In the first year of my psychiatric residency I read many arcane essays and listened to long and sometimes incomprehensible lectures. Some of the professors said psychotherapy was a science, but it never seemed like one to me. It was a mystery how the exchange of words between two people led to the healing of the patient. How did a therapist know when to speak, when not to speak, what to say, and how to say it? I was almost paralyzed with concern that some inadvertent word or movement of mine might cause a patient harm.
In the second year of my residency I learned how to treat patients. One of my first was a thin woman who kept her blond hair cut short. Her sad, sunken blue eyes were surrounded by deep gray shadows, as if she wasn’t sleeping well. She sat across from me on a taupe-colored sofa and began talking nonstop. I was relieved that I didn’t have to ask many questions.
The problem was her marriage, she said. She was not living with her husband. She was staying at her mother’s, but that was stressful, because her mother kept asking what the problem was between her and her husband, and she couldn’t tell her. Her husband was a gentle person, and much more outgoing than she was. Things were OK, except that they had some . . . differences.
“Differences?” I said.
She looked away and gripped her handbag in her lap. He had bigger “appetites” than she did, she said. He wanted more. He liked to touch and stroke and . . . he just wanted more, and she wasn’t as “outgoing.” She had never been very interested in sex. He was. A lot. There were all these things he wanted her to try, but she didn’t really think married people should do that. He felt he had to help her. So he had her sleep with his best friend. All three of them together. So she could get used to sex. She let this go on for a whole year. She thought she had to, because he was her husband and she had to please him, but it never felt right. She hated it. She was so ashamed. She just could not believe this had happened. This was a marriage, a sacred contract before God. How could he say he loved her and let his friend . . . ?
She wept quietly. I did not offer her a tissue. I had read that it was wrong to hand tissues to a crying patient: the patient might think the therapist is being dismissive of the tears. You put the box close to the patient’s seat before the patient comes in. But there was no table in this room, and the tissues were on a shelf behind me.
When the hour was up, the session ended. The hour is the sacred boundary of therapy, no matter how traumatic the patient’s story. We said goodbye until the next session.
The following day I reviewed my notes with my supervisor, reporting all that the patient had said and indicating that I had not said much at all, since I had been embarrassed by her obvious embarrassment.
“She won’t come back,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
I didn’t quite understand.
She’d shared too much with a total stranger who’d done nothing to help, he explained. “Therapy is not just about letting people talk. You have to know when to stop them, to protect them from telling you more than is healthy at the start of the relationship.” I’d let her reveal too much at the first meeting, when there was no relationship to serve as the container for it. She’d talked until she was raw, and I’d let her walk out the door an open wound.
He was right. She never returned. And I have done my best never to harm anyone in that way again.
As a child I was known for saying the wrong thing around adults. At the age of five I was left to “entertain” my single mother’s latest boyfriend while she was putting the finishing touches on her makeup. He and I sat formally on the sofa, I with hands folded and he clutching a bouquet of flowers. This man was quite a bit older than she was, and bald. I had never met him before, but I’d overheard several conversations about him. We exchanged the usual pleasantries:
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“How old are you?”
“Five and a half.”
As my mother descended the stairs to make her glamorous entrance, I asked him the question that had been on my mind:
“What’s a ‘sugar daddy’?”
Santa Fe, New Mexico
I sat up all night in my mother’s hospital room as she awaited morning surgery for the cancer that would soon take her life. We talked and laughed, and I played my guitar and sang to her.
My mother was active in the Jewish community, but she was a militant skeptic who had no time for comforting superstitions about God or an afterlife. Usually I knew better than to talk much about my own spiritual studies with her, but that night I felt the need to say something comforting.
“You know,” I began, “the Buddhists say that everything, even our very nature, is an illusion —”
“What do you know?” she snapped. “You’re thirty-nine years old. You’re going to live forever.”
A favored son, I’d rarely been the target of her withering scorn, but this time I’d been asking for it. She was comforted by my presence, but she wasn’t about to exchange a lifetime of skepticism for pop Buddhism just because she was dying.
