When the phone rang the other evening, I picked up to an episode of throat clearing at the other end. Then an unfamiliar male voice, slightly accented, asked for me by name.
"You've got her," I said, thinking telemarketer. Wrong-o.
"I believe you have an appointment with Mara Armor, your psychotherapist, next Monday at 1 pm?"
I hesitated. It was the Thursday before, we had cancelled some sessions because of Christmas, and I wasn't at all sure when my next appointment was. And anyway, why should some stranger be quizzing me about it? I made some sort of noncommittal reply.
"Well, I am very sorry to have to inform you – " here there was a longish pause, as though the man was having trouble forming his next words – "I am sorry to have to tell you that Ms. Armor died very suddenly on Tuesday evening. I am a member of the
family. Her brother-in-law. We are contacting all her patients – "he corrected himself then — "I'm sorry, her clients, to inform them and to assure them that all her records will be kept most confidential." His voice just sort of petered out. And that was it,
really. He rang off almost immediately.
I sat there for a minute, looking at the telephone receiver and drawing a blank. Unbelievable. And yet the possibility that he could somehow have made a mistake or that it was even a prank… well, frankly that seemed even more far-fetched. It had to be true:
Mara must be dead. I hung up the phone, found my handbag in the hallway by the front door, checked my date book. The man had the date and time right, that much was sure. I rummaged around in there, found a small pencil, drew a line through the appointment. That was it, then.
But I couldn't let it rest that easily. I'm a scientist; clearly, this was a problem that required an independent proof. Left as it was,
the whole thing itched.
I went to the recycling, pulled out yesterday's Gazette, first section. There on page A3, among a collection of small items, lay the unfortunates of days previous: fifty-four year old pedestrian struck by a car on Sherbrooke Street, right in front of the fine arts museum. Died in hospital. There would be no charges. It was an accident. On an evening of freezing rain, she crossed against thelight. The driver was treated too, for shock, and then released. Mara had been the president of a local psychoanalytic society. That I hadn't known.
Despite all the trappings of reality—the telephone, the newspaper, the small yellow pencil with its thin red stripe near an exhausted eraser—it all still seemed impossible.
Mara herself, she had just been the most lively person. I realized then I'd already placed her in the past tense. Our first poignant meeting burned itself into my memory. She had dark hair to her shoulders, artfully arranged, a deep suntan. She was Egyptian,
she told me. She wore a bright blue jacket with gold buttons over what looked like a black sundress. Her legs were bare, feet sandaled in gold lamé high-heels; kohl outlined her dark eyes, cerise lipstick circled a mouth made for wide smiles. She was a
peacock next to my drab peahen; I looked then as though I'd had the physical and emotional juice wrung right out of me. Mara was one of those people who radiate contentment to the world. I remembered how much I wanted to be like that, the desire
acute as an ache.
Only once had her psychoanalytic bent revealed itself, near as I can remember, and that was a single occasion in about six months
of weekly sessions.
"I am going to say a word and I want you to tell me what associations pop immediately into your mind, okay?"
I'm sure I looked as suspicious, as wary, as I felt; I had exhausted the energy with which to dissemble.
"Now are you ready? Okay, the first word is 'responsible' … 'guilt' … 'happiness' … "
I made her give it up just by glaring.
Mara was the most unusual therapist I ever had; she actually gave advice, told me my high mortgage was ridiculous, no wonder I felt such money pressures. She was aghast when I explained to her that trying to cook kosher-style meant keeping milk and meat
separate; how could I make dinner for my family each night in a reasonable time frame under such circumstances, she wondered?
Just as I had. I worked full time at a job that I had outgrown long ago, my husband travelled frequently, I had three young children. Walking this tightrope of obligation and regimentation, my step had become wobbly.
She thought the whole scenario—my life as presently constituted—was ludicrous. And she was right, it was! I felt immediately lighter after she said it; that's what's meant by "the truth shall set them free." I felt validated, liberated: I was all right then; it was my life that was sick.
And now she was dead, knocked down on a cold December night in the centre of town, outside a temple of culture. I thought of her, a tropical flower crushed in Montreal slush. Was there much blood, I wondered? How many broken bones?
