An adventure in grief By Catherine de Courcy
Sunday March 01 2009
He was a dashing army officer, she, an economic refugee from Ireland of the 80s, who was numbed by the death of her brother. Their romance began in the exotic waters of south-east Asia and together they lived a glamorous expat lifestyle. But after a move to Australia, memories of his war service in Vietnam darkened their life, and
Catherine de Courcy spent 18 months on an emotional roller coaster fearing the suicide about which her husband John increasingly talked. Here, she recalls their final words and tells how she has tried to pick up the pieces of her shattered life by returning to Ireland
I WAS making dinner when John went out to the barn to shoot himself. I put a pie in the oven, and followed him as far as the veranda of our home outside Melbourne. He was walking across the stony car park, trailing the high-powered rifle along the ground, his shoulders sagging.
I followed him a few moments later. He had closed the side door of the barn. I talked to him through the slatted sliding door.
“Dinner will be ready in about 20 minutes. Comfort food, pie and chips,” I said in a conversational tone. He was scheduled to go into a clinic for Vietnam veterans who were suffering from post-traumatic stress the next day, and his diet would be strictly controlled there.
He responded briefly and then there was an almighty explosion.
I heard something fall. Small pieces of pink matter were visible wedged in the slats. I yelled at him hysterically. There was no answer. I tried the side door. It was locked. I willed my legs to take me back into the house. We were living at the top of a mountain, miles from our nearest neighbour. It was a summer evening. The air was silent.
I rang a mate of John’s from his veteran association. He told me to ring the police. I could feel myself shaking and I was getting very cold. I rang my sister in Ireland and she kept me steady as I waited for the police to arrive. One police officer stayed with me while the others checked the barn. I heard a reference to “the deceased” on the police radio. John was gone.
John was born in 1947, and was raised in the north of England. His parents were alcoholics, and there was so much violence in his home that he left at the age of 14. He trained as a chef in London restaurants for two years. Then, attracted by images of sunshine and pineapples, he went to Australia. He joined the Australian army just after his 17th birthday. He served in Vietnam for 14 months, arriving in January 1968 when the Mini-Tet Offensive had started. The structure of the army suited him. He rose through the ranks and, when I met him in Papua New Guinea, he was about to be promoted to the rank of major.
I had left Ireland in 1985 to work as a librarian in the University of Papua New Guinea. My brother Mike had died a year before and, without being totally aware of what I was doing, I accepted a job offer on this island in the South Pacific. I had no money, no contacts and a one-way ticket, but the university had organised everything and I did not have to think.
John and I met when I was learning to scuba dive in the warm waters near the capital, Port Moresby. He was a voluntary diving instructor. It was like something out of a Mills and Boon novel. He was a dashing army officer, 10 years older than me, cheeky, flirtatious and charming. He knew all the local markets, spoke fluent Pidgin English (an official language of Papua New Guinea), cooked exotic food, chose his wine with pleasure and took great delight in introducing me to all of these new wonders. I was a slightly disorientated product of Ireland’s economic gloom, where pizza and Blue Nun wine strained the budget.
In 1987, John was posted to Melbourne. I went with him and the exotic expat life ended. He left the army suddenly and after a few, difficult months, we both got jobs, bought a house in the inner Melbourne suburbs when mortgage rates were 17 per cent, and settled into a routine of work and a good social life based, to a large extent, in the cheap Vietnamese restaurants of Melbourne. We went to the Australian deserts whenever we could get time off. I did a Master of Arts degree at the University of Melbourne on the history of Melbourne Zoo, and that led to a 15-year association with the zoo and numerous publications. From my connections with the publishing industry, John and I wrote two travel books on the Australian outback.
Early in our relationship, John would have nightmares and wake up shouting in fear. Words I could make out suggested that it was related to Vietnam. I would calm him and, next day, ask him what it was about. He would give me a look that I came to know only too well: it was a combination of fear, horror, bewilderment and sometimes anger. In the early days, these looks were a momentary flash, which would vanish quickly into one of his big smiles. But he would never answer my questions, and I soon learnt not to ask.
Every year on Anzac day, the sacred day of commemoration for Australian veterans, he would behave in a strange and unpredictable way. It seemed to me that he was reverting to being a 20-year old in a war zone. I worked very hard to keep him safe on these days. Then his health began to deteriorate. At first it was not noticeable. He was a man in his mid-40s and had a cholesterol problem. He was given medication — which annoyed him, but he took it. Then his heart developed an arrhythmia and he had an operation. He was getting night sweats, and it emerged that he had developed adult-onset diabetes. Another pill was added, then another and another. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, and went to a psychiatrist.
