My Mom Died Last Year, But I Really Miss My Shrink

Barbara talked to me about death—while she was dying—and that was the greatest gift I've ever received

My mom died last year, but I really miss my shrink.

My shrink was supposed to help me when my mom died, and I'd be left to navigate the surviving birth family unit that is myself and my two older sisters. But Barbara died two years before my mom did, struck down suddenly with a rare form of lymphoma. This selfishly pissed me off, among other things, because we were busy, busy dealing with my life, not hers. "But," she reminded me at our last bittersweet session, "you know what to do."

I saw Barbara for 25 years, embarrassingly enough, and she probably knew me better than anyone else in the world. I'd checked out many other shrinks before her, and only found one other that seemed, well ... smarter than me and appreciated my sense of humor! But that woman lived in San Francisco and here I was in New York City, and Barbara had come highly recommended from the friend of one of my sisters.

Barbara was brilliant, so much so that miracles actually happened in her purview, when even my mom began to agree with things I might've said, or thought, or done, as long as Barbara had said so also. She wasn't perfect of course—no one is—but damn near close; she told me she kept spelling my name wrong on my bills because that was how her favorite niece spelled hers. She had an edgy thought process, did not believe in cookie cutter psychology, understood the artist, the mother, the ex-husband, my quasi-runaway teen and more. She seemed to appreciate who and what I was about. My mom, my sisters, not so much.

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Barbara was elegant, whereas my mom was the opposite of that. Barbara listened and was curious, and I don't think my mom ever comprehended what I was talking about. I don't mean to compare (though I can't help not), but Barbara could see me, whereas back in my performer days my mom once asked, after opening night of the most exciting show of my life, at City Center Theater, New York City: "Which one were you?"

"Does she need glasses?" Barbara suggested, looking for a possible benign interpretation.

"She already wears them!" I cried.

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Of course, I paid Barbara, so there's that. It was her job to support me, though she didn't "yes" me. She also never raised her fee on me in 25 years, and let me reconcile my running tabs at the end of each year, telling me how responsible I was. My mom thought I was so irresponsible apparently, that two months before she died she decided not to give me my inheritance outright, as she did my sisters, but instead secured it in a trust, where it will lay forever as an unreachable mirage. And didn't tell me.

I don't know what happened in my mom's mind at the last minute, or at her lawyer's office, but I definitely tried to uncover the details of this secretive will change my mother signed off on in the middle of one of her death-throe seizures. I can only guess that she didn't like being ripped off by my ex-husband, the former heroin addict, a man who later used me to get at my mother's money. No one liked that. But I didn't think it was my fault.

"That's not very nice," I said, weeping into my pillow for months on end.

"It was misplaced generosity," one sister declared. "Everything happens for a reason. She wasn't in her right mind, but let's make this a positive thing."

"Don't look at me," the other shrugged. "It's not my problem."

"You know what to do," I imagine Barbara saying.

No, I don't!

Barbara and I suspected there would be issues surrounding the eventual outcome of my mom's estate, but neither one of us thought it would turn out like that. Like this.

Barbara was the only person who ever talked to me about death, while she was dying, and that was the greatest gift I've ever received. I'd asked my mom during her final days if she wanted to have a deep conversation about anything with me.

"I don't do deep," she replied, and then floated away.

At Barbara's memorial, held in a hospital conference room, I'd never seen so many middle-aged male shrinks in one place, and they were all crying. I read a eulogy I'd written for her, her only patient to do so.

"The thing about Barbara is ..." was its repeating chorus, and then I filled in the blanks with memories: "I think I still owe her 500 dollars," or "I think I threw away her wedding present after I got a divorce" or "I think she visited me in the hospital, twice, and cried for me there."

I was the hit of the afternoon. People laughed and wept at my insights about her, and our relationship. Her son stood up and hugged me afterward, and her husband, who I'd always been curious about, did the same.

At my mom's funeral, I wrote a piece that the rabbi recited, because I didn't think I could speak it myself. Though he seemed impressed with my words, I don't think anyone else was listening.

"You look really tired," one funeral-goer remarked.

"I put on makeup," I said.

"Well, you can't see it."

My mom was my life, but Barbara was my witness. If a tree dropped, and my witness wasn't there—then what? Just because my mom was gone, precisely because my mom was gone, didn't mean the family trees weren't falling left and right, which I realize is exactly why I saw Barbara for 25 years. For this moment.

"I think you showed a lot of restraint," Barbara once analyzed, when I admitted throwing a cup at the garage wall during a fight I had with one of my sisters, after my dad's funeral. My sister kept telling me that a very specific tree hadn't fallen, even though it had smacked us both in the head.

My mom, on the other hand, didn't sweat the details, the cracks in the walls, the raccoons in the chimney. And she always seemed happy, except giving birth, which she decried many times as "the worst experience of my life."

Otherwise, she was a unique creative, and had an impressive lust for learning and meeting new people. She always had a book in her hand, many in fact. At the very end of her life, the last day she was lucid, while my two sisters were flying in from out of town, I told my mom I loved her.

"I love you, too," she said, nearly lifeless on the bed.

I told her one of my sisters said to say she loved her, too.

"Whatever," my mom replied.

We burst out laughing, and it was strangely satisfying. That was the best instance of clarity she ever gave me. My mom was barely there, but maybe she did see me after all, and understood some of the charged world that is, was, and will remain my mother, myself and my two sisters. I know Barbara and I would have had a good laugh over that one also.

I don't mean to be mean, and life and relationships are not a competition. My mom is my blood; I inherently love her, I always will, and we'll be connected forever, which is probably about as long as it will take to figure out our dynamic. I think she didn't tell me about the will change, because if she had, we might not have shared that open loving moment at the end; maybe she needed that, too. Never mind I didn't look to her for the modeling of the life tools, the skills, the self-assurance; I did to Barbara.

Barbara was always prompting me to learn new life lessons, take my development one step further, expose the underbelly and appreciate myself for exactly who I am. Just in case I forget, though, I keep on my desktop my own tailor-made Rumi-like saying from Barbara, which always reminds me that I do know what to do.