Grief Counseling Noir

Five weeks ago my wife Ellie died of pancreatic cancer. We did the hospice thing, and the dying went fairly smoothly, thanks to the morphine. There were no eyes popping open and arms reaching upwards to invisible loved ones hovering around the bed, just a slow diminishing of breathing in the midst of a coma-like unconsciousness. She, unlike Dylan Thomas, went gently into that good night, which suited the both of us.

Our two girls are grown, 25 and 26, both in med school, so they were there with us, but now they’re back doing their residencies, one in DC, the other in Chicago. They both insisted I get some grief counseling, but I was resistant, that is, until about a week ago.

I had my reasons for not wanting to go to grief counseling. For one thing, I hate group activities. I’d rather watch 96 hours of consecutive Brady Bunch reruns than experience again that Lamaze class we went to when Ellie was pregnant with Lillian.

The girls informed me that you didn’t have to go group; you could go one-on-one.

I told them I didn’t want to go one-on-one either. “Look”, I said, “I’m a literature professor. My master’s thesis was Death and Dying in Yoknapatawpha County: Faulkner and that Undiscovered Country. I know all about death and dying. I was right there with Emma Bovary when she passed, right there with Lear as he carried dead Cordelia in his arms.”

“Plus, your mother was a psychologist,” I added. “Believe me, I know the drill. I’ve read pro Kubler-Ross and anti-Kubler-Ross. “

I did, though, promise that if I thought I needed help, I’d seek it.

Once the girls left and I was all-alone in the house with Ellie’s tops and skirts hanging in our walk-in closet, her jewelry in a jumble on her dresser, I started feeling more down than I had. Waves of sorrow would sometimes wash over me, and I would occasionally weep out loud with sobs that sounded like sardonic laughing. Right after one of those episodes when I was washing my face and lamenting the revival that my long-gone adolescent acne was restaging on the ruined contours of my already pocked-marked face, the phone rang.

It was a woman from the hospice following up to see how I was doing. Talking to her, my voice went wobbly, like a retiring coach’s voice as he blinks back tears in an interview after his final game. She mentioned that they offered grief counseling, but I resisted offering a less arrogant and pretentious reprise I had given my daughters.

I told her I had a lot of support from friends, colleagues, and former students, which was true.

She said, “Okay, bye sweetie.”

That sealed the deal. I wasn’t going with anyone who called me sweetie, anyone who was going to infantilize my suffering. So I went on google to check out counselors in the area and frankly didn’t like what I saw, mostly younger, attractive women with bleached teeth who “empower” and “help resolve” a laundry list of personal issues like anxiety, self-esteem, family issues, and grief.

Then I ran across this ad.

 

I did some snooping on my own with Marlowe.  His degree was legit, but he had been fired from MUSC after only two years for insubordination.  He had lost his wife Linda Loring early in his marriage (steeple chase, broken neck) so he’s been around grief’s mournful block of consignment shops, hole-in-the-wall bars, pawnshops, and laundromats. His office/apartment is located on Folly Beach over an outdoor bar called Chico Feo on the corner of Second Street and Ashley, you know, right across from that mural of the pirate painted on the side of Berts.  I went ahead and made the appointment.  A secretary with one of those irritating interrogative lilting voices hit me up for Friday at 11:30.

You go up some rickety outdoor stairs to get up to his office. Two beautifully hand-painted signs hang next to the door. The top one reads: “Philip Marlowe, Psy.D.” The one below: “Yes, smoking, a lot of smoking in here, unfiltered Pell Mells. If you don’t like cigarette smoke, turn around. I wish you the best of luck. Otherwise, come on in.”

The door has a small set of wind chimes attached that tinkle/jingle. Inside there’s an old oak desk in desperate need of refinishing with a neat stack of forms on top, a jar with a variety of pens and pencils, and an ashtray in bad need of emptying.  Behind the desk a wooden slatted office chair on rollers.