John was still charming, cheerful, active and gregarious most of the time. He would work in the front garden of the suburban house on his roses and lavender bushes, and chat to the neighbours. Many were women from central and eastern Europe. He would talk to them about food and their health and the lives they had left in Europe. They would give him bags of seasonal vegetables. He would go fishing and send me to their houses with freshly gutted fish.
But by 1998 he was sleeping badly, suffering from night sweats and nightmares. I put it down to drinking too much, not taking enough exercise and not following a low-sugar diet. He was still drinking wine and beer, but now he would drink whiskey at weekends. If it was a three-day weekend, he was often cranky on the Monday. He was also becoming intolerant of drivers on the road and talked a lot about his need to get out of the city.
I looked forward to our trips to the desert. There, he was completely calm, sitting beside a creek with a fishing rod and reading a book or dozing under his hat. Sometimes I could see his face in the shadow and he would be very far away. I never intruded.
He was becoming increasingly anxious to live outside the city so we bought a farm 120 kilometres from Melbourne (which is close to, but thankfully escaped the terrible, recent fires). The idea was to live there at weekends and prepare it for his retirement in four years’ time. We would stay in a small apartment in the city during the week when we were working. However, John decided that he wanted to commute. This was a two-and-a-half-hour trip and I found it stressful on a daily basis. We bought a small apartment in the city and I stayed there a couple of times a week, but John hated it, and continued to commute. Such was the nature of his work with a large accountancy firm that he was soon able to work from the farm several days a week.
I hoped that the retreat to an idyllic place in the country would let him find peace. I quickly realised that it had only made matters worse. We had cut ourselves off from most of our social life. There were no neighbours to talk to. We made a few friends on the mountain, but most were just there for weekends. John’s mood was swinging more frequently now, and it was becoming difficult to live with. One minute, he would be talking with delight about how the potatoes or the cabbages in his enormous vegetable garden were getting on. The next minute, he would snap at me about nothing at all.
He also began to have episodes of very deep sadness. In the summer, we would sit on the veranda relaxing and chatting about nothing. With no warning, he would start talking in half sentences that sounded like he was trying to tell me something about Vietnam. Then he would fall asleep on my shoulder. At other times he would lie on the sofa and sob very deeply. I would sit on a cushion on the floor and hold his hand, which he grasped with a terrible desperation. I learnt that the only thing I could do was stay there with him until the sobbing subsided. Then he would fall asleep and I would cover him up.
He talked about killing himself, but he also said that he would never do that to me. Yet one night, probably after drinking whiskey, he drove into the darkness saying he was going to kill himself. Shortly afterwards, I rang his psychiatrist, who told me that he didn’t think John was suicidal. The psychiatrist told John I had rung; John was furious that I had interfered. It meant that when matters got worse a year later, I could not ring the psychiatrist for help. At some stage, the psychiatrist put John on Prozac, by which stage he was on about 15 different pills a day for various medical problems.
I was on a roller coaster for 18 months. I was angry with John for letting his stress get the better of him. I was heartbroken for him for the deep sadness he was struggling with. I was worried because he was so unwell and getting worse. I was frustrated with his mood swings. And I was exhausted from the broken nights’ sleep, commuting, working full time, writing our latest travel book and trying to keep a farm going with sheep, chickens, a vegetable garden and a log fire.
In 2000, I developed various techniques for dealing with this chaos and holding on to myself in the middle of it. Life calmed down. John cut back on whiskey, then gave up alcohol altogether. We went to the desert and he was unusually quiet, but calm. But the deep sadness and night sweats continued. He was also sobbing in his sleep. It was a tragic, wailing sob that came from somewhere so deep that all I could do was hold him. I felt terribly sad and once, when he was in this awful place, I told him that he could go if he wanted to, that he did not have to stay alive just for me.
Often after a night like that, he would be cheerful the next day, gathering the eggs from the chicken coups to bring into work for his staff, or shouting to the cockatoos how wonderful it was to be alive, or going to the dam to see if he could spot any of the fingerlings he had put in there after we arrived.
November 2000 was a horrendous month. After months of relative calm that had, in retrospect, been a tremendous struggle for him, John’s mood swings suddenly returned.He told me he was going off to shoot himself. He left the house. It was pitch dark. I was shocked. He came back to the house and said that, because it was my birthday the next day, he would not kill himself then. Two days later, he apologised.
