This year’s annual Thanksgiving column is about three women I have known for a few years now. In years past I have written about my own Thanksgiving thoughts or about friends of mine whom I believe embody the true spirit of the holiday, but this year my focus is on three women whom in spite of tremendous loss, teach me volumes about thanks and about giving.
For months I have been telling Danny about my plans to write this article and each time I bring the subject up he asks me “Shouldn’t that be more of a Mothers Day topic”? After a long period of thought I decide no, this is a Thanksgiving topic. I tell him so and he replies “So Cath, go ahead and write it already”. And that I do. This is not an easy article to write because the subject matter is tough and my heart is a little soft when it comes to these ladies whom have entrusted me with so much when I gave so little.
I met Anne two years ago when her employer “suggested” she try therapy after she got a “little touchy” at work. After 12 years of stellar employment with outstanding evaluations, Anne went into work one day and she had what we both call a “hissy fit”. I think she had a very good reason to become “hissy” and we talk about that to this day. You see, just before going back to work Anne’s son was shot down and killed one summer night. She had just returned to work after a week of unimagineable grief and pain when a co worker made a “less than sensitive” remark about her late son. Anne, a deeply pious woman, “lost her cool” and she responded with a less than professional reply which also included something she and I refer to as the “F bomb”. Her behavior was so out of character that her employer promptly referred her for therapy and that is how she found herself sitting in front of me.
After a thorough and complete diagnostic assessment of Anne, I leaned forward, over my desk and said. “Anne, I think you are mentally well and showed remarkable restraint”. Anne blinked back at me and trembled as she asked “So you think I am mentally fit”?. Of course I thought she was mentally fit and in fact, had it been me, walking in her carefully polished shoes, I would have hurled more than an obscenity that day. Anne returned to work with a clean bill of mental health but she continues to see me bi weekly. She is a remarkable woman carrying a great loss with enormous dignity and grace.
Anne was a single mother for over twenty years raising three children in a “rough town” here in Western Massachusetts. When her children were small she worked three jobs because as she told me once “I am not that type of Welfare lady you hear about”. Working around the clock for many years she put food on the table and clothes on her childrens backs and got them off to school every day. As the years went on she eventually saved enough money to buy a modest home not far from where she works. Her daughter lives in the duplex next door and Anne spends a good deal of her time enjoying cooking and doting on her three grandchildren. Anne has few regrets but one day she told me a heartbreaking story about a time when her children were very young and learned about Santa Claus from other classmates. Around this time, Anne was struggling financially and could not afford a Christmas tree much less presents underneath the tree. She sat her very young children down in front of her and told them a hard truth. “There is no Santa Claus” she told her children, “there is only Mommy working for money and that is the way it is going to be”. She would never again “sugar coat” a single fact for her children. She instilled in each of them the value of diligent study, hard work and honesty. She prodded them to education and thrift and “working” values. Anne is not the type of woman who is easily seduced by fairy tales or myths. She knows exactly who she is and “what is what” and she is unshakeable in her determination and persistence. I often sit back and listen to her speak and think that I am in the presence of another type of woman from a bygone era. Anne, for me, is a pioneer woman of sorts.
Our journey together over these past few years has not been an easy one. We talk a lot about the gaping hole left in Anne’s heart since the murder of her son. She tells me about days when she awakens and is so angry she cannot see. She talks about other days when she is so overburdened by her grief she feels that her tears will never end.
She came to me for help when it was time to write her “Victims Impact” statement. English is not Anne’s first language and she was concerned about her grammar and punctuation. We wrote that statement in the waning months of a shooting that killed several other children in nearby Newtown, CT and by the time we had finished, it was me sobbing. Anne was calm as I dabbed away my tears. She gently patted my hand before embracing me in a safe hug. “Cath”, she told me, “it gets easier the more I talk about it”.
I had been seeing Carole’s son Mark in therapy sessions for about a year when one day she accompanied him to my office. Carole is one of those “All American” looking Moms who raised her children in a safe suburban town in a comfortable home not far from my office. Her family flourished over the years until one day Mark had a work related accident and broke his back. Shortly after the accident he developed an addiction to pain killers. Shortly after the addiction to pain killers, Mark became addicted to heroin. Carole could not figure out “for the life” of her what and where she had done wrong. Devastated by her son’s addiction she begged me to help her to “understand”. In under an hour we became not only “fast friends in the face of tragedy” but fierce advocates for her son’s ongoing treatment.