A couple of years later, I went back to my GP and asked her to recommend yet another therapist. She mentioned Uri F____ and I said okay. Uri was a very tall, slim man who had stooped shoulders, like he'd been listening for a lifetime to people who spoke too softly. His hair, what was left of it, was combed over and the colour of cigarette ash. I should have wondered why that was. I have no recollection what he wore on our first "date," but I do remember him asking me if I minded if he smoked. I said "No,"
meaning yes, thinking "how bad could it be?" That was still in my doormat days. Of course, his habit turned out to be more robust than I could have imagined: an inveterate chain-smoker, he would light a new cigarette with the dying embers of the old for the entire 50–minute hour. Instead of a cup that runneth over, he had overflowing ashtrays. I struggled through our sessions, trying to breathe as shallowly as possible. His suntan was so extreme that after a few meetings, I began to think it was a toss-up which form of cancer would lay claim to him first.
Uri was a cognitive behavioural therapist. I listened and tried to understand what he meant when he said "I will teach you how to challenge and change the patterns of thinking which have led you to the dead-end of depression." He made it sound like he was some sort of wizard; maybe his king-size extra longs were miniature magic wands.
There were two exits from his high-rise office, so he was able to spirit clients in and out without compromising their confidentiality. Everyone visiting that office left with his or her privacy intact. Unfortunately, I became obsessed with curiosity about whomever-it-was he saw in the hour before mine. Straining to pick voices out of the indistinct murmurs on the other side of the wall, I would remain in isolation in his fake wood-panelled waiting room; to call it a closet exaggerates its spaciousness.
One day, though, the appointment ahead of mine inexplicably went fifteen minutes over time. I sat there, listening hard and in futility, chest tightening with claustrophobia. I finally obeyed the compulsion to knock and announce my presence, to assert my
proprietorship on that particular sliver of reality. Uri opened the door, spoke several words to me. Strong light coming in from the window behind him combined with the room's dim interior made it hard to see anything much, but through the grey gloom I
could just pick out a man and woman. These, then, were the clients ahead of me; I got the impression she was a bottle-blonde, sensed that she might have been crying. Somehow, seeing them was a transforming experience, the whole double entrance/exit thing now rendered appalling, furtive, where before it had seemed campy fun. When he opened that door, he broke the spell: therapy revealed as sordid enterprise.
I didn't see him much longer after that; I found I needed the freedom to breathe deeply too much. A magician without mystery beguiles no one. A few years later, he died of lung cancer. I wondered if it had anything to do with me.
Fast-forwarding several more years, I find myself back at my GP's office, renewing my elusive search for the perfect spirit guide. Graduate of a medical school in Frankfurt, she gives me yet another name (is there no end to this stream of counsellors?). We talk about Mara and her death for the first time.
"Weren't you at her funeral? It was the most amazing, loving experience," my physician tells me. It had taken place before I'd even known she was dead.
"There was music, singing, even dancing. Turns out that not long before the accident, she and her husband had one of those conversations, about the kind of funeral each of them wanted. It was purely hypothetical, the kind of talk people have sometimes. It didn't mean anything. There was no sense, her husband told us later, that this was a significant moment for either of them. Neither was ill, they weren't old. Maybe someone they knew had died, I don't know. But she told her husband very specifically she wanted dancing at her funeral. She didn't want grief; she wanted celebration.
"And so life went on and then there was that terrible accident. At the funeral, a series of eulogies from her family, friends and colleagues. Then her husband calls their daughter up to the front and the music starts. They'd found a few musicians, played some sort of Latin number, and there they were, dancing at the funeral of the person closest to them.
"There wasn't a dry eye in the room," she said, and I knew just what she meant. I had to
wipe a tear away myself, just listening. Imagining.
It was a funeral I was sorry I'd missed.
Don't let me exaggerate the number of therapists who died on me; it really is only two. But two of how many, then? Or, in more mathematical terms, what is the denominator of this factor in the equation? Well, there was someone whose name I have
completely forgotten, when I was seventeen; my mom insisted I go because I had this boyfriend who treated me so badly, really.
