I was twenty six years old and living in Alabama when my story begins. My first marriage had failed after two years. I had made a complete mess of my first and second attempts at establishing a career. Having resigned from a disastrous stint in the insurance industry, I moved back in with my parents, into the home where I grew up. Everything I touched, thought, or did seemed to be ending badly.
Not surprisingly, my parents insisted that I see a psychiatrist. I tried, I really tried, but I just couldn’t tell him the truth. After some fruitless sessions, he prescribed an antidepressant. The only effect this medication seemed to have was to turn getting out of the bed each morning into an ordeal. I’d wake up and just lie there staring up at the ceiling of my childhood bedroom. There was nothing I could think of that would make getting out of bed worthwhile.
I had been an exercise rider for a federal judge for the previous two years. He owned a steel gray thoroughbred named Knight Commander. My job was to keep the horse fit and in training for fox hunting. Knight Commander had developed the habit of setting his jaw against the bit and galloping, out of control, at any fence that the judge directed him to jump during a hunt. This was dangerous enough in itself but it was especially dangerous in a crowded hunt field. This behavior didn’t manifest when I rode Knight Commander for exercise and the judge concluded that it must be the excitement of the hunt that was the problem. He invited me to hunt Knight Commander the second weekend in November to see if I could break the habit.
On the morning I was to drive to the judge’s home I awakened to the familiar feeling of paralysis. What was wrong with me? I should want to do this. I should be excited. I should be leaping out of bed in anticipation of a thrilling challenge. But I was none of those things. I was a failure. I had failed at marriage. I had failed in my career attempts. Now, I was failing even to get out of bed.
With an enormous effort, I dragged myself to my feet. I crossed to the casement windows of my room. Drawing back the full-length draperies I looked out, through the branches of the silver maple, across the yard to Pump House Road. Our house was located in the suburb of Mountain Brook, just southeast of Birmingham. The sun was just beginning to top the tall trees across the street. I gazed out at the peaceful scene and then turned back to my room, the sun now glinting off of medals won in fencing meets and a trophy handed to me when I won my first kayak race. On the wall to the left was my diploma from the University of the South. How proud I had been when the vice chancellor intoned, “Lillian Sue Wiygul, cum laude”—the culmination of four glorious years. I remembered walking to the front of All Saints Chapel wearing the slightly tattered and faded academic gown which had been awarded to me at the start of my sophomore year.
On the other side of the bookcase was a photograph taken from the top of a mountain looking down on jewel blue lakes. While friends and family at home were celebrating our country’s bicentennial I had been abroad, toasting the Queen at an opening convocation for a summer term at University College Oxford. I had taken the photograph on a weekend jaunt to the Lake District of northern England during that term.
None of it now meant very much. Surely these trophies and mementos belonged in someone else’s life. They didn’t seem to belong in mine.
I steeled myself for what I needed to do.
Right. I needed to get dressed. Pack my hunting gear. Get in the car, and drive the ninety miles from Birmingham to Montgomery, where the judge lived. It was like I was standing outside of myself just watching as I went through the motions. Somehow, I got myself together. I arrived at the judge’s home Friday evening, and, early the next morning, I groomed Knight Commander. I then trailered him and stowed my tack in the car, and the judge drove us the sixty or so miles to the meet.
As the judge pulled into the frost-silvered field deep in the heart of Alabama’s richest farmland, I saw the familiar sights of the hunt staff in their scarlet coats and the members of the hunt wearing black coats, some with the hunt colors on their collars. I got out of the car and sounds of greeting and laughter filled the chilly air. Horses snorted and whinnied. All of it familiar, yet all somehow alien. I didn’t feel a part of it. I felt isolated. I felt alone.
After the judge backed Knight Commander out of the trailer he saddled him while I slipped the bit between his teeth and drew the bridle over his head. Positioning myself at Knight Commander’s left shoulder I prepared to mount. He was a big horse, standing seventeen hands, one inch, but I had mounted him effortlessly many times. On that day though, getting myself into the saddle felt like climbing a mountain. I struggled, and slowly, oh so slowly, dragged myself into the saddle. I remember the judge placing a hand on my boot and looking carefully into my eyes. He said, “Are you going to be all right?” Without saying anything, I nodded, gathered Knight Commander’s reins, and moved off to join the hunt. The huntsman sent the pack into covert to draw for a fox. They shot off in ever widening circles. They soon picked up a scent, and, with the hounds in full cry, we were off.