When out and about as the wife of an insurance-company executive, I lived in fear I would betray my rural background at social gatherings. We did a lot of business with New Englanders who were very curious about everyone’s origins: “Who might your people be?” they would ask, or, “Where did you attend school?” No one had to tell me that Ohio State was not an answer that impressed them.
Every social or business event was a minefield of scrutiny: the labels you wore, your table manners, your speech. Luckily I wasn’t given to saying, “Golly gee,” and my mother had smacked anything resembling a swear word out of me before I’d climbed on the school bus for my first trip off the farm. My husband advised me to smile and ask everyone lots of questions about themselves.
This strategy never failed me until one evening at the hors d’oeuvre table when one of the other wives popped an appetizer whole into her mouth and emitted a tiny groan of pleasure. I picked one up from the tray and did the same. In the past I’d always taken a discreet sniff first to keep me from consuming any strange “delicacies” I couldn’t bring myself to swallow. Now, within a second, my tongue sent its report to my brain, which initiated the gag reflex. I put my hand up to my mouth and spat the food into my cupped palm. The woman was so disgusted at the sight of this that she bent forward with a retching cough and brought up her own partially consumed bite. Seeing her with half-chewed hors d’oeuvre in her teeth gave me a fit of the giggles. I’m sure she thought I was laughing at her.
Afterward I stood beside her in the ladies’ room as she cleaned herself up. “Fuck!” she said, and she glared at me. “Who the hell are you anyway?”
I thought of my mother’s motto: Always remember who you are and where you come from, and be proud.
I said, “My name is Edna Hodgins. I’m originally from a small dairy farm in Ohio. I dropped out of Ohio State University in my junior year, and that’s the worst crap I’ve ever tried to eat.”
Edna Coulson Hall
When I was seven, my fifteen-year-old sister, Judy, was supposed to come home from school each afternoon, take care of me, do her homework, and start dinner while our recently divorced mother worked. Instead Judy began to invite her new friends over. I would get home to find tough-looking teens smoking, drinking, and from time to time disappearing into the bedrooms. They barely noticed me. The guys all kept cigarette packs rolled up in the sleeves of their T-shirts, and the girls wore tight skirts and low-cut tops. Judy threatened to make my life a living hell if I said even one word to our parents about these “parties.”
I’d always admired my sister for the way she stood up to everyone: the nuns who taught us; the scary landlady; even the guys who hung out on the street corner, drinking and shouting insults at people. She was my hero. But lately she seemed to have become a different person, and I was frightened of her. Every day I’d arrive home, change out of my school uniform, and leave for a friend’s house, returning just before our mother was due.
After a few weeks of this our father stopped by for an unscheduled visit and found Judy and her friends in various states of undress, drinking the Mogen David wine our mother kept on hand for special occasions. Furious, he threw my sister’s friends out and called our mom.
By the time I got there, the accusations were flying like bullets between my divorced parents. Judy was out of control, they finally decided, and would go to live with our father across the city and attend counseling. I was grounded for not telling and would have to stay with an elderly neighbor after school. I realized then that I’d still been hoping that Judy would go back to her old self and let me into her life again. I didn’t want my big sister gone for good.
A few months later, on a rainy Saturday night, I heard a scratching at the front door that I thought might be my cat. Without waking my mother, I went to the door and opened it.
Judy was leaning against the wall in the hallway, blood dripping from her nose and her clothes all torn.
“Don’t tell,” she said as she practically fell in the door. But this time there was no stopping me. I screamed for our mother, not caring if the whole neighborhood heard.
Santa Rosa, California
My friend Jill was morbidly obese, so much so I was afraid she would die. We’d met at the museum where we both worked, and we’d felt an instant rapport. She wrote screenplays on the side; I pined to quit my job and write full time. We both appreciated art, dark humor, and George Clooney movies.
When Jill was laid off and moved back to her home state, our friendship continued by e-mail. Freer to reveal ourselves through writing, we became close enough that I felt comfortable broaching the subject of her weight. I told her that it was important for her to get healthy, because her family and I needed her around: “You are my sounding board,” I said. “You can’t die on me.” I was afraid I had said too much.
