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Friday, December 19, 2014

A Bipolar Christmas

by Martin Achatz

My daughter was born at the end of an early December snowstorm. I remember the wind that night while my wife was in labor, the kind of wind that shakes parked cars. It tore up the darkness, as if it was mad at the sun for disappearing to the other side of the planet. At some point during that long, midnight vigil, I joked to my wife, Beth, “Keep it down. I can’t hear the wind.”
She didn’t laugh.
At 7:29 the following morning, our daughter was born, screaming and healthy.
The storm had blown itself out like a birthday candle by the time Beth gave the final push that brought our baby into the world. Outside, everything was blinding white and calm, a scene from Currier & Ives. Inside, I stood by my wife’s bed and stared at her and my newborn daughter, felt myself opening up, unfolding like some rare orchid in the moment. So serene. So perfect.
I’d like to end with that Madonna and child moment, tell you that later in the morning, three kings showed up and showered us with presents and food and free camel rides. But that isn’t quite what happened.
Before she became pregnant, my wife had been battling crippling bouts of depression. She’d been to counselors and therapists, talked about her mother’s death, started taking Prozac. Nothing worked. The depressions kept getting deeper and longer, as if she were on some endless donkey ride through the Grand Canyon at night during a full lunar eclipse. These lows were always followed by periods of respite, chrysalis times when my wife broke free, became all wing and sun and light.
Then Beth got pregnant. For those nine months, the darkness simply vanished. At first, we kept watch, waiting for the nose of an iceberg to appear on the horizon. After a few months of clear seas, however, we relaxed, began planning our future with something like hope. My wife seemed to be waking up after a long fallow season. Our life became a series of doctor’s visits and firsts. First hearing of our daughter’s heartbeat. First ultrasound. First time our daughter moved.
When we painted the nursery walls that autumn, my wife’s depressions were like shadows in the corners of a well-lit room. I was in graduate school, writing poems about mosquitoes and moons. Beth only had one bout of morning sickness her entire pregnancy. Approaching her due date and the upcoming holidays, we never heard the chains of the Ghost of Mental Illness Yet to Come rattling at our front door.
It took only a couple days after our daughter was born for the honeymoon to end. Beth woke up one morning and said to me, “I have a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach.” These nervous feelings were omens that something dark was about to descend, and I could see it in my wife’s eyes. She had the look of a rabbit being chased by a screech owl, ready to bolt down the nearest burrow.
Her ob-gyn seemed concerned but not panicked. She gave Beth estrogen patches and told her it was the post-partum blues. We liked this doctor a lot, and both of us clung to the belief that these little round stickers of hormone would steer the UPS truck to our house to deliver a glowing package of joy to our front porch.
As the winter solstice approached, however, I would come home from work night after night to find Beth still in bed, our daughter on the pillows beside her. The bedroom was a cave filled with the smell of sour breast milk. I’d climb into bed with them and hold Beth while she wept. As a writer, I don’t often use the word “wept.” It’s too melodramatic a verb, summoning up Heathcliff and Jane Eyre on the moors. But there’s no other word for how my wife clung to my shirt and sobbed, her body convulsed with a grief so profound it made her seem unstitched, as if her bones and muscles and skin couldn’t contain it. Sadness seeped out of her pores like thick, black sap.
Pain is a part of most Christmas narratives. Mary is a pregnant teen, shunned and rejected. As a boy, Scrooge is abandoned by his father. George Bailey is suicidal. Rudolph is bullied. And then there’s Nestor, a little donkey with ears as long as elephant trunks. In this Rankin/Bass holiday special, Nestor is teased for his anatomical anomaly and eventually gets kicked out of the barn during a blizzard on the winter solstice, a night, according to legend, when animals are given the gift of speech. Nestor’s mother follows him and ends up lying on top of him to keep him warm. She saves Nestor but loses her life in the process.
Despair accumulates like heavy snow in all these stories. Yet, there are also Garcia Marquez moments of magic. Ghosts. Wingless angels. Blazing comets. The long December nights always end with warm hay and church bells and sunrises.    
