This prompt is a simple one: I ask everyone to generate a list of what they’re grateful for (or a character they’re working with might be grateful for), and we spend about five minutes doing this. These can be single words or phrases. Then we choose three from our list and read them out loud. Finally, we choose one as a place to begin writing. Sometimes what someone else reads out loud sparks something. The night I wrote this piece, someone had included “A good therapist,” on her list.
Here’s what I wrote.
There’s no beating a good therapist, he thinks, pressing the familiar code at the door, climbing up the stairs to the waiting room, getting himself a cup of tea. When he comes to get him, the familiar grey eyes, the hair flecked with silver, he feels seen, really seen.
The comfortable brown sofa, the magenta Bougainvillea outside the tall windows, the kimono on the wall to his left: this is a kind of home.
Today they’re working on his timeline: events and memories from each year of his life, a catalog of the psyche, a trail leading up to and away from the trauma.
Today begins with thirteen. “I’m scared,” he tells his therapist, the moment he sits down, and suddenly, he’s that suntanned little boy, the gymnast with the curly hair who thinks he’s going to be on Broadway someday, the one who sings his heart out in his room in the basement: Annie and Cabaret and Olivia Newton John’s Greatest Hits,I Honestly Love You.
There’s a big gold dog and Hollyhocks in the summer and a Robin’s nest in the apple tree in the backyard, but he’s scared. Because this is where the shift began, where Mama started repeating herself and losing her keys, this is where she wants the car radio off when she drives because it makes her nervous, when only a month earlier they had a ritual of singing in the car together, KFRC 1210 AM and the disco diva crying, Go on now, go! Walk out the door! Now, she’s afraid to drive at all, she cries a lot, gets confused by the huge piles of laundry, and his whole safe world is about to turn upside down.
“You’re safe now,” his therapist says. “You’re here in this room with me, with the Tonga on the wall behind me and the Berber carpet under your feet. It’s not 1978, it’s 2011, and you’re safe.”
Early onset dementia. She was 55, 56, the age his friends are now, the age he’s still afraid to become because it’s genetic, you know, and he wonders who’s next? His brother? His sister? Early onset. Upsetting the whole balance of home, at thirteen, the cusp between boyhood and adolescence, the cusp between safety and madness.
“You’re safe now,” his therapist says.
And why is thirteen so much worse than seventeen, or nineteen, or twenty-two, when the illness morphed into all the terrible faces it wore those long sixteen years? Incontinence. Chaos. Anger. Despondence. Why is that cusp so much worse?
At the end of the fifty-minute session, he’s made it all the way to sixteen, and he’s survived his mother, again. This time, he travels down the stairs holding his thirteen year-old self close. “It’s time for lunch,” he says. “Time to feed yourself.” They buy a big sloppy sandwich, the kind their mother used to make, before the illness—always before the illness and after the illness, before and after. Everything measured this way.
He can’t find a bench in the sun, and the air is too cool to sit in the shade, so they share the sandwich in the car, sit here, eat, the boy and the man he has become. Afterward, they drive home together, to the neat little apartment with the photographs of his young mother, they drive home, the stereo blasting Kylie Minogue asking,How does it feel in my arms? Singing, the three of them, harmonizing beautifully together.