she just hurt herself. Today, with modern meds, she might be a productive if transgressive artist.
I wish you had survived, Mirren.
I wish you could see how Molly turned out, Mirren, how strong and lovely. Sturdy and practical, in your family's Scottish way. Not as fragile as you, and she manages her vulnerability in ways you never could. I wish you could see how smart and funny Molly is, how like you in this regard. The two of you would laugh together, a lot. I wish you could see how Deborah, my wife, was and still is so good for your little girl.
I do not miss you as you became. I loved our first love. I love you still, Mirren.