My son is winding down his first year of Cotillion, a Richmond tradition where middle-schoolers learn social graces and manners through ballroom dance. It is an age of innocence as the boys and girls, for most their first formal social interaction with the opposite sex, introduce themselves, shake hands, the boys offering their arms to the girls and escorting them to the floor, and learning to dance.
He is in love with dancing, in love with being social, in love with girls. I am proud of his manners, and his cheerful embrace of new experiences.
My daughter’s much anticipated first cotillion was just five days after the shooting, on her brother’s tenth birthday. We celebrated her brother’s birthday the week prior to avoid any overlap of activities. Her first cotillion was the night before her father’s funeral. I was still in the hospital. She came to the hospital room, where I had just been moved from shock trauma earlier that day, dressed in the beautiful formal dress we had picked out together. My sister, in my place, celebrated this rite of passage with my daughter.
I was able to attend the Christmas cotillion that year, where mothers dance with sons, and fathers with daughters. My daughter wanted to attend, so the question of who would fill in loomed for weeks prior. Just ten years old, her little brother stepped up and volunteered so that she could attend.
At the dance, when it came time for the fathers to dance with their daughters, he left the balcony to join her. Yet as I peered down on the dance floor, she stood alone. A few minutes passed, no brother. The music started, the fathers and daughters began to dance, and she stood alone amidst them. Finally an older cotillion helper took her hand and began dancing with her. Her brother got nervous and hid in the bathroom. I hadn’t understood what a big role it was to be filled by such a young boy.
This season brings back those memories, and I see how far we have all come from those early days. My daughter in perhaps the height of her struggle to find some normalcy and peace, my son taking the sweetness of life, while I move in and out of two lives, the before and after, the lie I lived, the truth of it I face; working towards a place of acceptance.
The paradox of life with my husband comes as I watch my son dance to a Johnny Mathis song. The music triggers a flood of insuppressible tears. Laced with those memories of the early days right after the shooting, the trauma of the shooting itself, the days leading up to it, the insanity of the life I led, is a distant memory which is suddenly front and center.
I remember our Saturday night ritual. A fire in the fireplace, candlelit dinner always with good champagne..Tattinger, Piper Heidsieck, Veuve Clicquot…. he would put on Johnny Mathis, take my hand and begin dancing with me. I know the words to every song. Though I am very uncoordinated he never stopped trying to teach me. He had a very nice voice and he would sing as we danced. There is not any one night in particular I remember. Over the years there were probably a hundred such Saturday nights. Nights that felt like love. Nights that felt like we could be okay. Nights confusingly happy and sad to recall.
In between the next cycle would begin. The ramp up period, the tension, the abuse. The cycles like the rings of a tree. The onset, like the outside ring, very far apart, puzzling but infrequent. As time went on the cycles grew closer and closer together, increasing in intensity until spiraled so tightly I was solidly in the middle of it all and no longer remembered the way out. The Saturday night dinners ended. The dances ended. Trust ended.
I don’t know the beginning. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, just random bits and pieces and the numbness that pervailed. I only know the ending.
There is a certain point that you realize, beyond here lies monsters, beyond here lies my own destruction. I must save myself. Casey Quinlan