Mark, a delightful young man, who missed his calling as a “salesman of bridges” struggled with his opiate addiction for the three years I treated him. He eventually “got clean” but a long the way to sobriety he also racked up a felony charge for selling drugs. He was sentenced to three years in prison and is curently doing that very time. A few months before his incarceration Carole asked me for a “family” meeting to help mend her deeply resentful and divided clan before Mark would “go away”. After my usual introduction of very poor comedic material, I explained to Mark’s father and Mark’s brother, the genetic basis for Mark’s addiction and how the course of his addiction led to his behaviors. It was a grueling session that left all raw and vulnerable but also opened long closed doors of communication and forgiving. Carole, sitting next to me at the conference table, would grasp my knee during especially difficult moments. Her hand was shaking but she held onto me fiercely as I advocated for her very much loved son to his father and to his brother.
By the time Mark went to prison he was on good terms with his family. His devoted mother made sure that enlightenment and understanding would prevail before the bars were locked shut. She calls me from time to time to give me updates on Mark’s welfare. On our final appointment before Mark was incarcerated, Carole, Mark and I were sitting in my office. When our time was up, Mark stood and grabbed me in a profound hug and said “I love you Cath, thank you for getting me clean”. I waved him off and said good bye to them both. Carole had forgotten her umbrella and she came back just in time to see her son’s therapist sobbing with her head down on her desk. From Carole I am reminded of devotion and the deep unconditionality of pure love.
I met Delilah as I do many of my “court ordered” cases and in this case, Delilah, a very loving mother of two boys had been mandated into my care. I cannot say enough about her because I have seen her with her children and she is a devoted mother who at no time would inflict a single bruise on a child. Still she sat before me when her children had been removed from her care after a brutal allegation of “shaken Baby” syndrome. I had misgivings when I took on the case. My client, Delilah, was no where near her child when a “shaken” event had occurred. She assured me and over assured me that she had never touched any of her children in any untoward way. I believed her and I still believe her today long after our courts have also decided to believe her.
Though she never did lay a single finger on her beloved children, she did lose them this year to Foster Care because actually a close family member had abused them. My client Delilah had no way to know this and when the end came it hit her brutally and hard. She had never harmed another human, much less her children and would never think to do so. It never occurred to her nor would it occur to her that anyone close to her would do just that. She sat in my office a few days after she learned that she would never raise her children again. She would probably never see them for supervised visits and in effect she has and had given up all contact with her two boys whom she loves so deeply. While she had never harmed either of her children the courts decided that because she refused not to have contact with the close family member who was later found to have been the abuser, she would not have any right to custody. She sat in my office that afternoon six months ago with no will to go on with her life.
I was worried I would have to have her hospitalized. I was worried that had I not had her hospitalized she would not be able to endure, Her beautiful young face was bruised with not beatings but sad undereye bags. She had not slept in weeks and because she really believed she would win her case she has been working seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours per day as a personal care attendant, Delilah could only see the time when she won back the custody her two young sons. She will not see them again, if at all, until each of them turn 18 years old. She comes to see me every week and I watch as her brilliant and beautiful youthful face grows old before me. She wrings her hands and sighs and she tells me that she works as many hours as she can just to make time pass so she can cope. She never harmed a soul but she is guilty of trusting those who might harm souls and specifically her two boys. Delilah tells me that she will work 80 hour weeks for the next 16 years so that she can see her boys again. I believe her.
One day, a very long time ago, someone asked me if I had children? I was speechless when posed the question but a good colleague, Bridget, from Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center in the Bronx was standing next to me in that moment and she said “No Cath is here to take care of other people’s children” and thereby ratified and certified and “informed” I continued to practice. I still take care of “other people’s children every day”. And that is what I do.
Anne, Carole and Delilah are not the real names of my clients. I do not use any real names and sometimes I change the facts of my cases because I am HIPAA observant. That said, while names and significant details are changed, every situation I have described is real and authentic.
My story this year is about three incredible mothers who teach and have taught me grace and thanks and giving. Each of them have lost their children for short or for long under circumstances that plague our culture. Each of them have coped with extraordinary grace and peace and understanding. I have just been a witness to their incredible loss and each time someone who would be present.
It is so easy to judge another person. We all do that. We make up our very closed minds and we decide and then we trap shut the doors. This year I ask that all of us go just that extra distance and consider the real possiblity that we might not know every detail of every event that we see around us. Please take one step back this Thanksgiving Holiday and if you enjoy your healthly family gathered around the table say a prayer for deep thanks and if you do not think about those who have less than you.
For me, the woman who had no children so that she might take care of other’s children, I step back and give thanks for those who teach me humility and grace because they trust me with the darkest sides of their lives with the knowledge that we all live here and we have only one another to sustain us each day forward.
For Anne and Carole, Delilah and the many Moms I see every day, you this year are the who, the what and the where of my Thanks. Thanks to each of you for giving every day,