The following year I flew cross-country to visit Jill. We threw an Oscar party, just the two of us, and watched the Academy Awards while wearing black fuzzy slippers and sipping champagne. With Jill’s increasing size, plus her fifty-pound Labrador puppy, the tiny basement apartment she rented felt cramped. Before I left for home, I encouraged her again to get healthy, and she promised she would. “I love you, Jilly,” I said. This time I was afraid I had said too little.
She died suddenly that October of indeterminate causes. The coroner listed obesity as the cause of death.
I don’t know whether I said too much or too little. I just know that I miss her.
Kathy L. Greenberg
My father used to say, “Son, you can’t listen with your mouth open.” He accused me of loving the sound of my own voice, but to me it was more that my mind was filled with information I wanted to share.
In college I took a counseling course, and the professor stressed empathy. He said we would do more good if we listened for feelings rather than gave advice. I thought this was bull and made an appointment to tell him so.
“Try an experiment,” he said. “Talk to someone with the one goal of listening to their heart. Then ask them how they feel.”
I decided to try it on my wife. I asked about her problems and just let her talk. It felt strange to offer no input and ask no questions. I just reflected back to her what I sensed she was feeling. After what was, for me, an exhausting discussion, I asked how she felt.
“I felt loved,” she replied.
I signed up for another course with that professor.
Wade M. Nye
It is my third day as an inpatient at an eating-disorders treatment program. I am a master of rules, control, and restrictions, but in here I am forced to break every rule I have lived by for . . . how long? Ten years? Twenty? Maybe my whole life. I have made a commitment to complete honesty and openness. No more secrets, no more silence.
The other women are all much younger than I am. They could be my students, my daughters, even. At meals I make conversation to help fill the silences. I do this for them as well as for myself while I swallow my horror at the huge portions.
When my mother brings me larger-sized clothes, I break down in tears. “Are you talking about this in group?” she asks. My psychiatrist, too, tells me to stop holding back my pain. “Bring it to group,” he says.
So today I’ve come to group determined to expose a painful truth to others, to tell a story that will help me understand myself. I’ve already heard other women’s stories and seen the relief on their faces as they break down and cry.
We have a new group leader, Richard. As he explains his approach, I am busy rehearsing how I will tell my story: I want this experience to help me. I want my disorder to make sense, for it to have a clear connection to something in my past.
Meanwhile Richard has invited us to share our “intentions” today — a term that is new to me. There have been so many: “self-soothing,” “opposite actions.”
When it’s my turn, I take a deep breath and start to talk about my mom. She visited last night and saw that I’d painted my nails (evidence of “self-care,” a sign of progress). She brought up the time when I was in sixth grade and wanted to get a manicure with my friend, but she’d said no. “Why couldn’t I let you do it and feel pretty?” she told me now.
I hear my voice sounding plaintive and strained. Does this story make sense? Am I doing it right? Maybe you are supposed to feel scared and vulnerable when you share. I press on about how I always felt guilty whenever I asked for anything extra, but Richard cuts in: “Donna, I’m glad you want to tell this story, but at this point in the group, we’re just sharing our intentions. After we’ve heard from everyone, we’ll explore more deeply.”
I cannot believe this is happening — or actually I believe it all too well. It’s like one of my nightmares of humiliation. I have overshared.
Seeing my reaction, Richard uses his training to try to soothe me, his tone as smooth and rich as butter: “Right now I would guess you are feeling upset about being silenced when you were speaking. Sometimes the experience in group can be a way for us to learn about ourselves. Are you feeling exposed? Are you regretting that you took up space?” His eyes drip with pity.
“Yes,” I say in a choked voice.
“I want to hear about the manicure party,” he says. “There will be time for you to share.”
I hate you, I think. Fuck recovery. No more sharing. No more opening up. No more words.
San Francisco, California
We were moving in together: me, Lucy, and her girlfriend, Brenda. It had been a good year for me. I’d finally gotten off probation, self-published a book, and gotten cataract surgery on both my eyes, compliments of my insurance.