On the other side of the room a green corduroy sofa and two chairs around a coffee table.  On that table a neat stack of New Yorkers diagonally situated in its center. No framed diplomas on the wall, only a strange, amateurishish painting (pictured below). A black curtain whose rod runs along the length of the room separates this office space from the living quarters. In a word, this joint is seedy and reeks of stale smoke.[1]

 

When I entered, there was no sign of Marlowe. I went back to the door, opened it, and waggled it back and forth creating a tintinnabulation. Marlowe’s head appeared between the curtains. An ocean breeze billowing them in and out. “McNully, right? I’ll be right with you. Grab one of the forms on the desk, a pencil, and have a seat. My girl called in sick with a hangover.”

The head disappeared but reappeared. “By the way, nice fedora.”

I sat down in one of the chairs, picked up a New Yorker to to support the form.  What you would expect.  Date of birth.  Date and cause of death.  Occupations.  Your medical history.

In three or four minutes, Marlowe returned dressed in a retro double-breasted coat and tie. The picture on the ad wasn’t current.  He’d aged since then. Here’s what he looks like today:

He grabbed the ashtray, emptied it in the metal trashcan next to his desk, and placed it on the coffee table next to me. After shaking my hand, he plopped down on the sofa, offered me a Pell Mell from his pack. “No thanks,” I said.

He placed a cigarette directly from the pack to his lips, retrieved a box of matches, and lit one from the bottom of his shoe.  He ignited the cig, took a deep drag, tilted his head back, and then expelled the smoke through his nostrils as he dropped the match into the ashtray..

“How about a drink?” he said. “A shot of rye? I could make a new pot of coffee.”

“No thanks, a little early for whiskey and a little late for coffee.”

A tic messed with his mouth. “Mind if I do?”

“Help yourself,” I said.

He produced a pint bottle from his side coat pocket, unscrewed the cap, and took a long slug. Then a short one. Then another long one.

He screwed the top back on and placed the bottle on the table. The label read “Templeton Rye, aged 4 years.”  He then picked up the form I filled out and gave it a cursory once over.

“Mr. McNully, sorry about your loss. I read your wife’s obituary. Remarkable woman. Even though now you feel like shit, you’re a lucky man, if you know what I mean.“

“Yeah, I think I know what you mean. I feel the same way, sort of.”

“Some days you feel okay; some days you feel like, Niobe, all tears, right?

He paused to cough, a dry hoarse smoker’s cough.

“Not so much the latter,”  I said when he had finished,  “But feeling ‘like shit is fairly accurate.’”

“You’re an English teacher, right.”

‘A professor,”  I said.

“Then you know different people are going to react differently to grief. Faulkner’s Caroline Compson isn’t Hemingway’s Frederick Henry. On one extreme, you got your Niobes, your Caroline Compsons, your basketcases, weeping unceasingly or taking to bed, doping up with camphor, and on the other extreme you got your tough cookies like Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms. You’ve read that, right.”

“Coincidentally, I did my thesis on Faulkner, on death and dying in Faulkner,”  I threw in, rather awkwardly, which seemed to throw his rhythm off a tad.

“A hopeless rummy.  Anyway, you know Hemingway?”

“Better than most,”  I said, almost wishing I had opted for the hospice counselor.

Remember the ending of A Farewell to Arms?”

“Yeah, the nurse dies in childbirth.”

“Here’s the last paragraph. I’ve memorized it:

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

“Yipes. I’d forgotten that.”

“I’m guessing you fall somewhere in between Niobe and ol’ Frederick. Am I right?”

“Happy to say, closer to Fred than Ny.”

“Okay, Prof, I want you to study that painting over there on that wall. It’s an allegory of grieving.”

I thought but managed not to say, “You gotta to be kidding me,” but instead “Okay?” in that tone my students use when trying to express incredulity.

I stood up, walked over, and looked at the painting, which I only had glanced coming in. I stared at it for about a minute. “You say it’s an allegory on grieving?”