We galloped across a bare winter field and approached the first fence.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do if Knight Commander got out of control but I trusted my instincts. One thing I needed though was space. Gently tightening my hands on the braided reins, I slowed Knight Commander down, the other horses—black, bay, chestnut, and white—flashed by. Then it was time. Leaning slightly forward, tightening my legs, I gave Knight Commander some rein. We gathered speed.
As we approached the fence Knight Commander pinned back his ears, threw his head in the air, and rushed the fence. I had no control at all. I stood in the stirrups. Leaning as far forward as I dared, I simply yanked down, hard, on the right rein. That got his attention. Back in the saddle, I gathered the reins and collected the horse by driving forward with my legs and seat and resisting slightly with my hands. Knight Commander gracefully vaulted the fence.
By now the hunt was ahead of me. Leaning forward, I gave Knight Commander his head. He could run; he could run fast. The trees flashed by, and I caught up with the rest of the field. That hunt was a long one. The fox outsmarted the hounds over and over again, and there were long periods of time when we had to stand still and wait for the hounds to pick up the scent. Then we’d be off again.
Over the course of the day, I followed the same routine of hanging back to give Knight Commander room for the next fence. But it wasn’t necessary; he stayed calm and collected over every jump for the rest of the hunt.
As I approached the meet I unbuckled my helmet. Tucking it beneath my arm, I shook out my hair. “I did it,” I said, as the judge approached and took Knight Commander’s reins in his hands. Then I dismounted. My feet hit the ground with the finality of a gavel on its sound block. I felt diminished. I returned in the space of an instant to that small place my world had become.
What on earth was wrong with me? I should have been elated. I had lived up to the trust the judge had in me. I had ridden brilliantly. But all I felt now was hollow. There was no joy, no satisfaction.
I got back in my car to drive home. What was I driving home to “do”? Aside from being able to cure a horse from rushing his fences, what strengths or talents did I possess? I couldn’t think of a single one. As I drove back into town the sun was setting. Honest to God, I felt it was setting on my life.
The week after the hunt saw little improvement in my mood or energy. My mood remained grim, and my energy nonexistent. I began to isolate myself from friends. Although I interacted and spoke with my parents and my brother, it was like I did it with only half of my attention. I didn’t feel as though I could tell anyone the truth, least of all, any member of my family.
When I was growing up, we had all sorts of “no talk” subjects. One of the subjects that was off-limits was saying anything about anyone or anything that was negative. I think my parents (and, in particular, my mother) were trying to create a positive atmosphere. A laudable goal, perhaps, raising children with nothing but sweetness and light, but one that had a devastating effect on me. Whenever I spoke candidly, honestly about anything negative—someone with whom I was angry, for example, or perhaps a situation that I thought unfair—I was greeted with disapproval. Life should be wonderful and good and nothing bad should ever happen. If something bad did happen it couldn’t be discussed or explored because that would make it real.
It was no wonder that I felt I couldn’t tell my family the truth.
The following week, with the idea of trying to give some structure to my life, I signed up for a class in oil painting. I dragged myself to class two evenings a week and managed to produce a pretty good painting. Based on a photograph that I had taken in Scotland, it was of a lighthouse on a rocky promontory with a sea gull in flight. All of it was enveloped in an early morning mist which softened the rough edges and gave the entire composition an ethereal feel. Okay, I thought, this is good. This was something on which I could build.
I started my next painting with a glimmer of hope. It was a much smaller painting of two mushrooms joined at their caps. The stems and lower parts of the mushrooms were taupe in color. The tops of the caps were a deep, rich crimson. I was so proud, I framed it and gave it to my father.
Yes, the instructor praised me, my parents praised me, and my brother seemed quite surprised at my hidden talent. But there was something about the praise that grated on me. What I heard was an artificial note, as though they were all praising a child who had just produced something mediocre, a child who needed encouragement.
My third attempt at oil painting was terrible, a field of wildflowers. I knew it was awful. Add yet another failure to my ever growing list of things I had screwed up. I couldn’t paint anymore. I just quit. One more activity was added to the pile of ashes my life had become.
I began to wonder what the point of living was. Nothing was interesting anymore. There was no one with whom I could share my ever lower spirits. When I sat around the dinner table with my family, I just listened. Gradually, even listening to other peoples’ conversations took on that feeling of pointlessness. I just didn’t care anymore.
A few nights after I gave up on painting, as I lay in bed, I found myself dwelling on something that had happened when I was five or six years old. My father was a surgeon. He was also the quintessential southern gentleman. My parents took my brother and me to a hospital picnic held on the grounds of Lloyd Noland hospital in Fairfield, just west of Birmingham. One after another his colleagues approached to greet him and ask to be introduced to his lovely children. “You must be so proud of them” I heard over and over again.
