I do not know why I was so uncomfortable with our first meeting. From his intake record, I knew he had requested a grief counselor. The service assigned new patients based on a system that could have paired him with any of my partners. Most of our cases involved grief counseling; death, divorce, retirement, and infertility each had elements of loss. He called during the Christmas holidays, and as the only Jewish partner, all cases were assigned to me. In exchange for the burdensome holiday workload, my office occupied the entire upper floor and no one questioned my disappearance for three weeks each summer.
A sign on the front door of the renovated Craftsman advised patients there was no receptionist, and to please take a seat and wait to be greeted personally by their counselor. A smaller sign indicated the room was equipped with security cameras. I watched the screen on my laptop as he arrived a few minutes early for his afternoon appointment. The sun had already set, but he remained standing, eyes seeking the darkness of the bay. Many clients preferred not to sit, but his posture hinted at impatience. I let him stand a few minutes before I went downstairs to greet him.
His handshake was firm and he nodded politely, refusing to mount the steps ahead of me. I led the way. My office contained several small groupings of furniture. He walked purposefully to the leather seats near the large front windows, indicating where I should sit first. His story was not unique and almost sounded rehearsed. He likely spent the last three years imagining speaking those words aloud. Instead, he held them inside.
He told me he was a writer, a published author, yet he had never written down this tale. He believed it inspired him and drove his success, but now he felt it a burden and the guilt was enshrouding. He shared with very little prompting and I was surprised when he stood and held out his hand, exactly forty-five minutes after we first sat down. I rummaged on the table for my card and asked if he would like to arrange another visit. He said he would contact the service if he felt the need.
I locked the door behind him after he left, and stopped in the kitchen to pour a glass of wine, before returning to my office to type my notes from our session. Contrary to admonitions of my professors more than two decades ago, I did not take notes during visits. I preferred to engage my senses fully with the patients, and found my notes were more luminous processed this way, as long as I took time to type them after the session. I finished the typing and the glass of wine and stood at the window, distracted by the blinking jeweled Christmas crosses on masts in the bay below. The act of typing my notes severed the personal connection, allowing me to reflect upon each case without attachment. This time, however, the documentation did not lead to closure.
Rich tones chimed from the cathedral down the street, attracting worshipers to the convenient seven o’clock midnight mass. I had developed a love of ceremony as a young graduate student, trailing my mentor from service to service. At first I had simply sought his praise for my enthusiasm. After I had secured his attention, I began to listen and understand his passion for the field. He watched patiently as I learned to sense the pain outside the words, releasing the language that bound me to my own truth. My vision blurred as I strained my ears and tried to find meaning in the foreign sounds. But then, in the silence of a moment, I found existence beyond the words, and I let go. We continued to duck into foreign services even after I had developed my abilities well enough to no longer be confounded by my own language. The sensual draw was a powerful distraction from my own reality.
I gathered my cloak and scarf around me and left the office, walking in the opposite direction of the echoing bells. When I reached the mission, I quietly slid onto a cold metal chair in the back of the windowless room. This was Blue Christmas, a service I supported each year on Christmas Eve. I remained silent as the anonymous shared their pain. The group leader nodded, acknowledging my presence. I was the anchor in the sea of smudged faces, a woman with a name and occupation. A few times I had been followed afterwards, and had spent the evening comforting the nameless. Most years I just watched as they shared and released. I wondered if they recognized each other. I could identify the regulars, but I imagined their pain served as a veil of perpetual anonymity.
My thoughts strayed to my final patient of the day. My senses had failed. I knew there was more to the story than the words he so calmly delivered. He spoke of devastation and despair, but his tone gave no hint of lingering trauma. There was no crescendo when he completed his tale, no sign of relief when he stood to leave. I must have missed something critical beyond the language. He never asked if his feelings were normal. Most first-time visits involved more validation. He seemed to already know everyone grieved differently, that the expression of grief in stages was actually a coarse simplification.
I noticed the stuffy room was starting to clear. A few lingered, embracing and wiping tears. Uncomfortable laughter sprouted as they moved closer to the door. None made eye contact with me, and I was relieved to not have to share my time tonight. I shook hands with the group leader and we arranged to meet for coffee in the New Year. The crowd outside disbursed and I walked the few blocks to my studio loft.