“Look, Prof, I’m going to save you some money, cut to the chase and explain the symbolism rather than pulling it out of you with Socratic questions.”

“Suits me.” We hadn’t discussed remuneration, but I assumed it charged by the half-hour.

Now he was standing next to me, pointing with his cigarette. “Okay, the Lighthouse represents the earth’s axis; it’s centered, phallic, pointing upwards. The ocean represents the female, suffering, the unconscious, you name it.”

I inwardly rolled my eyes.  This was simplistic, sophomoric analysis.

“You see those whitecaps; the ocean is rough. Did you notice those legs sticking out of the water?”

“What legs? Where?”

He pointed. “Those are Icarus’s legs from the Breughel painting.”

“You mean Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the painting Auden alludes to in his poem,”  I said as if I were a character in a B movie.

He was supposed to say “precisely,” but instead,  replied, “You got it, prof.”

 

 

Cupping the cigarette in his hand, he took one last drag, leaned over, and crushed it into the ashtray.

”Okay, follow the diagonal line from Icarus’s legs, to the man battling the rabid weasel, up to the dame running towards shore, to the mermaid sitting on the rocks.

“Yes?”

“That’s grief’s progression, simplified.  It immerses you; eventually you stick your head out of the water, only to be attacked by whatever you want those weasels to stand for, guilt, depression, numbness.  But note he’s battling those weasels.  Has one by the tail.  Soon as he dispatches that one, he’ll reach for the one gnawing on his neck.  He’s gonna have scars, for sure, but scars heal and eventually fade, even though, they never really go away.”

He reached for another cig and offered the pack almost reflexively.

“No thanks.  But I have a question.  I’m assuming the woman on shore is part of the progression.”

“Right.”

“Why not make her a man and the mermaid a merman?

“I’ve got female clients, too. It doesn’t mean that grief makes you change genders, though it might make you take on some of the traits of the other gender.  Of course, you got grief going with sons and dads, moms and daughters, queer couples.  As it turns out, most of my clients are queer.”

He rubbed his hand across his chin.

“So, you probably realize that it’s not linear like this, but it’s eventually the progression.  What you’ll become with time is the mermaid on the rock – or, in your case, a merman on the rocks — a creature of both worlds.  Note her expression of detached interest.”

“I see,”  I said.

“Good, That’s it. I could waste your time and money by going on about this shit, but this is really all you need to know.”  Once again his tic jerked the corner of his mouth.

“That’s it?

“That’s it.

“How much do I owe you?”

“Fifty bucks.”

“Do you take credit cards?”

“No but Charlie or Hank can accept on my behalf at the bar below. Seems like nobody carries cash or checks nowadays.”

“I could write a check.”

“Perfect.”

As I descended the steps, I looked over my shoulder at the ocean across the street. It was gray with a nasty riptide. It occurred to me that Marlowe wasn’t exactly the perfect role model for recovery.

It was noon, so I went over to the bar and sat down on a stool and grabbed a menu, ordered a Pabst on draft and a Mahi taco. The lager and taco were good, as Hemingway might say. I asked the bartender, a thirty-something sporting a lumberjack’s beard and a shaved head, the scoop on Marlowe. He rolled his eyes. “He’s okay when he’s sober but a pain in the ass when he’s drunk. He can be a mean drunk.”

“Does he get drunk a lot?

“The bartender grinned. “Is the pope a commie from Argentina?”

“Yes, I reckon he is,” I said.

“Hey,”  he said.  “Sorry about your loss.  I lost my brother in Afghanistan.  I’m still not over it. ”

As I left, I glanced up at the porch, and there sat Marlowe with his coat off, his pants supported by suspenders, his retro 40’s tie loosened at the collar. Smoking one of his Pell Mells, he was staring out at the ocean, his eyes hidden by wrap around shades.


[1] Marlowe would probably point out that’s six words.

 

 

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