I met Mia for the first time at my tennis club. A small Chinese woman with dark brown eyes and short-cropped black hair, she greeted me with a heavy Chinese accent.
"Are you Ken?" she asked.
To my ... [+]
When did my heart harden? How did empathy slip away? Dr. Lindelson pondered these questions in the spacious office where she had practiced psychotherapy for forty years, since she completed her residency in psychiatry. Colleagues considered her one of the best. Recently though, she grew impatient at her patients' tales of depression, anxiety, confusion, anomie. Her last patient wore a two thousand dollar suit, Stefano Ricci diamond plated tie, and an over-sized Rolex to his therapy session, the outfit as aggressive as the staccato words he hurled her way. His vast wealth, he told her, consumed him with guilt. Dr. Lindelson considered going out in a blaze of truth and telling the man what she really thought: "Give all your money to a homeless shelter. You'll still be unpleasant, but you won't feel guilty. Problem solved." Mercifully, the man told her that he would not return.
Dr. Lindelson surveyed her office as she awaited her new patient, Susan. The oriental rug on the floor was overdue for a cleaning. She straightened the large landscape of mist hovering over a lake on the office's windowless wall and wondered for how long it had been crooked. The plants needed watering. She closed her eyes and breathed slowly to the sound of the water flowing over the ever-spinning ball on the tabletop fountain. Empathy, compassion, no judgment, she told herself.
Dr. Lindelson opened the door to her office, and asked Susan, who was sitting in the small waiting area, to come in. All she had been able to gather during Susan's sob-wracked call, was that her marriage was in trouble. A petite woman with black, curly hair, Susan sat on the chair facing Dr. Lindelson. She pulled two tissues out of the box on the coffee table next to her and clutched them to her chest. Dr. Lindelson assumed her slightly reclined, non-threatening position and nodded to her new patient. She was about to describe her style of therapy, when Susan began to speak rapidly, as if words had formed a bubble inside her and had to be released immediately.
"My husband, Bill, and I, bought a cat a year ago," she said, "that we named Munchkin. Our marriage revolves around the cat. All we talk about is Munchkin, her cute little ways, whether she's pooping enough, she's so sweet, did you hear her new sound this morning. We don't touch, no pillow talk, no sex, no normal conversation. Our marriage is dying. We've become roommates who own a cat."
With great effort, Dr. Lindelson maintained her neutral body language and interested expression and waited to see if her patient was done. Susan was Dr. Lindelson's third "our cat, our dog, is hurting our marriage" patient in the last three months. Since when had marriage-killing pets become a scourge? Forty years practicing psychotherapy had come to this, one patient after another who couldn't manage life's simplest problems. Surely, she was done as a therapist. Dr. Lindelson would give her patient the answer to her marital dilemma before the fifty-minute session ended: Euthanize the creature, and save your marriage. Or euthanize your husband, and save your relationship with the cat. Just do something and don't waste time talking to me.
"Go on," she said to Susan.
Susan handed a photo billfold to Dr. Lindelson. Good God, Dr. Lindelson thought. She's going to show me a picture of the cat. She took the billfold, and it was opened to a picture of a little girl on a swing. The child had brown eyes and black, curly hair, her mother's daughter. The swing was at its apex, and the girl smiled wide and unrestrained. Her delight in life burst from the photo.
"That is our daughter, Abby," Susan said, "on her fifth birthday. Bill's term of endearment for her is 'Munchkin.' From the time Abby was little, when Bill called her Munchkin, she giggled uncontrollably. Bill had just yelled out, 'hold on tight, Munchkin,' when I took the picture."
Dr. Lindelson could not turn away from the child. None of life's weariness or disappointments on her face, and five years of love in her laughter. Dr. Lindelson smiled with her. She imagined the girl in thirty years, a confident, beautiful woman, wiser, still quick to smile, genius, curer of cancer, bearer of children, future of the race.
"She's wonderful," Dr. Lindelson said, as she handed the photo back to Susan, who left it open on the table. "How old is she now?"
"Abby died a month after I took that photo," Susan said. "She drowned in the pool at her best friend's house. The mother had gone into the house to answer a phone call, and her friend had run off somewhere, as children do. Abby fell into the deep end of the pool. She was dead by the time her friend's mother pulled her out."
Dr. Lindelson stared at the little girl, tried to grasp the enormity of the loss, and could not. She wished to will the child back to life.
"In the months after Abby died, a crushing weight of silence bore down on us. Our house was a tomb. So we bought the cat. Bill insisted on naming her Munchkin. I cringed but didn’t dare to protest."
Susan looked down at Abby's picture as she spoke.
"I've read," she said, "that half of all marriages fail after a child dies. I still love my husband. One day, he will realize that talking about the cat is not a life, and he will leave. I am lonely and frightened. That is why I'm here."
Dr. Lindelson straightened in her chair and leaned toward her patient. She took Susan's hands in hers, as Susan lifted her face toward her.
"Tell me more about your daughter," she said. "Tell me about Abby."