I lived in a converted storage warehouse made of red ballast brick with a view of the bay and the islands. There were a few artifacts from my travels, but the apartment was mostly bare, with simple furniture and no television. I started a pot of coffee to nurse my insomnia and sat in my favorite chair facing the solid brick wall. My grandmother’s wedding quilt hung from a cast iron bar, reflecting the light from the windows on clear days. The quilt had been left unfinished for generations, each bride incorporating pieces of her wedding gown and handing it down to her daughters.
When I turned forty and it was obvious I lacked both the talent to sew and the desire to marry, I brought my grandmother my graduation regalia and asked her to add it to the quilt. She did not speak to me for months. I finally visited her in the home where she had been born and lived her entire life. She presented me with the quilt. The yellowed scraps were framed in satiny black with velvet stripes forming a star in the center. I knew the quilt was now complete and my grandmother had accepted my choices, so contrary to her beliefs.
I took my coffee out onto the balcony and watched the slow parade of lighted boats making their way back for the night. I thought again of my patient and his familiar story. I reclaimed the session in my mind, and then opened my laptop to skim the notes again. As the horn blasted for the finally ferry run of the night, I realized my mistake. I had been trapped by language before he even entered the practice. The intake record showed he requested a grief counselor, so I had prepared to deal with grief. Though he had lost a wife and unborn child, this man did not exhibit signs of grief. By his own admission, he felt shrouded in guilt.
I did not recognize him the next time we met. By then, my partners had returned and we were settling back into our Saturday morning baking meetings. When we had first remodeled the bungalow, the contractor suggested we turn the dining area and kitchen into useable office space. We unanimously rejected his plans, choosing instead to preserve the atmosphere that had attracted us to the property. We planned to use the kitchen as a break area and the dining room for meetings and group therapy.
One Saturday, Gladys asked us to help prepare cookies for her daughter’s softball team bake sale. As we discussed cases, we discovered magic in that run-down kitchen. Solutions emerged as yolks slid from broken shells. Each spatula stroke brought further understanding. We connected. We started baking each Saturday, eventually using profits from the practice to renovate the kitchen, adding commercial ovens and dishwashers. We experimented with baking in our group therapy sessions. These kitchen chats became so popular, they filled months in advance and many patients remained on the wait list.
For our first meeting of the New Year, I was the only one with cases to share. My head buried in the screen, I skimmed my notes as the other three kneaded and stirred. Absorbed in the process, I almost didn’t hear Lenore when she spoke. She repeated her question, “Maia, did you say she was Italian?” I adjusted my glasses and read the transcript again, “Yeah. His wife was from Italy. I think he said she moved back after the divorce.”
She wrinkled her nose and scratched it with her floury fingers, leaving a smear of white residue. “Gary something, right? He was here last year. They were ready to adopt and something happened to the baby.” I scrolled back through my notes to make sure, but I was certain his name was not Gary. “Mmmm, no. Different guy. Mine’s a ‘Callum.’ Not even close. Common story, though. Adoptions fall through all the time.” I brushed at my nose until she got the hint and swiped at her flour trail.
After our meeting, the others left while I curled up on a couch near the stone fireplace to read a novel while I waited for the bread to finish. I felt privileged to be able to spend my Saturdays this way. My career was my passion. I was fortunate to be able to practice with friends who understood and accepted me. The smell of bread in the oven always filled me with gratitude. When the loaves had completed their cycle through loving hands, I wrapped them for delivery to the mission.
Anders was there to meet me and we walked down to the coffee shop on the beach. We talked confidentially of common cases, and I received the latest news of his children in college. This had been our weekly routine for many years, and something I treasured. Thirty minutes with Anders carried me through each week. His work was infinitely unfathomable. I had almost decided one had to be from a different species entirely to work as a therapist for a religious charity organization.
We stood to leave and that is when I noticed Callum, except, at the time, I didn’t remember who he was. He looked familiar, but also so comfortable in the chair near the fireplace, concentrating on the screen in front of him. He was part of the scenery, a landscape of sorts. I may have seen him a hundred times and never noticed. This is what happens with routine. This is why I keep few routines, but they are meaningful to me.
