A Day in the Life
By Barbara Stock
A therapist confronts her own magical thinking
Ordinarily, my practice hums happily along with few surprises, and I expected this day to be no different. I hadn't scheduled any new clients. The folks coming in were roughly midstream in treatment; none showed signs of impending crisis. Then Stella arrived for her 9:00 a.m. session, inaugurating a day that would send my stable, orderly world spinning off its axis.
Standing in the waiting room, 83-year-old Stella was smartly dressed, as always, her hair arranged in a chic, silvery bob. But something was clearly wrong. Despite a long-standing heart problem, she was usually full of pep and sass, ready to plunge fearlessly into her new experience of therapy. But today, her shoulders sagged. Wordlessly, she handed me a sheaf of papers. It was a report from her cardiologist, detailing her "highly calcified aorta . . . her whole cardiovascular system badly affected by plaque."
As we sat down across from each other, Stella began to cry. "I don't have long to live," she whispered, weeping into her slender, elegant hands. Sitting across from her, I was momentarily speechless. We'd been making plans around her slowly developing macular degeneration, as though we had years together to discuss the possibilities. I leaned forward in my rocking chair, trying to offer my silent presence until she was ready to talk.
"I knew I'd die sometime," she continued softly. "But not so soon. Not yet." She seemed to shrink into the couch, looking older and frailer than I'd ever seen her.
I reached out to hold her hand. "Not yet," I echoed. "You're not dying yet, Stella. You're right here, now."
She nodded, continuing to weep, and pressing my hand harder in hers. At the end of the session, she hugged me tight, something she'd never done before.
The air in the office hung still. I sat at my desk, stunned and desolate. I'd never had a client die before. I mentally reviewed what I knew of Stella's life: she'd survived 30 years of heart attacks and high blood pressure; she'd outlived her husband and most of her friends. Still energetic in her eighties, she lived independently, attended condo board meetings, and was famous for her rich, homemade vegetable soups. Now, she'd likely be dead in less than a year. I sat still, working to wrap my mind around the concept. But my brain refused to grasp it, reminding me instead to water the plants, to call in for messages.
I listened to my voice mail. One afternoon cancellation, followed by, "Hey, 'sup?"—the slangy, slightly scratchy voice of Alan, an adolescent client. Then: "Grandpa died last night." Suddenly, he sounded much younger. "I gotta talk. Call me."
I'm never surprised when a cancellation makes room for an emergency appointment. I called Alan back and set the time for after lunch.