My hands are shaking as I write this. It is about a chapter in my life that changed so many things, for better and for worse. Maybe I should take a page from Hemingway and have a stiff drink before I decide to write. But oh yeah, I don’t drink. When the urge to write strikes, my hands shake. I can’t not write. So here is the story of how we came to be in Seattle during the height of the grunge era of American music.
In 1993, I had the opportunity to choose a location to run a site implementation of a medical information system for the company I worked for. One of the next sites we were deploying was at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, WA, right down the road from Seattle, which was – at that time – the rock and roll music Mecca. Paul was a guitarist in a local band, struggling but determined. I had worked my way up from computer operator, hanging mag tapes and crawling through dusty overheads to run cable, to a senior implementation specialist, delivering information system training to doctors and other medical personnel. I had reached a point, in just three short years with the company, at which I could choose my path. Prior to taking the job with this company, I had worked in several accounting jobs in which I managed the computer equipment used to send data over the internet to the branch offices. I caught the computer bug.
I always believed in Paul. From the time I met him, he was playing guitar. We met in high school. I always believed in his dream of being a star. This was my gift to him, but also to the kids. Mostly, they had only known the Marine Corps town of Jacksonville, NC. It was a different sort of place to grow up. While it had the trappings of a small town, it had men and women from all over the globe living and working there. I wasn’t sure I wanted our kids to grow up in the shadow of the base. I wanted to expand their horizons – and mine. Jacksonville was small, and both Paul and I had grown up in cities – I in Houston, he in Detroit. So without a lot of thought, we decided I should take the job.
The plan was set. I flew out with the kids (their first trip on a plane), and Paul put a hitch on the battered old Camaro of his and loaded just what we needed in a small trailer. (Would we ever do such a crazy thing now? Oh, hell no. Camaro’s aren’t meant to tow things!) I found a hotel room for the kids and me and began to shop for an apartment. See how crazy that was? My hope was that I’d have a place for us by the time Paul got there. He was driving across the country in that beat up Camaro with a little money, our Samoyed Nikki, and a trailer that slammed the hitch to the ground, sparking, on every bump.
Seattle was at least an hour’s drive north of Tacoma on Hwy 5, so I tried to find a place in between. I found an apartment complex in Federal Way (roughly the halfway point) that had a ground-floor, 3-bedroom unit available starting September 1st. I signed the lease. The patio door opened out to the playground, which I thought would be perfect. Our good friend Pam was going to be the project manager for the site implementation, whereas I was the site implementation lead (for training and setup). She graciously offered Paul a job on the night shift as a computer operator – the ground floor job in our world. He had a little experience, less than I did when I started, but we both believed in him. Night shift was pretty easy, most of the time. You ran the backups, monitored the systems, and answered the calls from staff on the graveyard shift when they had a printer on the fritz or a terminal that only showed a cursor blinking on the screen. Pam and I wore suits and worked directly with the customer (usually a hard-nosed full-bird colonel who didn’t understand this new computer era workflow but thought he did).
We moved into the apartment and got the kids signed up for school. The bus stop was just up the hill from the playground. Paul would arrive home right about the time I was getting ready to leave in the morning. He would see the kids to the bus and then go to sleep. (We often did these opposite shift kinds of things so that we didn’t have to put the kids in daycare.)
Sometimes, Paul would haunt the music stores around Seattle, peering at the 3×5 index cards pinned to the corkboards (or the scuffed and marred wall) advertising for musicians. Nothing ever came of that, but he kept looking. On weekends, we would often take the kids down to Pike Place Market, the hoods of our rain jackets pulled up against the constant drizzle, and we would grab lunch. The kids loved watching the fishmongers tossing the very large fish to each other and into the bins full of ice. We found a couple of great coffee shops nearby and spent time talking together as a family, and planning big dreams, and just enjoying life. We had found ourselves in that rare space, sharing the air with some of our favorite musicians – Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, and more. These were the bands we listened to on repeat on the iffy little cassette player in the Camaro, carefully rewinding the tape if the in-dash player tried to eat it. Some of the tape had visible creases and nicks from these exercises in futility. It wasn’t perfect, but we had the two things that were most precious to us – the kids and music.
On one of those trips into Seattle, we all stopped at a music store. While we were in there looking at guitars, Jerry Cantrell (guitarist for Alice in Chains) came in and started browsing. Funny side note here. Paul had played in a band called Rage while we lived in NC. Mitch, the singer and another former Marine, had previously been in a band with Jerry Cantrell in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area before enlisting. Mitch and Jerry kept in touch. It was our little connection to fame. Paul went up and said hello and told Jerry about this connection. The kids and I kept looking at guitars and keyboards. Jerry looked nervous. Clearly, he had not wanted to be recognized. He excused himself and left.