I did not remember who he was until I arrived back home and began to settle in for the night. I felt uneasy at making another mistake with his case. I had taken the familiar coffee shop scene for granted. We do that with family, friends and colleagues. When we get used to an arrangement, we turn it into a snapshot, and then neglect to notice subtle changes. We miss the slight movement of light with potential to inspire. We avoid the shadows of self-destructive behavior, in favor of maintaining status quo. I accepted, though, that there was nothing I could have done differently, even if I had recognized him. I knew he had signed an agreement not to meet socially or to extend invitations for engagement outside the professional practice. I had the same responsibility. We were inches from each other for a moment, yet there was nothing I could have done to discover more of his story.
On Monday morning, I peeked into Lenore’s office. She inhabited the sunroom behind the kitchen, and it suited her well. She displayed her oil paintings on the wall that used to be on the outside of the house. Each of our spaces seemed to be an extension of ourselves, creating an environment that felt more natural than a typical office or clinic. Gladys and Jake shared a wall between their south-facing offices behind the sitting room. We had known each other before we started the practice, but this building cemented us as partners, keeping peace and mediating personality conflicts.
Lenore was happy to get back with me as soon as she found the file for her “Gary something.” I didn’t expect her notes would shed light on Callum’s situation. She documented her cases in bullet points, quite unlike my own flowery narratives. However, I trusted her instincts, especially when it came to cases involving families. Her own daughter had been trying to conceive for years, and she was acutely tuned to patients in similar circumstances. I looked forward to seeing the results of her sessions with Gary.
There was nothing unique about my cases this day, all regular patients with typical needs. I tried to remain focused, but found my notes at the end of the day were more brief than usual. I was about to close the lid on the laptop and walk home, when I received the email from Lenore. She was just downstairs, but sometimes days would go by without the partners crossing paths. We usually saved our face-to-face business for Saturdays.
I did not immediately open the message. For some reason, its arrival triggered a memory of something I had neglected. Callum was a published author. I quickly performed a search for his name and discovered he had written two novels, both with excellent reviews.
I closed the lid on the laptop and left the house, walking toward downtown and my favorite bookstore. They only stocked the more recent novel, published a few months ago. The associate advised me it was not part of a series, so I wouldn’t need to read the other book first. By my calculations, they were both published after the loss of the baby and his wife’s move back to Italy. I recalled his claim that he felt guilty for putting all their savings into the care of the mother and birth of the child. Unable to conceive, his wife suggested adoption, and he had done the online research and located the birthmother, an Italian, like his wife. The loss had torn them apart and she had moved home to be with her family.
I purchased the book, as well as a sandwich and tea and found a comfortable chair near the fireplace. The book was not long, less than three hundred pages, and seemed it would be an easy read. I flipped to the biography on the inside flap. It described his education and awards and a little about his home here in the Pacific Northwest with his two dogs. There was no mention of family. The photograph, a self-portrait taken with a web-cam, was unusual but not surprising.
I quickly became absorbed in the story, a tale of an impoverished father and son building a boat together using scraps collected over decades. I forgot about Callum and my selfish quest to analyze my own diagnostic errors. I had not finished the book when the lights flashed to announce the closing of the store. As I walked home, I wondered why it was so hard for me to let go of my errors, and why this case, this brief connection with a stranger caused me to re-evaluate my skill as a practitioner. I brought the book onto the balcony and consumed it along with my evening coffee.
I finished the book, entranced by the personal meaning I gathered from the story. He wrote with passion, and I understood why he had become successful, if not why that success led him to feel guilty for his loss. He sought treatment for grief, but what he perceived of as grief, seemed to me to be his muse. The book gave no direct detail of his personal journey. The setting may have been local, but also could have taken place in any harbor town.
In the morning, I ordered his first book online and then checked email to see if Lenore had provided anything useful. When I opened the notes, I understood why she was reminded of Gary. Her documentation sketched an outline of my session with Callum. Gary had also married an Italian he had met online. They could not conceive and had arranged an adoption with an Italian birthmother they found through an online service. The mother lost the baby late in the pregnancy, after Gary and his wife had paid a considerable sum in support and medical payments. After the loss, Gary’s wife left him and moved back to Italy, where she had the marriage annulled.