The druids and Celts understood this dual nature of the winter solstice time, this battle between death and life, darkness and light. I think early Christians understood it, as well. That’s why they chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ around December 21. They saw it as a time when human beings reached through the black and cold of winter toward the warmth and rebirth of spring, the very planet tilting from sorrow to hope.
On Christmas Eve, Beth was having a good spell. For a few days, she’d been able to get out of bed, play with our daughter, and wrap presents. During the day on December 24, we made sugar cookies and fudge, watched one of the multiple broadcasts of It’s A Wonderful Life on TV.
Outside, the clouds were the color of a dirty gum eraser, smudged with the promise of snow. The lilac bushes along our property line were capped with white. Their branches rattled in the wind like startled deer hoofs on ice or stone. A storm was coming. The weatherman was forecasting several inches by Christmas morning.
At church that night, Beth and I sat with family. Our daughter slept in the crook of my arm the entire service, her velvet dress the color of evergreen. As we lit candles and sang “Silent Night,” my wife slipped her fingers into my open palm and looked at me, a thin smile on her face. She wasn’t doing well, I could tell. It wasn’t anything physical in her appearance. It was the pressure of her body against mine as we stood, as if she wanted to climb inside my skin, disappear into me.
We drove home in silence, her hand holding mine so tight my fingers ached. I thought of the new ornament hanging in the branches of the tree in our living room. It was an angel sleeping on a cloud, and on the cloud were the words “Baby’s First Christmas.” It should have been that simple, that peaceful.
As we walked to the front steps of our house, Beth leaned into me. The moon pressed through the clouds above, shedding a dim silver on the snow banks along the sidewalk, like a failing flashlight. Familiar shapes, shovels and garbage cans and bushes, became looming shadows. My arms ached, as if they were holding up not just my wife and baby, but the heavens, as well. All of the talk of light and hope and joy from the church seemed as distant as Orion or Antares.
Then I saw something move in the night. A small, hunched shape on the apex of a snow pile. I stopped and stared at it. For a few moments, it remained frozen, and I started to believe it was simply a chunk of ice, that my mind was playing tricks on me. But it eventually stretched upward, like a crocus blooming in time-lapse, until it stood half in darkness, half in moonlight.
It was a rabbit, brown and tall. Its ears twitched back and forth, testing the night for danger. I could see the Christmas lights from our front porch reflected in the black marbles of its eyes. Its body was taut, like the band of a slingshot. It stayed balanced on its hind feet, regarding me. I suddenly thought of the legend of the talking animals, of Nestor crying for his mother in the night. The rabbit looked as if it was going to speak, to impart some ancient lepus wisdom of how to avoid pain and sorrow.
I waited on that Christmas Eve, that night of turning from darkness to light, for some kind of miracle to happen. I wanted to believe that a rabbit could tell me how to help my wife, that God could become human, that happiness could overcome the black of winter.
My daughter cried out in my arms, and the rabbit bolted. I watched it scramble out of the moonlight into the pitch of the lilac bushes. Then, silence and snow and dark. We began moving toward our front door. For some reason, the distance seemed unusually hard, as if we were struggling through water or against a strong wind. It would be half a year before Beth was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Those six months were filled with more deep depressions, followed by flights of sleepless energy. Some days, Beth would carve hieroglyphs into her arms with razors or knives. Other days, she would book airfare to Florida and Walt Disney World. I kept waiting for the long night to end. For a ghost bear to materialize and groan a healing incantation. Or a flock of angel starlings to gather in our maple tree and sing a lullaby. Something soft that would quiet my wife’s unquiet mind.
That Christmas Eve, as we walked to our home, I thought of the magi, struggling through desert and mountain. I thought of the sand in their teeth and hair. Their tired camels and mules. Their muscles and bones aching for water and rest. Their long journey, following a star, through the darkness toward the promise of light.

Martin Achatz’s work has appeared in Kennesaw Review, The Paterson Literary Review, The MacGuffin, and Dunes Review, among others. His collection of poems, The Mysteries of the Rosary, was published by Mayapple Press, and his contribution to the anthology The Way North was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He teaches at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan, where he is the Poetry Editor of Passages North.

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