“Would you like me to go in with you?” Tina asks.
“Why, you think I can’t talk for myself?” she asks curtly. She holds onto the sides of her walker and struggles to get up. When Tina tries to help, she’s rewarded with a withering look.
I wonder why I have agreed to see Mrs. Blumberg. Her daughter, Tina, has been my patient for years, many of those years devoted to dealing with her conflicts with her critical, guilt-inducing, withholding mother. I don’t usually see the relative of a patient, but Tina pleaded with me to do so. She described her mother as becoming increasingly morose and encouraged her to talk to a therapist. Mrs. Blumberg would have none of it. Then, suddenly, she announced she would see, “That woman you’ve been going to for all these years.” No amount of explanation of the difficulties with this arrangement would dissuade her. It was me or no one.
So Mrs. Blumberg is now walking into my office. Am I only doing my patient a favor? Do I just want to help a frail, old woman? Partially. But I’m also curious. I want to meet the woman who has caused my patient so much anguish, but whom she continues to love and care for.
“I know you people are real stingy with your time, so I better get right to the point. I’m almost 90 years old. I don’t have many years left and I’m scared of dying.”
I had planned to explain to Mrs. Blumberg that I would keep both her and her daughter’s information confidential, that I couldn’t see her on an ongoing basis, and that I would be happy to refer her to other competent therapists, but she clearly has something important on her mind and has taken control of the session.
“Can you say exactly what you’re frightened of?”
“What do you mean? I’m frightened of dying. Of being dead.”
“I understand, but could you say what exactly frightens you; what are the specifics of your fear?”
“You’re ridiculous. Dying is dying. If you want me to be more specific, be more specific yourself.”
Aware of my annoyance and appreciating more fully Tina’s continuing struggle with this woman, I proceed as Mrs. Blumberg wishes.
“Well, some people might be afraid of dying because they’re afraid of what comes after death, as would they go to hell.”
“Now you’re being stupid. Jews don’t believe in hell, or heaven either.”
“Or some people might be afraid of leaving everything and everyone behind, of never again seeing the people they love.”
“Yes, that’s part of it. I wouldn’t like to never again see my children or grandchildren, never see my new great-grandson grow up,” she says thoughtfully. “But that’s not all of it. It’s just impossible to think of the world existing and my not being here.”
I’m taken aback by the narcissism behind Mrs. Blumberg’s response. It’s as if she’s saying I’m so important I can’t imagine the world without me. She continues.
“It’s like my new great-grandson. I won’t be here when he has his bar mitzvah. That frightens me. I’d like them to light a candle for me, but I know they won’t.”
The people I’ve loved and lost over the years – my grandparents, my mother, my husband – flash through my mind. They live on for me. I don’t need to light a candle for them to be with me.
“I wonder if when you say you’re afraid of dying, you’re saying you’re afraid that it will be as though you never existed, as though you were erased off the face of the earth.”
“That’s right. I’m afraid I’ll be poof, gone, as if I were never here.”
“Mrs. Blumberg, although it’s true that you will cease to exist in the flesh, it isn’t as though you were never here. You affected lots of people during the course of your life and you’ll live on in the memory of your children and grandchildren.”
“But not my great-grandson.”
“Well, we don’t know. We don’t know how long you’ll live, how old he’ll be when you die. But I’m sure Tina and her daughter will talk about you. Children love to hear stories about their grandparents and great-grandparents.”
“I can just imagine the stories Tina would tell,” she says snidely.
Unwilling to go down that path, I remain silent.
“Memories aren’t the same as being there,” Mrs. Blumberg says.
“No, they’re not,” I say, thinking immediately of my late husband. “But they’re better than nothing. And when you live in someone’s memory, you do live on.”