Lucy, however, had been having a pretty rough time of it. The year before, Brenda had been busted for battery on a law-enforcement officer. She didn’t exactly attack the cop. She was drunk, depressed, and threatening suicide, but the officers saw only a woman brandishing a butcher knife.
Lucy struggled to raise the money to bail Brenda out, and they lost their apartment. By the time Brenda was free, Lucy was living with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend, both of them drug addicts and dealers. Brenda couldn’t stay there without violating her parole.
As it turned out, my apartment lease was coming to an end, and I was thinking of renting a house and getting a roommate or two. I suggested to Lucy that she and Brenda rent with me. The only problem was I was an ex-felon, and Brenda was now an ex-felon, too, and Lucy had a cat. (It was nearly impossible to find a place that allowed pets.)
Luckily my mechanic, Monty, had a house to rent, and he didn’t have a problem with cats or criminal records. I brought Lucy and Brenda to meet him. Lucy was outgoing and made a great first impression, but then she wouldn’t stop talking about her sister, who was a hooker and dealt crack, and it was only a matter of time before she got busted, Lucy said. There were drugs going in and out of her house at all hours. And her sister’s boyfriend’s dad lived there and hit on Lucy all the time. Once she’d had to knock him out with a baseball bat. And Brenda couldn’t stay with her because her probation officer would smell the drugs a mile away. “I blew all my money bailing her out,” Lucy said, “and the health department had to double my medications. I’m bipolar and get violent when the pressure’s on.”
She smiled and went over to hug Brenda. I felt my cheeks burning and looked at Monty, who was watching the two of them kiss in his repair shop.
“I know,” I said. “It’s weird.”
“Well,” he said, “a girl that honest is either gonna pay the rent or bust her ass trying.”
I knew we had the house.
When I was seventeen, I left home to attend the University of Colorado. I’d been pretending I couldn’t wait to depart, but I was scared. Most difficult was leaving my sixteen-year-old brother. We were very close, both shy and studious and intimidated by social life at our huge high school. We did things together all the time: riding bikes, playing tennis, watching TV. Sometimes I worried that I was forsaking my other friends for my brother’s companionship, but I considered him my best friend.
A few days after I had flown from Chicago to Denver and settled in at the dorm, Chris and I spoke on the phone. He was very quiet, and I filled the space by babbling about how great the dorm was and how I was riding my bike around campus and ice-skating at the rec center and signing up for interesting classes. The reality was I had no idea what I wanted to study, I was struggling to ride my bike in the thin air of Boulder, I was too self-conscious to use the ice rink while “real” skaters were practicing, and I spent most of my time in my dorm room, wondering if I’d ever be as self-assured as my dorm mates.
Three days later the phone rang. It was my mother. “There’s been an accident,” she said in a strained voice, though what had happened was no accident: After his first day as a junior in high school, Chris had come home acting despondent and withdrawn. It was a hot September night, and the central air was on, so nobody heard him go into the garage at 3 AM, start the car, and asphyxiate himself. There was a note in his pocket saying that if one has to struggle to adapt and fit in, it’s not worth it, and that we should not invite his “friends” if we decided to have a funeral.
We all blamed ourselves, and my family never recovered. Remembering my last conversation with Chris, I will forever wonder if he knew me well enough to realize I was lying or if he decided that I had truly moved on and left him behind.
Fritz Creek, Alaska
My mother was known for saying whatever popped into her head, and sometimes her inappropriate remarks caused trouble with family and friends.
After she died, it was my job as executor to handle the service. My sister flew home from Seattle a day early to view the remains. Before we went into the room where our mother was laid out in a coffin-sized box, my sister asked the funeral director what to expect. The young woman calmly explained how the body had been prepared for cremation: hair combed, jewelry removed. “We closed your mother’s eyes,” the woman said, “and we attempted to close her mouth. . . .”
It took more than a little self-restraint for me not to say that I had been trying to do the same for most of my life.
Asheville, North Carolina
While my brother and I were growing up in China, our parents often repeated an old saying: “Diseases come into the mouth; disasters come out of the mouth.” We’d both heard the story of what had happened in the 1970s, before the end of the Cultural Revolution: A third-grader overheard his mother criticizing his father’s personal hygiene, and his father replied that Chairman Mao never washed his feet before going to bed. The child told a classmate, who told the story to their teacher, and the father ended up in prison for more than ten years.