Lenore treated Gary for depression and anxiety. He was quite a bit older than Callum and had come to the practice shortly after the separation, less than a year ago. He had attended some of our group therapy sessions, but I had no recollection of him. He was a shipbuilder, and I could not see immediate ties to Callum. It had been weeks since Callum’s session, and I decided reluctantly it was time to let go and focus my attention on the patients who needed me.
I was leading the group session that night. Veronica, a ‘regular’ we no longer billed, was bringing the dough from the Tandoor oven flatbread recipe we started the previous week. Lacking the Tandoor, we planned to attempt baking the bread on pizza stones. I heated the ovens before the patients arrived, and opened a few windows to get the air flowing comfortably. Veronica unwrapped the dough she had shaped for us and we began to talk as people straggled in.
It was crowded, but only a few faces were new. We eased them into the rhythm of conversation with smiles and nods of encouragement. People seldom spoke of deep, personal troubles in these sessions, preferring, instead, to tell stories and relax. I noted those who seemed to feel release. We encouraged symbolic acts, carving initials in dough, shaping forms into totems or carefully blending ingredients to balance personal pain and suffering.
Our first offerings to the pizza stone were disastrous, but it didn’t take long to discover the proper timing for success. Our best group sessions included some degree of failure. I had found that most adults I treated, no matter how highly educated, did not possess natural or learned ability to cope with failure. As children, we are persistent. At some point, the urge to persist turns to feelings of shame at failure and the lack of desire to face rejection. I believed it was cultural and generational, but my practice lacked diversity, and my theories remained untested.
After the last client had gone, I cleaned up the remaining debris and took a glass of wine up to my office to compose my notes. One of the participants had shared a story of his childhood dream and the sense of loss he felt once he had achieved it. The listeners were cautiously sympathetic. I knew most had never reached the top of their mountains, let alone come close to going down the other side. I wondered at the folly of dreams. I preferred experiences. If my life had depended upon dreams, my spirit would have been crushed long before. Instead, I clung to events, seasons and moments, nurturing my soul after each, and hoping with longing for the next.
There was a letter waiting for me when I arrived home Friday evening. I casually tossed the pile of mail on the counter and didn’t remember it until Saturday morning. When it slipped from the stack of bills and advertisements, I immediately knew the origin. I held it gently, tracing my name on the front in soft, yet confident script. Clutching the envelope to my chest, I called the office and left a message that I would not be able to attend the morning meeting.
He had never written before, but I knew the handwriting well. It had not changed in all these years. I took the letter where I could sit with a view of the bay, and breathed in the scent before carefully breaking the seal. The letter was succinct, but I could read the restrained emotion in his terse words.
I am alone. Melinda passed away unexpectedly in November and the children have now returned to the States. Celeste is preparing your cottage. A new stove has been installed. I think you will find it cozy and inviting. Please do not wait for summer.
He left the country before I completed my program. His wife, a painter of shadows, craved a more ethereal setting for inspiration. They did not want to raise their children in the California sunlight and school system. I was grateful he told me before the university announced his resignation, and I was not entirely surprised by the decision. He did not belong there, though his research efforts and dedication to students earned him international respect and admiration.
When we met for our final lunch at a little café off campus, he reminded me of our first connection, when he told me I had a gift. At that time, I was an undergraduate student, with aspirations of becoming a teacher, like my father and grandfather had been. He was the lecturer for two of my classes. For the first, a large introductory course, his assistants did most of the teaching, and we did not exchange a word. However, I found the subject matter interesting, and selected one of his experimental courses as an elective.
There were only nine students in the class and we held most sessions at pubs in the evening or on weekends. We discussed experimental practices in group therapy, based upon his research as well as our practical experience during the course. I had a hard time finding my voice in the sessions, preferring to listen and ask only a few leading questions. With this simple communication, I was able to engage the students as they opened up throughout the semester. After each meeting, I felt as if a fire had been lit inside me, licking its way to the surface, only to find nothing to feed it until the next class.
When I received my mid-term paper back from the professor, he had written a note that I should arrange to meet with him at my convenience. We met at his office and he told me I had a gift, and that I was pursuing the wrong career. He felt I would be an excellent educator, but that I had a calling as a therapist, that people opened up to me because I was able to respond to the things they were not saying aloud. He offered me a research assistantship and forever changed the course of my life.
