A warm breeze squeezed through the holes in the window screen of the small box trailer, caressing the hair on Steven Rice’s arm. He stopped writing his notes on the pink paper and looked out the spotted, streaked window, at the old trees, vines and plants rooted in the lush green gully bordering the backyard.
He wondered how this small land of wood and greenery had flourished so bountifully, while trapped between residential asphalt and city streets of noise, grime and drifting exhaust.
“The stories they could tell,” he thought, staring at the knotted oaks, “hot, cold, dry, wet; season after season; change after change.”
Mr. Rice had survived a few blustery seasons of his own. Surgical intrusions, vandalistic relationships, precarious illnesses and winds of death had blown through the canyons of his life, leaving crevasses and jagged scars on the landscape of his soul. His receding, graying hairline and scarred, wrinkled skin, were testament to his growth and decay. Wire-rimmed spectacles framed his large protruding nose, providing an exclamation point to his tall, skinny frame. A light blue dress shirt and beige, corduroy slacks covered him modestly. They were just right for his kind of work: not too shabby, not to fancy or extreme.
Steven watched a brown, orange-bellied feathered friend jump from one of the trees to the soft green grass below the window. He wasn’t sure if it was a dull robin or a bright male sparrow. The sound machine hummed and the violins, emanating from the radio playing in the adjoining room, traveled through the thin plywood walls. They used the machine and classical music, to drone out their confidential conversations and keep the words, sounds and cries from reaching beyond the small, fern-potted cubicle they used for their private, intimate encounters with mortality.
There were two stout chairs with short, wide backs and legs; that looked like they had been dropped from a tall building and compressed on impact. An acrylic-padded office chair had been rolled under the insignificant, almost nonexistent, desk facing the dirty window. Fresh cut flowers, a miniature digital clock, some calligraphic business cards and a blue lit candle, graced the small glass table situated between the flattened chairs. The wall was adorned with two of his wife’s framed photos. One displayed a sensuous purple orchid in full bloom. The other contained a golden-orange poppy poking its head through the crevice of an intimidating mountain of cold, gray granite.
His wife, Jillian, was an excellent photographer, but hadn’t practiced her craft for years. Children, a job with the city planning department and various environmental causes had limited her photographic pursuits. Now, with the kids in their twenties, she and Steven had more free time for their individual passions and pursuits. Steven planned on taking up hang gliding, running off the tops of mountains and floating above earth like a bird. Some mornings he awoke with delight and told her about a flying dream.
Steven had been twice married before taking his vows with Jillian. The first mishap was as a young man of eighteen, when he had mistaken lust for love and connected with a warm, loving woman named Yolanda. There union lasted but a short two years; neither knowing who they were or what they wanted; both believing freedom equaled zero responsibility and no commitment.
The second marriage, to Peggy, had matched all the images in Steven’s head of “settling down”; but other than producing two beautiful children, the relationship was awash in misunderstanding and contrary ambitions. Everyone but he and his wife saw the mismatch from the start. They relinquished their individuality and personal boundaries to try to meet the others perceived needs or desires. They mistook control, security and acquiescence for love.
Jillian was the first to believe in Steven, to love him without an unconscious, unspoken need to control or manipulate his behavior. He had returned her respect and care in kind. The magnetic current that had originally attracted them upon first sight had done nothing but increase in intensity and strength.
The candle’s lavender aroma and the scarlet scents of spring, mingled conspiratorially, as Steven redirected his attention to the form under his hand and scribbled, in his disjointed, undecipherable hand writing, the words which best captured the last hours drama. The documentation was tedious, at best; but the lives and stories of those with whom he crossed paths, were anything but.
As he put the pink pages back in their vanilla envelope and placed it in the drawer, he felt the familiar vibration of footsteps on the wooden ramp. The ramp, made out of plywood and two-by-fours, had been hastily installed for wheel chair access, after the temporary trailers had been placed on their cement blocks.
The outer door to the middle office opened suddenly, sucking sound and air into the self-contained unit like a surfacing diver gasping for breath. Someone entered, knocked on the open hollow door to Steven’s little cubicle and peered around the corner.
“Yes,” Steven replied, standing and holding out his hand. “Please, call me Steven.” He was forty-nine years old, had accumulated a number of advanced degrees and training, but still felt strange when somebody called him Mister or Doctor. The formal titles carried too much weight; too many expectations and implications of difference and separation. It made him feel old, defined and limited.
The gentleman clasped Steven’s hand cautiously, as if he could be infected with suffering by mere association.
“Mr. Hartman?” Steven asked.
“Rob,” Mr. Hartman nodded warily. “Rob is fine.”
“So . . . you found us OK?”
“I’ve seen the sign whenever I drove by, but never had any reason to . . . you know . . . stop in.”
“Sorry I’m late.”
“Actually, you’re right on time,” he said, closing the door. “Please, have a seat.”
