I open the door to my waiting room and see Ben sitting there, perhaps a little thinner, perhaps a bit more gaunt, but basically looking like his old self. I blink back tears. He’s alive. He looks up and smiles at me. “I made it,” he says, echoing my own thoughts.
“I want to start by saying how much it meant to me that you came to see me at the hospital.”
A near fatal heart attack. Quadruple by-pass. Multiple infections and his first words are about my visiting him at the hospital. “Of course I’d come to see you.”
“It didn’t feel like an ‘of course’ to me. It felt like you cared about me. That I wasn’t just a patient.”
I think about Ben’s angry, rejecting mother and reflect on how difficult it is for people who weren’t cherished by a parent to take in that they’re cared about. “Ben, we’ve known each other for a long time. I’ve watched you become so much more of a feeling, related person, but it’s still hard for you to believe that I – or others - care about you.”
“This experience did show me how many people care about me. And my wife, she was amazing. I know it’s impossible, but it felt like she never left my side, that every time I opened my eyes she was there looking at me, squeezing my hand, smiling at me.”
Suddenly I’m besieged by images of my late husband lying in a hospital room with me sitting beside him. Many years, many images. Waiting for the results of his angiogram; the terror of his first angioplasties; the pain of a double knee replacement; the horror of discovering he had undiagnosed heart damage perhaps fatally complicating a minor heart attack after his first chemotherapy; his miraculous survival; his deterioration …
My patient interrupts my reverie. “You look sad. I’m sorry. You must be thinking about your husband. “
Ben began working with me about a year before my husband’s death, now over seven years ago. It was an agonizing and vulnerable time for me, a time I revealed more about myself than was typical of me.
I say, “You’ve just demonstrated to yourself how much our patient-therapist relationship is a human relationship, how two people who have known year other for years, come to understand and care about each other. And you’re right, I was thinking about my husband, but I apologize for distracting you from your appreciation of your relationship with your wife.”
“Do you think being near death brings people closer?”
“What do you think?”
“I think it does. It makes you appreciate what you have when you see how it can all be gone in a second. I actually thought about you when I saw how attentive and scared my wife was. I knew you would have been like that.”
“Ben, when you comment on your wife’s love and caring, when you reflect on your sense of me, I hope you can see how much you’ve changed, how much easier it is for you to genuinely connect to your wife, to me, and I’m sure to others as well.”
Ben nods his head, “Definitely. I feel like I’m a different person than the one who first came here.”
“And yet you’re still surprised by my coming to visit you in the hospital.”
“Yes. I don’t know. Is it because I feel I don’t deserve it?”
“Well, why wouldn’t you deserve it?”
“Because …,” he shakes his head. “I don’t know. I’m a pretty good person. And I do know …” Ben hesitates. “I do know you care about me.”
“Sounds like that was hard to say.”
“I suddenly feel sad. You’d think it would make me happy to feel you cared about me.”
I remain silent, giving him a chance to reflect.
He continues. “I just got this picture we’ve talked about many times, when my mother beat me in front of my friends because I didn’t take the garbage out the minute she asked. It’s like I don’t know how to reconcile the two. How could she treat me like that if you and my wife care about me?”
“I think what you’re saying, Ben, is that if you’re deserving of love and caring today, you were deserving of it then, but your mother couldn’t give it to you. And if you realize that was her shortcoming, not yours, you have to give up hope that you could ever have gotten her love, regardless of what you did.”
Ben rubs tears from his eyes. “I think that’s right. But I am grateful for the love I have today.”
“I’m really glad to hear that,” I say as the hour ends.
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