Looking back now, I realize life doesn’t actually have a course. Anything I had done at that time would have changed the course of my life. He reached me at a time when I was hurting, and possibly searching for something to mask the pain. He made the transition easy for me, and I adapted well to my new path. He quickly discovered my weaknesses, though he was not immediately adept at negotiating them.
When he left, I became fully absorbed in my clinical studies, completing my work early and joining a small practice in California. He returned for a visit after a year away and contacted me to meet. At the café that day, he handed me a large envelope, keeping his hand closed over the seal. He explained the cottage was in my name, and I could safely live there in peace, though likely would not be able to pursue my career. He spoke quickly, as if he was afraid of my response. Before I had a chance to reply, he told me his wife and children would be gone for three weeks each summer, returning to the States to visit family. He thought I might consider spending summers at the cottage.
I had never been to the cottage in winter and my first thought was to wonder if the pond would be frozen. I was not ready to find meaning in his brief note. There was a part of me that rebelled against the idea of being summoned like this, without a phone call or explanation. I resented his assumption I would put my life on hold.
I read the letter again, analyzing each sentence and word, as he knew I would. I realized he had carefully chosen both the medium and the language in his message. He knew me, and how I would react without time to process the request on my own terms. If he had called, I would have rejected him, blinded by my own insecurities.
For a moment I considered the implications of taking an unexpected trip to Europe so soon after the holiday vacation. My partners were still trying to catch up with their work, and I had new patients with scheduled visits. I was involved in other community activities and there were people who depended on me. This was my life, the one I had built without him. Yet I could sense his urgency in each line.
I waited a few days before contacting the travel agency, and was surprised to find reasonable fares if I was willing to wait a few more weeks. My schedule was heavy during that time, and my head pounded just thinking of the effort it would take to rearrange it all. Emotionally, it was difficult to imagine parting with people I felt needed me. Logically, I knew they would be fine with my partners. I recognized my own ego and social needs interfering with the decision process.
There was no one I could ask for advice. I thought of Anders and his gentle voice and kind words of wisdom. I wondered how our relationship would change if he discovered this part of my life. No one knew. I had kept this hidden for so long, I couldn’t imagine revealing it now. It was another lifetime, a past full of treasured memories and hidden moments. I was alone.
A pair of sneakers sent me spiraling into darkness. I was tying my shoes and briefly wondered if I would need boots at the cottage this time of year. I paused, tangled in ties, and collapsed on the hardwood entry floor. Each year of pain then took its turn wrenching my body and flooding my face. I curled fisted fingers into my untidy hair and resisted the urge to succumb. Determined, I breathed and tugged, tightly knotting laces, willing myself to rise and walk.
I slogged through downtown rain blowing sideways between sunbursts, taunting my tears. As I passed a thrift shop window, the figure of a woman with familiar posture caught my attention over a display of colored glass trinkets. She disappeared as beams split the clouds, glinting off a ruby goblet and stinging my eyes.
I entered the store and assumed the woman’s pose before the display, sunken eyes and lifeless hair, defeated shoulders in a white flag parka. I reached for the dull, garnet cup, tracing a happy face in the thick dust with my wet finger. I held it protectively against my chest and walked through the store, gathering at random. When I reached the counter, I released the items in my new collection, one at a time from fingers, wrists and under-arms: a 1960’s romance novel, a plaid scarf, a macramé handbag, a small painting of a rooster.
When I returned home, I removed the items from the recycled pet store bag and lined them up on my coffee table. Leaning back in my chair, I put my feet on the table, and heaved a great sigh. I stayed there, open, exposed, wet hair soaking my shirt and the chair, and waited for my mind to empty. In that moment, I knew. I had to call Celeste.
Chocolate. I tasted, then heard chocolate. “Are you sleeping? You never sleep.” The icy phone carried the buttery tones to my ear as my brain discovered the hand connected to my arm. It was James. Jolted awake, I summoned a groggy reply, “How’s your tomorrow?” He almost laughed and my skin warmed at the sound of his smile.
Celeste had given him my telephone number and itinerary. He worried the trip would interfere with my practice, and hinted at concern for my social life. The conversation flowed as if we had never parted. I swapped the phone from ear to ear as I prepared coffee. There was a hint of sadness in his voice, but we did not discuss his loss. There would be time.