To prevent such word-borne disasters, my parents made a long list of rules for us: Never talk to strangers. Never speak unless asked to. Never say more than necessary. Never express opinions. Never discuss politics. Never talk about your superiors. Never volunteer details about your family. Think about the consequences of each word before saying anything.
Thanks to my parents’ rules, I was essentially mute throughout my childhood. After immigrating to the U.S., I spent twenty years struggling to speak up at the request of teachers, friends, colleagues, and even strangers. Though it requires a lot of energy, I have been forcing myself to do it. In recent years I have spoken up not only for myself but also on behalf of immigrants, minorities, the poor, the disadvantaged, and the disabled.
To compensate for my still-inadequate speaking ability, I have been writing and publishing essays and stories, expressing ideas and opinions I’ve kept to myself since childhood. My parents are concerned: “Aren’t you afraid,” they say, “that you are just asking for trouble?”
The summer I was sixteen, I read William Butler’s novel The Butterfly Revolution and felt an instant kinship with the narrator. Like Winston I was shy, bookish, and artsy with a bit of a wild imagination — sometimes too wild. I decided to become like him in another way and declare myself an atheist. My mother didn’t believe in organized religion anyway, because it was “cult-like” and “sexist.” And I wanted to establish an identity apart from the crowd. I hardly took becoming an atheist any more seriously than I did wearing a beret, but I would learn that religion is something many people take very seriously.
On the first day of my junior year, my homeroom teacher had the students give introductions and share one fact about themselves that no one else knew. I was first, and, for my fact, I was happy to announce my atheism.
Dead silence followed, along with a few dark glares, then whispers. Finally one student demanded I explain how the human race started out of thin air, if God did not exist. I shrugged and said that science had some promising theories on the origin of the species. This was followed by another round of whispers, including “She’s so going to hell!”
My teacher was smart enough to move the exercise along, giving me a sympathetic wink.
In just a few minutes I’d gone from being the shy, bookish girl to the most hated person in class.
It was the last time I broached the subject of religion in public.
“You really can’t sing, can you?” my father said to me during a Catholic Mass in upstate New York. After that comment I did not sing aloud in front of others for twenty years. I might quietly hum a tune, but I never sang, not even the bawdy songs I learned during my many years in the military.
Then one Christmas with my brothers and parents I sang carols as loud as I could. My father, who played music professionally, couldn’t recall ever hearing me sing, especially in such a bold manner. I told him about his comment of twenty years before, and his face dropped. Of course my father hadn’t intended to silence me. He preferred loud, off-key singing to silence.
Eight years ago I started coaching my oldest daughter in soccer. She was six and played her first game with heart, running after the ball, never giving up, and almost walking off the field in tears. After the game I asked her why she’d never gotten to the ball, and she just burst out crying.
Since then I’ve coached all my daughters in soccer and lacrosse, and I seldom make that mistake anymore. A smile and a thumbs up can say so much more than an honest, blunt comment.
Frank A. Chernak
It had been a long day of teaching followed by an evening of parent conferences. As I dragged myself in the back door, I saw my husband standing there with a pained look on his face.
He’d received a phone call from our lawyers. Donna, the birth mother of our adopted infant, was petitioning the courts to take the baby back.
We had made it so far. The final adoption was only three weeks away. Yet I’d feared this could happen. There had always been this feeling in my heart that I was baby-sitting someone else’s child. How could I, who had gone through eight years of infertility treatments and surgeries, ask another human being to give up her own flesh and blood?
Donna, a single twenty-three-year-old, had lived with us for a month before the baby was born and hadn’t told her parents about the adoption. After the birth she’d been emotional, but she’d flown home and had seemed to be in good spirits when we’d chatted on the phone several times a week. But now Donna had finally decided to tell her mother, and her mother had promptly hired a lawyer, who’d written a petition to the courts to halt the adoption, claiming “coercion” on the part of the adopting couple — us.