But I couldn't seem to give him up. I guess anyone was better than no one, or that my life-experience so far had conditioned me to maltreatment. Maybe it was just the explosive pleasure of make-up sex, the delicious contrast of psychological abuse and
powerful orgasm becoming my chosen narcotic. This woman was still in training at the Jewish General Hospital's Institute of Community and Family Psychiatry. She recorded all our sessions on a big reel-to-reel tape deck for her supervisor to check over, to ensure there were no errors made. How strange, I thought, what kind of "errors" could be made in a session of psychological counselling?
I still remember trying to describe to her how disconnected I felt. I told her my life felt like the opening scenes of one of those movies they always shoot in New York City, where crowds of people are walking purposefully, on their way to some discrete
destination, striding toward measurable achievement. But I never felt the future's pulling me forward, and always found myself like a salmon swimming upstream, moving in the most difficult direction possible.
The only other memory I can dredge up from those sessions is the way beams of light leaked between half-closed institutional Venetian blinds, the low square table with the microphone, the tape circling round and round, a small piece sticking up from the
reel like a tender spring shoot.
Then there was no-nonsense Amy Asher, when I was at McGill. I was married by then—we were only twenty-one. I remember her diploma on the wall, the hand-written calligraphy on it. I remember the denim skirt I often wore then, the button-down oxford cotton shirt, blue with thin white and pink stripes. Maybe yellow ones, too. I'm not quite sure why I had begun searching again, but I think it was partly in reaction to the breast cancer death of the-woman-who-would-have-been-my-mother-in-law; she died the year before we married. A single mother with an only child, she had struggled with the cancer for twelve years, telling me she'd asked her oncologist to help her survive at least long enough to see her son grow up. I think she counted herself lucky; she died when he was twenty. Every time the cancer came back, she sort of asked her doctors "What, cancer, again?" She was incredulous; how was it that one woman could have cancer three times?
She never quite got it, that it was the same cancer, wily, malevolent, moving round her body, attacking one site, being beaten back and then rallying for another assault, until she was finally forced to agree to an unconditional surrender.
A couple of others I almost forgot about. One, a woman younger than me, pre-family. Very nice but completely useless, really, although she did give me a name for my "problem-which-has-no-name": situational depression. I took that to mean that any
reasonable person stuck in my situation would become depressed.
Then there was the woman I went to see when I discovered the institution where I worked had an "employee assistance plan." She was from the islands, a single mother who had worked her way up to head of a hospital department, a counselling PhD, an acme of respectability.
I went to her for years, I think (it's all sort of hazy now). I stopped seeing her just a few months before she "left" her position. She'd been trying to reconcile two feuding members of the food preparation staff, pretty successfully, it seemed. Something
about a car one had sold the other that turned out to be a lemon.
Until one day, the butcher came into the hospital kitchen on his day off. And stabbed the baker to death.
I guess counsellors can make errors that lead to grief, after all.
I have high hopes for my current psychologist. She's a Nordic beauty, extremely Aryan-looking, although she is actually Polish (that Hitler, what a card!). I don't hold any of that against her, though.
Her name is Janina (the "j" pronounced like a "y"). She has Buddhist tendencies. Her office is full of subtle touches of Eastern culture: incense-holders, statues, sandalwood carvings, hand-painted curtains of pale silk, candles, heavily lacquered wooden rice
boxes done over as end tables. It is very relaxing. She tried to teach me something called brain gym, where you dance to music but the important feature is that you change direction often. Or something like that, I didn't quite get it. There were times I was
sure she was in some sort of recovery herself.
At our first session I suggested she might consider upping her life insurance, having taken me on as a client. Or at the very least, I warned her, she should become much more careful around automobiles. She told me she was struggling with giving up smoking,
the rhythm of our early sessions interrupted as she took a ten-day meditative retreat at a monastery in the Townships, outside Montreal. The monks required everyone to fast, offering them only mead to drink; that was good, I told her.
Mead is an ancient drink of fermented honey.
She looked at me quizzically when I tried to explain my track record of marking therapists for death, but even I could hear how pathological it sounded.
So I gave it up, and am learning to hope for the best.
words: Beverly Akerman, Montreal/Canada (webpage & more)
original publication: Insight / carte blanche
image: Todd Chilton, Chicago/Illinois (homepage)
original publication: Blue Radiant / Switchback
another insight: A Seat at the Table (#14)