It wasn’t the first time we had run into Jerry. The first time was in Norfolk, VA, at a record signing party. We were with Mitch and had tickets to the show that night. As we moved through the line, Jerry saw Mitch, and it was like old home week. Mitch introduced us. The kids were kind of awed that they were meeting people they had seen on MTV, but they were completely cool about it. Layne Staley, singer for Alice in Chains, took one look at Sean and said, “Man, you look just like I did when I was a kid!” He chatted with us for a few minutes before the promoter asked us to move on. I’ll never forget Layne’s kindness, and I was very sad when he died.
But I need to get back to Seattle. Hands, be still!
The winter was difficult. I had never lived in a climate where there were so many hours of darkness or so damned much rain. In the wintertime, we went to work and school in the dark, and for me, I came home in the dark every day. The snow, when it came, was beautiful on the stately evergreens that grew around our neighborhood and all along Hwy 5. It was truly a breathtaking sight for a girl who grew up in snowless Texas. But the darkness abounded. I found myself starting to sleep a lot. I would come home from work and park myself on the couch, falling fast asleep, still in my work clothes, until the kids would start asking for dinner. I would cook a meal and try to get to bed early. I began to have body aches that persisted. This is when I believe the fibromyalgia began.
Eventually, winter passed and we all survived it. The days grew longer and Mount Rainier, a dormant volcano, was visible more often to the east of us. Its majesty loomed large. Occasionally, it had a little dome of clouds directly over the mouth of the volcano. Locals said that this meant bad weather was on the way. I had to laugh at that, because to me, Seattle had bad weather 80% of the time!
At this point in my life, Paul and I had been married 11 years. Things had not been perfect, but we fought for our relationship. I’m sad to say that during our time in Seattle, I had an affair with a woman at the site. It was my first clumsy attempt at living out my feelings, and it was the first time I felt I could share those feelings with someone. I don’t really want to talk about it more than this, but it damaged us.
As the summer came, things were winding down at the site. There was more to be implemented, but the site was up and running. Medical orders were being input to the system. Prescriptions were being sent to the pharmacy electronically. Lab results were available at the physician’s fingertips. These are all things people expect now, but in 1994, this was all new. Military medicine was the first place all of these things were done, and we were right there on the bleeding edge.
It was summer, and the kids were bored at home while dad slept after his night shift. We were explicit with our instructions to them that they were to play indoors unless dad was up and about. The days were longer now, so they still would have had time to play outside with their friends after he got up. It was this boredom that led Stephanie to disobey and head out to the playground. That was where a very bad thing happened that we wouldn’t know about for another 4 years. All we knew was that suddenly Stephanie wasn’t acting like the Stephanie we knew.
One night, I baked a chocolate cake. I can’t remember if there was an occasion or if I just felt like baking, a mood that strikes me sometimes. I baked this cake and put it on the cake plate to wait for the next day’s dessert.
The next morning, I went to the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee. The top of the cake plate was cast aside, and a portion of the cake was gone. It wasn’t sliced, mind you; it was clawed away. Chocolate frosting and crumbs were everywhere. I stood there, stunned. My mind grasped for any explanation of what I was looking at. Glancing down at the floor, I saw cake droppings that led out of the kitchen and down the hall toward the kids’ rooms. Specifically, they led into Stephanie’s room. She had frosting on the bedcovers, around her mouth, and under her nails. I was somewhere between horrified and furious.
“Stephanie!” I shook her shoulder. “What have you done to that cake?”
She sat up, groggy, and shook her head, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mom.”
I held her hand up to her. “Frosting,” I said, “is telling me that you do know what I’m talking about.”
I led her into the kitchen and pointed to the cake and to the disaster everywhere. I still hadn’t even had my coffee, which was some kind of wrong, and was having to deal with this mess unassisted by caffeine. She still continued to deny that she had anything to do with the wrecking of the cake, despite all evidence to the contrary. She said that maybe it was rats. Maybe Nikki got onto the counter and ate the cake. Eventually, I sent her off to get a shower, while I stripped her bedcovers and put on fresh ones. I threw out what was left of the cake. There was no point in trying to save any of it, as it would now be stale and unhygenic.
