I didn't yet know Barbara, my current therapist, when she called me to let me know of Joan's stroke.
"The prognosis is very poor," she told me that night over the phone.
Joan, my therapist at the time, had keeled over while painting in an art class. "If she lives," Barbara explained to me, as she'd been explaining and would continue to explain over the phone to Joan's patients all night, "she won't ever be able to practice therapy again."
Disbelieving, I asked Barbara if I could see her for a session to discuss my sudden loss of Joan. During the week, waiting for my session with Barbara, I kept clutching my stomach as if I'd been kicked there. A part of me felt that I couldn't go on without Joan in my life. I'd been seeing and working with her for 20 years on a weekly basis. I often referred to her as "my good mother," as opposed to my own mother, who wasn't actually "bad," no evil Queen trying to goad me into eating the poisoned apple—just distant and depressed.
The first time I met Joan, I immediately loved the way she dressed: flowing long skirts, blouses cinched tightly at the waist, leather sandals and lots of silver jewelry. I also loved her tender, husky voice, and the fact that her small apartment, which was also her office, was filled with lovely portraits she'd painted.
The years progressed, blending together, and my weekly visits continued. My conversation with friends was peppered with "Joan said this" and "Joan said that." I've run into folks who might call me a "therapy junkie," or "therapy lifer." I've been compared to Woody Allen—not for his genius, but for his seeming addiction to the therapist's couch. But with Joan I never felt unhealthily addicted or dependent. Rather, I felt she helped me to better understand my actions and thoughts, so that I could catch myself in my tendency to self-sabotage, and so I could develop and sustain the confidence I needed to be at ease in the world. With Joan I felt loved, and what was wrong with seeking out that feeling?
It was Joan who helped my husband and me (we saw her for a while for couple therapy) make the decision to become first-time middle-aged parents. "Honey," she pointed out to me, "your yearning for a child trumps your worries." And it was Joan who helped me to find the strength to be the primary caretaker of my mother as she grew increasingly ill over a nine-year period, and finally passed away. Other people handle these milestones without a therapist, I know. Perhaps those people have other sources that can guide them, or perhaps they need no help; I didn't, and I did.
A life without Joan seemed unreal, dangerous, even. And to have our bond so abruptly severed, to have had no time to do the work of saying goodbye to someone who had sustained me for two decades was equally unimaginable.
When I had my first session with Barbara, she told me she was a very close friend of Joan's, and that she'd be involved in the everyday aspects of taking care of her, along with Joan's family and a few other friends. "Joan won't be alone," she informed me, kindly, because my imagination was off and running, picturing Joan—who was having trouble speaking and couldn't recognize anyone—abandoned in a nursing home with no one to advocate for her. Knowing that Joan, my pillar of strength, was so diminished made me physically nauseous. Barbara and I spoke of little else but Joan that session. I asked her if we could meet the following week. We met weekly after that for about a month, and every week we spoke mostly of Joan. "Joan's road to recovery will be a long one, and she'll never practice again," Barbara reiterated each time, undoubtedly because I hadn't accepted this.
I kept meeting with Barbara. It became clear that I was now her patient. We began delving into issues in my life aside from Joan. Barbara seemed so different from Joan. She was younger, for one thing, and her office wasn't her home so I didn't have glimpses into her day-by-day domestic life. She was married and had a daughter. Joan was single and had two sons. Barbara used vocabulary that Joan didn't. "Stay with your feelings of sadness," she would urge me, using a method that Joan didn't use, at least not with me.
After a while, maybe six months, Joan was doing much better against all odds, Barbara told me. She could maintain a sort of conversation even if she wasn't sure to whom she was speaking or exactly what they were speaking about. "You can call her," Barbara told me. "It would be OK to speak with her now."
But I didn't call her. I didn't need to hear Joan in such a compromised and diminished state. It would be more painful than living with her loss. I was reminded of how I felt when my heart had been broken by the men I'd loved in my past. Each time, I felt that I could never love anyone else. And yet I did, eventually meeting the man I married. Life goes on, as the saying goes. As does love. As does therapy, for which I thank Joan, who paved the way for me to be helped by someone new.