Ruth Z. Deming
My appointment with Martha was in half an hour. I drove toward the agency, eating my lunch in the driver’s seat, listening to loud rock music, and being careful not to drop crumbs of my toasted bagel and cream cheese on my yellow sweater.
Carefully watching my clock radio, I took a slight detour and drove by Gibson trailer park in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, where at least two of my clients lived: skin-and-bones Carol, who was in my Women’s Group, and Joe, who always wore a blue jumpsuit from his days as an airplane mechanic before his OCD got the best of him. Poor Joe would die of mysterious causes in a year, and Carol would disappear into obscurity with the rest of my clients when the agency closed down for Medicare fraud.
Reaching for the cupholder, I swilled down the last of my sickeningly sweet Welch’s grape juice from a pop-top can, spilling not a drop – as kids the six of us were forbidden to eat in the car - and pulled into Bristol-Bensalem Human Services Agency where God’s forgotten people sought help. The huge brick building was a former elementary school. Today, a decade later, it is an upscale housing development with rocking chairs on the front porches.
I parked under an apple tree in the front yard. The nature girl in me plucked off a blossom and braided it into my gray curly hair. Its fragrance tickled my nose.
And there she was waiting for me, hands demurely in her lap, giggling when she saw me come through the front door. The durable white van that delivered her from Chandler Hall Estates, her high-class nursing home, had dropped Martha off twenty-five minutes early to sit and stare into space. She never learned to read. She was happy to see me but couldn´t understand why she couldn´t follow me back to my office. She had no concept of time.
“Martha,” I said, striding into the waiting room, “I’ll be with you in five minutes.” She quickly glanced up at the clock and gave me a knowing smile. Another person trying to put one over on her.
Her face followed me as I walked back to my office, yearning for my attention, aching to tell me once again the same story she had repeated for two months straight.
Martha Hennessey is what we called a “special needs” person. As a woman with Down syndrome, her mind exhibited a gem-like brilliance that made me wonder if her IQ might be normal. No matter. She was a captive in her nursing home and would never be set free, even though her confident body language, that of a UN ambassador, should have tipped someone off.
I flipped on the radio in my office. Doing therapy could be so depressing I needed to infuse myself with sustenance. Let’s get a little music on WRTI-FM, the classical music station.
My office was bright, sunlight flooding in from what used to be the Clymer Elementary School playground.
When I was promoted to group therapist they didn’t know where to put me, so they gave me the huge conference room. It was ridiculously large. To decorate it, I brought in my old Aububon and Polar Bear calendars from home and hung them on all four walls. Above each calendar, I wrote the numerical diagnoses from the diagnostic manual the DSM-IV: 300.3 for Joe’s OCD, and 296.46 for my many bipolar clients - and my own diagnosis.
As Ravel’s Piano Concerto for Left Hand soared like sunshine into the huge room, I dialed the receptionist.
“Okay, Linda,” I said, “You can send Martha on down. I’ll stand out in the hall to meet her.”
“By herself? All by herself?”
“Sure!” I said. “We don’t want to baby her.”
When I got off the phone, the terrible feeling attacked me.
Please go away,
I thought. Not now. Please. Any other time, but not now!
Just as I was psyching myself up for our difficult visit, I felt it coming on. There was no mistake about it. A dreaded inner sensation would be upon me, shortly, as inevitable as death come knocking at your door.
She dressed well. Like The First Lady of our country. Bess Truman in a suit. Her black handbag was looped over her arm like other ladies. I helped her off with her coat, making sure the sleeves came out right side up, and we draped it over her chair at the round table where we sat across from each other.
In the center of the table I had placed some items for the delectation of the clients. If they started biting their fingernails, I gave them a small seashell to play with. Mostly there were seashells, pine cones, smooth pebbles, and rocks.
I stared at Martha’s hair. It always looked exactly the same. Never mussed. Like a nest of twigs the robin makes. Suddenly it occurred to me.
“Martha, do you get your hair done at Chandler Hall?”
“Yeth,” she said in her schoolgirl lisp, patting it in place as if it were a precious Hummel figurine. “Once a week Mith Pat takes me to one of the cottages to get a wash and set.”
“Do you get it colored, too?” I ventured. She was old enough to have gray hair, like my own white hair, but hadn’t a single strand.
“Oh, not yet, Mith Ruth,” she smiled like a conspirator in girl-talk. Her eyes peeked up at me. Her voice was thick. I had to crane forward to understand her, as if her tongue was too large for her mouth. She did constant battle with that thick prehensile tongue to get it out of the way.
My supposition was that, when she was a child, her family wrote her off, thinking, why should we teach Martha to speak the King’s English when she’s unmarrriageable, uneducable, and retarded?
How wrong they were!
But they did love her and they loved her with a mighty love. So mighty that though they’ve been dead for two years, she wept over them in my office. And that’s why the Home had finally sent her to see me. So she could come and weep for her family. Her delivery was always the same, as if she were an actress delivering her lines.