She seemed to go back to normal. Until the next thing happened.
This time it was a pack of hot cocoa mix. I found some of it spilled on the counter, and when I went looking for the packet, I found several empty packets stuffed into the trashcan in the kids’ bathroom. When I confronted her about it, she again denied it and tried to blame it on Sean. Sean was not a kid who lied to me. He looked at the empty packets and said, “Why would I eat dry cocoa mix, Mom?” Indeed. But that is exactly what Stephanie had done.
The last odd thing that happened before I finally took Stephanie to the child psychologist was that I found several of Sean’s allergy pills scattered on his bedroom floor. I asked him if he had dropped the bottle (even though the bottle was normally kept in our bathroom medicine cabinet), and he said that no, he only took those pills when we gave them to him. He hadn’t touched the bottle. I was beginning to wonder which kid I should believe. I had evidence of the cake mauling, but no evidence for the other two incidents. I started to wonder if we were all going crazy, because it was certainly beginning to feel like I was crazy. Why would the kids do anything like this?
Later, much later, I found out that this was Stephanie’s first suicide attempt. She was 10 years old. She dropped some pills in Sean’s room to make it look like he had taken them. All those pills did was to make her really sleepy, thank God.
I think the reason all of this is coming up for me today is because I’ve been “reading” (listening to) Dave Grohl’s book “The Storyteller.” He is just at the part where Nirvana has hit fame. It’s 1991. Within the next couple of chapters, he will tell the story of Kurt Cobain’s addiction and death. We were in Seattle when Kurt was found dead at his home in April, 1994. Stephanie wrote a letter to Jessica, her friend back home, telling her, “Listen to Kurt’s music. Think about him every day. Don’t stop thinking about him. This is important.” She never mailed it, because I found it and was alarmed that she was focusing so much on someone’s death. She seemed far too young to be so hurt by this, but we were all shocked and saddened when Kurt took his life. I didn’t want Stephanie to focus on a suicide.
So I took her to a psychologist and he made exactly no headway with her. She wouldn’t talk. We tried another psychologist, with the same results. Paul and I decided that what was best for our family was to move back to North Carolina and leave Seattle behind. It seemed to be sucking the life out of us all.
I transferred back to the Marine Corps base with my company, this time as a hardware specialist. I had learned a lot during my time with the company and knew that I could handle it. Paul was a computer operator still and had work. We hoped that Stephanie would recover from whatever was bothering her and that we would all benefit from more sunshine and a warm beach. It did seem to help for a time, but we continued to be watchful of Stephanie and some of our trust in her was forever gone.
The damage Seattle had done to us was permanent, though. I never recovered from the fibromyalgia that started there. The aches and fatigue continued, despite the warmer, brighter climate. Paul and I were damaged from my affair. We never really recovered the relationship we had before, but we soldiered on for another fifteen years, mostly for the kids. We had some good times together, but it was never the same. Sean grew up. Because of the amount of time we had begun focusing on Stephanie, he had to grow up faster.
We moved to the DC area in 1997, when I got a job as a network specialist on a Hewlett-Packard contract with the Navy. We had been here for just under two years when Stephanie had a psychotic break. We had to admit her to the hospital in downtown DC, and within two days, she had told the psychiatrist that while we were in Seattle, she had gone out to the playground behind our apartment, alone and without permission. She was unsupervised. There, in the little clubhouse on the playground, she says she was raped by several boys. She was 9 years old when it happened.
When Paul and I heard that, it broke us. We went home, sat in the dark, and killed off a bottle of whiskey. I felt like everything I believed, everything I thought I knew, was dead. Our little girl had been hurt in the most awful way, and she hadn’t told us when it happened – when we might have been able to do something – because she didn’t want to get in trouble for disobeying us – as if that would have been worse that what happened to her! She also said she didn’t tell us because she had heard us say that if anyone ever hurt one of our kids, we’d kill them. She didn’t want her dad or I to go to prison, she said. So she stuffed it down and kept it to herself, and it broke her.
In a way, I’ll never forgive Seattle, just as I’ll never forgive myself for not being there and for not recognizing that whatever was happening with her was very severe. You never know, as a parent, what is just bad behavior and what is mental illness or a reaction to a horrific event. You do the best you can. But you never forgive yourself for something like this.
I’ve thought about Seattle a lot in the years since. And I do have some fond memories of the place. But I’ll never forgive it for taking the lives of some amazing people, especially my daughter. It is a black hole of sadness there. And for me, it always will be hell.