“Yes, they’re wonderful children, and we are so proud of them,” answered my mother or father over and over again. My father’s colleagues, everyone, from fellow surgeons to hospital switchboard and elevator operators, showed him such respect. I was so proud of him, proud to be part of the family.
Where had my sense of pride gone? As a child, it came from simply being part of the family. But I was no longer a child. The reflected glory was over. Now, as an adult, it was up to me to be successful. That’s where pride came from, right? It came from being successful. It came from being a successful wife or professional. It came from being successful economically. It came from being popular in the right social circles.
I was none of those things.
I had tried the route of a June marriage right after graduating from college. That was no good. It ended in divorce two years later.
I had tried the route of becoming a business professional. That was no good either. It ended disastrously, again, after two years.
Where could I go next? I couldn’t think of anywhere. I felt that I had exhausted all of my options.
My mother had written a column for the Birmingham News and had been a DJ on a local radio station before marrying my father. For the next twenty something years, she had raised my brother, Jimmy, and me and had made a comfortable and peaceful home for us all. She had been president of the PTA. She was on the board of the Children’s Aid Society. The year before my father retired, she had become a representative for a luxury clothing manufacturer and rose to the rank of regional manager. She seemed to be able to succeed at just about anything . . . and I seemed to be able to fail at just about everything.
As I contemplated what I had made of my life to this point, it felt like what I imagined a whirlpool to be, lapping ever higher, sucking me down. Over and over again, I compared my life to my parent’s lives. I kept thinking about that picnic. Were I to walk into such a situation as my twenty-six year old self I felt sure that people would not be coming up to me and asking to be introduced, either to me or to my nonexistent children. Why would they? I felt inadequate. I didn’t measure up. I had failed.
I’m not sure of the exact point when I decided that life wasn’t worth living any longer. I just fell into that train of thought. Going to sleep every night was the best thing that happened to me all day. Waking up the next morning was the worst thing that happened to me all day. I just wanted to go to sleep and stay there. It would be all right if I could just go to sleep and never wake up again. But how could I make that happen?
I began to obsess about the shotgun in my brother’s closet. But I knew I couldn’t use that gun in my father’s house. I didn’t care about myself but I couldn’t bear the thought of putting my family through the ordeal of finding me. Every time I retreated from my suicidal thoughts for a period of time, they kept coming back. The struggle was becoming almost too hard to resist.
Then I remembered another gun.
This one was at the lake house of some family friends. I knew where the gun was and I knew where the key to the house was. Eventually, the plan came together. I had to have a reason to get out of the house for a while. I told my parents that I was going to take my lighthouse and seagull painting and get it framed. Then I got in my car and drove to the lake house. It was December and it was quiet at the lake. The key was still in the same place. And so was the gun.
The gun was a .22 caliber rifle. I took the rifle down from the shelf and put some bullets in my pocket. Then I walked down to the dock. I had a fleeting memory of all of the good times I had once had on that dock but the memories were not strong enough to pierce the misery that had become my reality. I loaded the rifle and shot, at nothing in particular, out across the lake. Then I went back up to the lake house.
I reclined on the sofa, facing out towards the lake. There was a beautiful weeping willow on a spit of land just across the lake. Salix Babylonica, I thought, remembering the Latin name of the tree. I gazed at its branches, sweeping gracefully down, for a long time. Although I had majored in English in college, I had taken forestry and botany classes as well. The joke on campus was that you could always differentiate the dendrology students from the systematic botany students. The former walked around looking up at trees while the latter walked around looking down at objects on the ground. How many times had I gazed up into the branches of a tree when my forestry professor would say, “Quiz that tree?” How many times had I dropped to the ground while walking to class or Gaylor Hall for breakfast to investigate an unusual flower that caught my eye? I had scoured books upon books in the library for the lore and culture of trees and flowers. I thrilled at learning the place and meaning they held in mythology and legend.
Still gazing at the tree, I suddenly remembered. The weeping willow is associated with death. There are other associations, but the death thing seemed the only one I could remember. How apt, I thought.
Pulling my thoughts back into the lake house, I looked at the clock. It was 11:30 in the morning. Then I sank back down into the very tiny place that had become my reality. I positioned the gun and paused. If I did this, there was no turning back. This was going to be final. There was nothing, nothing else, nothing that was big enough to get me out of the whirlpool of depression. I both wanted to do this and not do it. I held my breath. I squeezed my eyes shut.
I clenched my teeth. I pulled the trigger.