Everything Martha Hennessey cared about was jammed into her shiny black handbag. Our session began with the ritual of her removing the bag’s contents and spreading them across the table like Tarot cards. Pointing to each picture she recited her own urgent Deuteronomy: “Thith is my mother, Irene, and thith is my thister, Diane - she went ‘just like that’ from the canther,” snapping her fingers. And when she got to the now bleached-out photo of father doffing his hat to the camera, she couldn’t bear saying the words and would crumple face-first onto the table, sobbing and gasping. Her cries were breathless, filling the room, floating up to the ceiling, out through the open windows, and brushing the dandelions in the grassy field.
I watched helplessly while the strains of Ravel flowed in sympathy to this inconsolable woman.
It was her cries. The sound of them, echoing through the room, so sure of themselves, so true, so certain of that love. And when this happened, this show of feeling, I, a therapist, who have a natural horror of feelings, an absolute embarrassment of revealing my own true feelings to a single soul, have a vision. I am throwing myself at her feet, rising from my chair, embracing her legs ensconced in stockings and black patent leather pumps, and begging her to take heart - that she would meet her family in the Afterlife. For there must be an Afterlife, mustn’t there be? If only to provide solace for Miss Hennessey.
But her sorrow was not to be shared. She didn’t want my comfort or my hand on her arm. She didn’t love me as my other clients did. She loved only her family. Time had stopped when the last of them died. And she was living out her years at the Estates, doing what she was told, annoyed but not angry, going along with people trying to make life easy for her and easy for themselves. She was my age but her life had stopped. She was bearing witness to the rest of her life. Which was nothingness. Purgatory.
I knew this only too well. Perhaps I was the only one who did. And knew, too, that there was nothing anyone could do.
But on this day she added new stories, tales from the Estates. Of arguments, of people who annoyed her, residents who talked too loud or whose hearing-aids whistled, staff members who snuck smokes out back. Nurses who expected her to walk faster and use the right fork at the dinner table.
And then, like a stuck record, she went back to her family again, with whom she lived, four of them. Until each of them dropped dead like songbirds flopping from the sky, one by one, until she, Martha, the flawed one, the baby, the one they bet against, yet still the darling, was the only one left. What else could the reigning cousins do but retire her to the Estates? A racehorse sent out to pasture.
Did she know her life was over? Did she know she would follow in their footsteps? Was she a sentient human being? She would end her days, perhaps five years hence, dying of grief and lack of love, or falling into early-onset Alzheimer’s like her Down syndrome brethren do, tapping her fingers until it was time to go.
And now, Miss Ruth, her therapist, was going to deceive her.
“Our time is nearly up,” I said gently as I watched her uncross her legs on the blue upholstered chair. She looked up at me with the photos lying like tiny graves on the table.
She gasped and her eyes widened.
“I’ll see you again soon,” I pleaded. “A month isn’t so very long.”
Of course it’s long. It’s an eternity.
Two minutes after our session began I felt the tickle of exhaustion magnetize my eyelids. I knew these attacks well. Once spotted, they didn’t back off. Like a fly come to bother you, you couldn’t get rid of them but had to ride them out.
Soon I could barely keep my eyes open. I had to be alone and go to sleep. My head was drooping. I detested myself. The thought of my necessary perfidy was appalling but I knew I mustn’t fall asleep in front of her. She would tell.
She looked at the clock. She looked at me.
“Here’s what I can do,” I said. I could barely speak I was so overcome with a death-like fatigue.
I fantasized putting my head on my desk and napping right in front of her and then. Of course, Martha Hennessey would dutifully report to her caretakers that her exalted psychologist had fallen asleep at her desk.
“I think I can extend our time just a little,” I said, hating myself as I planned my getaway. “I need to make a couple of phone calls that I can’t do here in the room.”
“Oh, for confidentiality?” she asked, getting her tongue around the long word.
“Yes, yes,” I say. “For confidentiality.”
I stood up. “I can leave you in the room and go to another room, make my calls, and then come back. We’ll still have time together.”
She smiled. She understood only that I would be back and we could leave her pictures right where they were. She wasn’t ready yet to say goodbye to them or her family. Even now, they all seemed alive again, scampering around the room like clouds and occupying all the empty chairs. Even I half-believed in their reincarnation right here in my office.
I closed the door behind me and walked through the "No Exit" door to the front of the building. I couldn’t let anyone see me. Sliding into the driver’s seat of my car with the empty grape juice bottle tilting in the cup holder, I practically fell asleep upon impact.
Was it the lithium? The diabetes? The difficult stories I heard? Once, driving home on a sunny afternoon, my exhaustion was unbearable. I’d actually blacked out for a fraction of a second before I pulled into the parking lot of an animal shelter. The wild applause of barking dogs greeted me, and I slept for the better part of an hour in my locked car.
After two minutes of deep dreamless slumber while Martha awaited my return, I heard the unmistakable sound of the Estates’ van purring up the driveway. I jolted awake and pretended to search for something under the car seat.
Best to look like I knew what I was doing. When I emerged, I plucked another apple blossom, sniffed it with flourish, and ran toward the "No Exit" door.
Peeking through my office window I saw Martha examining the photos, her face practically kissing each of the dead souls.
I rapped on the window. Martha looked up, startled, as if wrenched from an earlier century, and met my eyes.
“I’ll be right there,” I mouthed, waving the sprig of apple blossom in the air.