For the remainder of the month, he frequently threatened to kill himself. He would walk off into the remote parts of our 60-acre property, which was surrounded by ancient and inaccessible rainforest. I would hear rifle shots in the air. If he killed himself out there, it could take days to find him. Or he would sit on the veranda and shoot at the goat shed. Each time the rifle rang out, I expected the worst. Every time I returned to the house when he was there by himself, I would drive up the mountain nervous about what I would find. The amount of time he was normal nowadays was diminishing.
His Vietnam veteran mates tried to help. His supportive liver doctor persuaded him to go into a detox clinic. It was a regular clinic and he refused to cooperate. They sent him home with boxes of Valium. I tried to talk to the specialist doctor in the detox clinic. My husband was terribly distressed and disintegrating in front of my eyes but the veteran mates stepped in and persuaded him to go to a residential unit for a fortnight that was only for Vietnam veterans. He was to do that on Friday November 8.
On Wednesday December 6, I got a phone call at work. It was a police sergeant from the local station.
“We have got word that your husband is threatening to shoot himself,” he said. “And when we rang him, he threatened to shoot us if we approached.”
“He would never do a thing like that,” I answered, trying to be discreet; I was in an open plan office full of librarians. “He has too much respect for uniform, besides everything else.”
“Well that’s what he told us he would do,” the sergeant replied
“If that’s the case,” I said. “I have to warn you that he is a class one shot, he has sights on the rifle and he will see you coming around the mountain.”
It was surreal. A Ranelagh girl in an Australian library telling the police that my lovely, friendly husband would shoot them if they drove up the mountain towards our house.
The veteran mates got on to the police sergeant and said they were looking after John. I spoke to John on the phone from Melbourne. He had that same tone in his voice that I had heard before on Anzac day. I believed that, in his mind, he was in a war zone and could really shoot someone who got too close. For the first time ever, I was concerned for my safety. On the one hand I wanted to rush home and hold him. On the other, there was a danger that he might mistake me for the police. I had to make the decision before the last train out of Melbourne. I decided to stay and go home the next morning. John was calm the next morning and said nothing about the previous day. But he was also very far away. His eyes were so full of sadness and he looked at me as if he was trying to work out who I was. He told me how the plumbing worked and said he wanted his ashes scattered on a remote part of the farm. I asked him to give the specialist clinic a go. He did not answer. And at 6.50 that evening, when I was making dinner, he said he was going to kill himself and went off to the barn.
The grief was horrendous. My body reacted violently. Every vein throbbed; at times it felt like there were a hundred thousand boxing matches going on under my skin. I dragged myself through my work. I sold the farm and moved to an apartment in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. I was given a war widow’s pension, which I spent on counselling and complementary medicine. Friends in Australia and family and friends in Ireland provided incredible support. At some point, very early on, I decided to confront everything that grief threw at me. I had not handled my grief at all when my brother Mike died, but I was determined this time to leave nothing unresolved.
For eight years, I went on what could only be described as an adventure into the depths of myself. It was not fun; in fact, it was excruciating at times and I needed all the support I could muster in myself and from my friends and family to keep going. Then I began to have small successes and short moments of distraction and even happiness.
I moved back to Ireland in 2003 and left libraries. This became another adventure in itself as I found myself in a very expensive country with no job, nowhere to live, and no professional reputation. I felt like a 25-year-old in the 1980s again, cold, wet and feeling broke, but at least this time I had a car, a phone and could identify a decent Australian wine in the off-licence!
The Irish network of family and friends welcomed me and eased the way. After two years I had stopped saying “in Australia”, and after five years, I had built my new network of friends and professional associations. I was never angry with John after he died. Nor did I ever feel guilty, although I explored that just in case I was suppressing something. But John was his own man. When he was alive, he had pushed me to the limit on exciting adventures in strange geographical environments. With his death, he pushed me to the limit once more, but this time into the complex emotional world of myself.
The outcome has been surprisingly joyful and I find it easy just to be in the world and look forward to wherever it is taking me next. Sometimes I look back at John and myself on the top of the mountain as we struggled to cope with an increasingly difficult situation and feel great sadness for us. Then I see a photo of John and his big, friendly smile and all I can do is smile also. He was such a good-hearted, big-natured and funny man, that it is hard to be melancholic when thinking about him, despite the way he died. Besides, if I did collapse into excessive melancholy, I would imagine him telling me not to be so daft and to get on with enjoying life now that I’ve eventually worked out how to do that.