His sunlight stayed with me through the day, as I made arrangements and negotiated with my partners. I found a retired colleague to fill in for me if needed, and I agreed to bring my laptop on the trip and to connect regularly. Despite the harried pace of my preparations, I felt a flowing lightness. It contained the bite of uncertainty, venturing new spring without a jacket, hopeful for warmth, yet willing to risk chill.
With only days before my departure, I met Anders and shared the news of my journey, and my worries about taking an extended leave. “Since when have you had family in France?” I felt a creeping flush, and hid behind my sandwich, chewing and considering his question. He knew I owned property there where I vacationed each summer. He knew no more and never asked. My “gift” seemed to encourage others to reveal everything, requesting nothing in return. I respected that, and understood the discomfort of disclosure. I offered morsels to maintain trust, but never felt the desire to insert my life into the existence of another.
“A close friend emergency. Family death.” He swallowed a response in scalding liquid and I continued, “I wish I could say more. Privacy, you know?” He knew. He dealt with it every day, but I’m sure he was still hurt that I wasn’t more open. He nodded, twisting the mug between his hands and his silence lured words from my lungs.
I spoke of Anthony, not James. I shared the personal failure that drove my professional passions, and revealed my fear that my ex-husband would seek me when he was released in a few months. Though he never served time for splitting my flesh and breaking my bones, transcripts of my emergency calls added drama to his high-profile trial. Twenty years was a long time to hold a grudge.
Anders, an expert at active listening, opened his posture and let me pace my story. I didn’t make eye contact or express emotion. I was talking about myself as if describing a case, disconnected. I slowly exhaled and he reached across the table for my hand, squeezing it once and releasing. “Maia, go on this journey. Things will be fine here. Really.” I tried to smile, seeking remnants of my morning sunshine. It was time to leave.
In frigid darkness I boarded the 2:00 AM shuttle to SeaTac airport, traveling lightly with a few outfits, my laptop and a book. I had mailed clothing and gifts and hoped they would be waiting for me at the cottage when I arrived. My mind wandered, exposing snippets of conversations from our most recent group therapy session. Gary had joined us, and I was captured by his sweet and trusting personality. His sensual handling of the dough revealed his natural talent for craft. He spoke of his shipbuilding as if it were his child, something to nurture and protect. It reminded me of the flowing prose of Callum’s novel, and I was disappointed when the session drew to a close. Veronica clung to his words, touching his arm as he rose to leave. Outside, they paused under the streetlamp, curious and engaged.
When I returned home that evening, I discovered Callum’s first book had been delivered. I longed to curl up in my favorite chair and read it cover to cover, but knew it would have to wait, as I continued my travel preparations. James phoned again; humbled I would put my life on hold to support him. He asked if there was anything he could do for me at the cottage. It was an unsettling question. The cottage had always been my domain. It was our meeting place, but I never considered it “ours.” I stiffened at the implications.
Snoring on the shuttle bench behind me accosted my senses, but I could not control my thoughts. There was a time in my life when I dreamed of this moment, but these circumstances were never in my fantasy. I loved Melinda. Everyone loved Melinda. Her tiny paintings, wet with secrets, hung in my bedroom. I collected them over the years and treasured each. In my fantasies, she would run away with an artist lover, or leave James, fed up with his high-profile career. I never imagined her taken by a reckless cancer in the prime of her life. Each day I moved in guilt, hoping my journey would bring absolution and I would learn to grieve.
The shuttle arrived at the airport and I realized I didn’t remember much of the ride. I debated the merits of mixing caffeine with sedatives and decided I had time for coffee to work its way through my system before the flight. Juggling a tall cup of coffee and a pumpkin scone, I found an empty row of seats and settled in for the wait. The information screen showed no flight delays, but I knew a late winter storm was expected in New York. I finished my snack and cleaned up the debris as passengers straggled in, squinty eyes scanning for seats with the least risk of human contact.
My new bag rested on the seat next to me. It was a luxury I permitted myself for the trip, and something wholly out of character. The soft sage background, with brilliant coral and lavender flowers reminded me of summers at the cottage. I knew things would be different now, barren and unfamiliar. The design blurred in front of me, and I remembered the book tucked inside. I still had time to read before the departure, so I withdrew it and stroked the raised title on the cover, “Burying Genevra.”