I thought of the many times I had told Donna that I would never keep the baby against her wishes. Now I called her and asked when she would come to get her child. In a kind voice she told me we still had to go to court. A judge would make a final ruling.
After that phone call my husband said, “You seem to have forgotten the most important issue here: what is best for this child.” He proceeded to tell me we would hire a lawyer, even if we had to take out every loan we could get.
I agreed to fight for custody but still had the sense that somehow this was all wrong. I knew Donna was an immature, fanciful young woman who had tried for seven months to ignore her pregnancy, and that my husband and I would be the better parents, but did we have the right?
Our lawyer, who specialized in adoptions gone wrong, prepped me for the hearing. I was to limit my comments and stick to the facts. The law was not on our side.
Donna was put on the stand first and proceeded to describe how we’d pampered her before the birth, taking her to 7-Eleven for Slurpees, cooking her dinner, and watching television together until bedtime. She described visits to San Francisco and Santa Cruz so she could see a California beach. She told the judge that we had spoiled her and treated her like a “queen.” Her lawyer made it sound like bribery.
Then it was my turn to take the witness stand. Frightened of saying anything that would hurt our case, I took long pauses before each answer, and my voice shook.
I recalled how I’d wanted to give Donna plenty of time to do all the paperwork, so she would not be signing documents at the hospital right after the birth. The baby had been born in May, and by mid-July Donna still had not submitted all the forms. I’d grown increasingly anxious. Every day I’d wondered if the baby was really going to be mine, or if I would have to return her.
When prompted by the opposing counsel to go into more detail, I blurted out that by late July I had lost my temper and told Donna on the phone just to come and take the baby back if she wasn’t going to send the paperwork. The signed and notarized papers had shown up one week later.
Suddenly my lawyer jumped up and asked for a recess, and I went into a panic: had I said too much? I tried to explain to the judge that I’d just been frustrated and shouldn’t have yelled at Donna. My lawyer kept motioning for a recess while slicing her finger across her throat, telling me to shut up.
A recess was called, and I flew to my husband in tears, fearing I had lost the baby. Our lawyer ushered us out of the room and told me that what I’d said had sealed the case — in our favor. It was clear there had been no coercion since I had given Donna the opportunity to take the baby back.
Our beautiful daughter is now twenty. I’m glad we fought for her.
San Jose, California
When my children were young, I would sometimes speak for them. “Kelsey is upset because she can’t reach her juice,” I might say to my crying daughter, and she would nod her curly-haired head, comforted that I knew what she was feeling. The parenting books said this technique helped children connect with their emotions.
Those books didn’t tell me that, with teenagers, I’d often have to parent in silence, stifling the urge to tell them to clean their rooms or put away their schoolbooks.
Looking across the table at my thirteen-year-old son, Kyle, one night, I noticed an outbreak of acne on his forehead and, forgetting my rule, pointed out that his acne was getting bad and offered to make an appointment with the dermatologist for him.
Kyle snapped, “So you think I’m ugly,” and stormed off to his room, slamming the door.
Thirty minutes later I went to his room and sat on his bed. He turned away from me and stared into his closet of empty clothes hangers. “I’m sorry for upsetting you,” I said, “and I don’t think you’re ugly.” Then I stopped talking, determined to remain silent until he spoke and not to verbalize his feelings for him. I counted to one hundred over and over in my head to keep myself from speaking.
“Are you going to say anything else?” he asked.
“No, I just want to give you time to talk.”
“What am I supposed to say?” he asked.
“I don’t know. It’s OK to say nothing.”
I left, and a few minutes later he came out of his room.
I want to pass along to my children all the lessons I’ve learned in life, so that they can avoid many hours of agony. I want to encourage them to enjoy each stage of growing up, because it comes only once. But they don’t want to hear my advice with anywhere near the frequency with which I want to give it.
Recently, over breakfast with my daughter and her friends, I practiced silence. I didn’t remind Kelsey to use her fork or keep both feet on the floor. Instead I listened to her talk about the boy in school who chews on his shirt and another who likes to brag. By being quiet, I got access to bits and pieces of my daughter’s life, which are far more precious than anything I might say.