Steven took the opposite chair and handed Mr. Hartman a clear clipboard with a form and pen attached. “A brief formality; we don’t want there to be any surprises or misconceptions.”
“Of course,” Mr. Hartman replied calmly, while his instincts told him to drop the damn form and run for his life.
“Whatever you tell me is confidential.”
Rob nodded, glancing over the printed page. His jaw was clamped tight as a pressure-cooker, the corners of his mouth descending, searching for something solid; some anchor to latch on to. His dark black hair was combed neatly in place, his striped sport shirt was buttoned to the collar and his cuffed slacks nicely pressed. Steven noticed a slight shaking of the fingers, as Rob signed and returned the form, carefully avoiding any eye contact.
Rob tried smiling as he handed over the clipboard, but it got stuck in his throat like a chicken bone before reaching his dry lips.
“Thank you,” Steven said, placing the “formality” on top of the desk. “Thank you for coming. I know this is hard.”
Rob nodded, rubbing his hands on the wooden rests of the armchair and looking at the floor. He cleared his throat several times, as if he was going to speak, but decided against it.
“He knows how hard it is?” Rob said to himself. “I doubt it.”
“When you called,” Steven interjected, “you didn’t say how your mother died. Can you tell me what happened?”
“Man!” Rob thought, his adrenaline pumping. “I barely hit the cushion before this guy is asking me how she died!”
Steven saw Rob flinch.
“She . . . she . . . I don’t . . .”
Rob braced himself, counted to three and turned an inner, emotional valve, squeezing off the pain that was about to blow his boiler. He reverted to his mind for expediency and safety, uncrossed his arms and went on a litany of chronological events leading up to his mother’s death. The room swam with details, accusations, judgments, blame and anger. He talked animatedly about doctors, nurses, relatives, family members and friends; his hands gesticulating freely, framing his words with emphatic motion. He told a long, labored story of the medical community and their assault upon his mother; of relatives who “never helped” and others who “always interfered.”
As Rob’s outrage about his mother’s cancer and subsequent death raged on, Steven waited for a pause, a cue, a sliver of an opening to address the pain that boiled below the surface. It came suddenly, when Rob abruptly stopped speaking, placed his hands on his knees and glared at Steven.
“Well?” Rob asked bitterly, “Now what?”
“I’m sorry you had to witness such suffering,” Steven said. “What an awful ordeal.” Rob waited. “You must love your mother very much.”
Every instinct of pride and privacy in Rob’s body strained to keep composure. It felt like his ligaments were tearing apart; his protective shell, of time and distance from his mother’s passing, stripped bare. Repressed liquids of loss and abandonment leaked like a broken faucet. He tried holding back the tears, by covering his runny eyes and nose with his hands, but it was as useless as trying to stop a tidal wave with a bucket. He felt dizzy, his cheeks burned and his stomach ached. He questioned his sanity and wondered how he had let his well-meaning wife convince him to attend this torture. “I must be a masochist or a nut case,” he reasoned.
Sure, he’d had some scattered days since his adoptive mother had passed on. “Who wouldn’t?” he figured. “She was only fifty-one.”
Her name was Nadine. She’d adopted him, as a single parent, when he was five years old. Everything he knew about love, security or life had come from her. She’d taken him on faith; not knowing what complications might arise as he got older. Her devotion ran deep. She had spoiled him with attention and confidence.
“How could she leave?!” his mind demanded, not able or willing to match the reality of her death with his belief in how the world should work.
He had admitted to his wife, Soledad, that he wasn’t sleeping well and didn’t feel like doing anything. “It doesn’t make sense; nothing matters anymore.”
Anxiety about the future knocked day and night. He frequently asked Soledad if they were OK; if she was sure she wanted to stay with him being so “messed up and all?” She’d smile reassuringly and tell him their love hadn’t changed since they’d met in high school. He was and always would be, “her man . . . her sweetheart. I’m not going anywhere.”
It was during one of these moments of insecurity that she suggested he call these people for help. She had promised that they wouldn’t do any touchy-feely, therapy kind of stuff on him. Now, here he was, wondering what kind of mess he was in. All he’d done so far was babble on about his private life and cry like a wet baby in front of a perfect stranger.
He should have seen the trap the minute he walked in the little claustrophobic compartment. Soft music; candles; a warm and friendly atmosphere – all there to seduce him into making a fool of himself! And there was something unnerving about this guy, like he could see right through you.
“It’s not fair!” Rob shouted, between chest splitting sobs, “Why’d she have to suffer; why not me?!”
Steven handed him some Kleenex from the conveniently placed box sitting on the glass table, waiting patiently to be of service and discarded. Rob wiped his contorted face.
“You’d want your mother to go through the pain your feeling?”
“No, but why; how could this happen?”
“Her dying or the emptiness you’re feeling?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.”
“Doesn’t make sense, does it?”
Rob nodded, blew his nose again and tossed the tissue towards the small plastic can peaking out from under the table.
