Ultimate Questions

Ultimate Questions

A Therapist Confronts Her Own Magical Thinking

By Barbara Stock

May/June 2009

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…

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