Steven said, “It can be painful and confusing. The feelings are so overwhelming; it seems like you’re out of control; nothing fits together anymore.”
“That’s for sure.” Rob dabbed his wet cheeks with another willing tissue. “But why does it have to hurt so bad?” Salt water oozed from the corner of his eye and dripped on to the front of his pressed shirt.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the price we have to pay for loving somebody.”
“Pretty stiff price.”
“Sure is,” Steven leaned forward. “You’d have to be a masochist to choose this kind of pain.”
Rob nodded, “So why go through it?”
“Grief seems to be the one kind of pain that doesn’t change or go away, unless we let ourselves face it, feel it . . . almost embrace it. Most kinds of pain are good to get rid of; put a bandage on it, fix it or avoid it, right?” Rob’s river of tears trickled to a small brook as he threw his last drenched tissue toward the seemingly elusive wastebasket. “With grief there is no easy, quick fix; it’s not something you ‘get over’ or ‘recover from.’”
Steven wondered if Rob was making any connections. He was never sure. Even if the client said they understood, felt heard or thanked him for his time, there was no guarantee that his presence or words had any beneficial effect at all. There was no tangible, physical sign or material exchange, no finished product or sutured wound.
“But,” Steven emphasized, “if you allow yourself to experience it, with people you trust and at times and places that feel safe, it will lesson in duration and frequency.”
Rob shook his head in disbelief. Steven added, “Right now it doesn’t feel like it will ever change, right?”
“You got that right.”
Rob’s apprehension and anxiety flew around in his head like manic butterflies, while Steven, this quiet middle aged man with specs and out of date shoes, continued to provide his attention and seemingly sincere concern. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Rob’s fears subsided, as he realized he was safe and could allow his heart’s storms to rage.
He told Steven all about Nadine. He talked about their favorite holidays, Thanksgiving and Halloween; about where they had lived, in Providence; what she did for a living, working as a home care attendant; how he bought her a home, after working in real estate for several years. He told him about the difficult times they’d had when he was a teenager, when he was embarrassed to be around her; how he had pushed her away and his remorse at having done so. He talked about his wife Soledad; how she felt closer to his mother than to her own. He talked and talked and cried and cried and remembered.
As Rob told him about his mother, Steven thought fondly of his own. She’d had a heart attack and surgery about six years ago, coming precipitously close to death’s door. She was in her seventies now and doing well, but the thought of her dying still gave him the chills. It wasn’t like he was a stranger to loss. Various family members, friends and acquaintances had gasped their last breaths; but there was something about his mother, her solid, life-long presence and care, that struck close to the bone. The thought of her dying and disappearing from this material life, made him feel vulnerable and alone. He prayed it would never happen, knowing full well that such prayers were a futile exercise in self-delusion.
“Yeah, she was, I mean is, an amazing woman,” Rob concluded fondly, an imperceptible smile kissing his lips.
Hearing Rob pause and having a sense that their time was coming to a close, Steven asked Rob if they could meet again in a week or two. He noticed the strained expression, of someone trying to hold together a broken glass, had been replaced with a smile, a smile that said, “Thank God. I’m not going crazy. This is all to be expected. It will change. There is hope.”
“If it’s not too much trouble,” Rob replied. “Would you write down the time and date? I’ve been a little forgetful lately.”
“Sure.” He wrote down the appointment, as slowly and carefully as possible, so someone beside himself could read it and handed it to Rob.
Rob checked the time and date, then turned the card over. “Steven Rice, Ph.D.,” he read silently, “Bereavement Counselor.” He stuffed it in his front pocket, stood and firmly shook Steven’s hand. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
“I know this sounds crazy, but I think it helped.”
“I hope so,” Steven smiled. “I look forward to seeing you next week.”
Steven watched Robert walk down the red-stained ramp, back into his life, a life without the woman who had taught him how to live. He went over to the miniature desk, sat on the rolling office chair, took out a pink form that read, “Progress Note”, grabbed his pen and began to write.
The last hour was fresh in his memory as he looked out the dirty windowpane and felt the air through the screen cooling as the sun undressed to put on its nightgown of darkness. The old knotted pine trees stood gallantly in the gully, impervious to the suns disrobing. They stood without feelings of love, loss, joy or sorrow; without consciousness of there own existence or approaching demise.
Steven put on his alma mater’s long sleeve blue sweater and placed his notes in Mr. Hartman’s file. He put the file inside the four-foot high, rusted metal cabinet and attached the combination lock. Picking up his frayed, black-leather briefcase and bottled water, he looked outside once more, before turning off the light, radio and sound machine.
“I’ll have to wash that window tomorrow,” he said to himself. “It’s filthy.”
Steven Rice walked outside, closed the vacuum-sucking door with a bang, inserted his copper key and turned the latch. The flimsy box trailer and its precarious contents were safe for another day. He walked down the shaky ramp and wondered how we keep living with all our scars and open wounds.