Kim L. Allen-Niesen
Los Angeles, California
Estelle was an attractive, vivacious, talented woman in her late forties. Her parents and extended-family members belonged to the church I pastored, but Estelle did not, so our paths crossed primarily at social events. It was not uncommon for her to be the center of attention as she played the piano and got others to sing along.
When Estelle was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I visited her in the hospital and later at her home. Her health declined quickly as the disease and treatments ravaged her body. Her physician informed her that her death was imminent, and if she had anything to say to anyone, she should do it now.
As I stood by her bed on one of her last days, she struggled to take my hand in hers and thanked me for being such a good shepherd to her, even though she was not a member of my flock. She wanted me to understand how appreciative she was. “I love God first,” she said, “my children second, and then you.”
“What about your husband?” I asked.
With a half smile she shook her head and said, “I thought you men of the cloth were seekers of truth. I told you the truth, and now you act surprised and uncomfortable. I said I love you more than my husband. Is it ever wrong for a person to tell someone how much she loves him?”
Full of political zeal, I helped organize a Jewish-Palestinian group called “Partners for Peace” in the early 1990s. About the only thing the two halves of our group could agree on was the notion of a two-state solution. To build individual trust, we decided that Jewish and Palestinian members would converse by phone before the first meeting. These conversations were supposed to help us get to know each other. My Palestinian counterpart and I began our chat by sharing our connections to the land we both loved.
“Where were you born?” I asked.
“Ramallah,” she answered, “in what is now the occupied West Bank. And you?”
“London,” I said, “but I grew up here in California. I have British nationality by birth, but my father was American, so I’m a U.S. citizen through him.”
I went on to tell her how, at the idealistic age of eighteen, I’d immigrated to Israel, then later lived in France, where I’d gained French citizenship through marriage. So I’d managed to acquire four nationalities — American, English, Israeli, and French — quite effortlessly. I even quipped about the annoyance of each country’s wanting me to pay taxes and travel on its passport if I lived or worked there for any length of time.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. When my new friend finally responded, her words were brief and dignified: “You have all those citizenships — and I have none.”
My husband asked me one morning as we were sitting down to coffee if I’d ever noticed how some people unknowingly do things that are sort of annoying or even offensive.
“Mm-hmm,” I answered. It was early, and I wasn’t ready for keen insights.
He gave the example of a friend who swishes water through his teeth after every other bite when he eats, and another who went on and on about his investments when my husband was laid off. “I wonder what it is that I do, that I have no knowledge of, that really bugs or even offends people,” he said.
My mind went flitting over the endless field of possibilities, trying to decide just which ornery weed to pluck and present to him. But before I could, he said, “Because I’ll tell you what you do.”
Now he had my attention.
Whenever I was around a person who was overweight, he told me, I always said something about the obesity epidemic in this country, or I told the story of the massive woman I’d once gotten sandwiched next to on a plane. “Your comments are inappropriate and make me cringe,” he said. “What’s up with that?”
I sat for a while, trying not to react as I thought back to all the times I’d said something insensitive about weight, and I remembered with sudden clarity the hurt looks and quick exits of my heavier acquaintances and friends. “I guess sometimes I just don’t know when to shut up,” I said.
What I can’t, or won’t, tell my husband about is the ceaseless conversation I have with myself: Don’t have toast for breakfast. Sit up straight at your desk so nothing will hang over your waistband. Go work out. Drink a glass of water before dinner so you won’t be hungry. Don’t touch that cookie. Go work out. Make a salad and have another cup of coffee. Go work out. . . .
Nearly thirty years ago, as a hospice social worker, I followed a slight elderly woman up a narrow set of stairs to her husband’s bedroom. My job was to attend to the unfinished business of the terminally ill patient and ensure that he lived as he wished until he died. The upstairs blinds were tightly closed, and a solitary lamp dimly illuminated a figure on a twin bed. The frail, gray-bearded man was alert and somber, well aware that his cancer was slowly killing him. He asked that I call him “Jimmy,” and I settled into a chair near his bed. An old, dented cowbell sat an arm’s length away, ready to call his aged wife up the well-worn stairs to see what he needed.
When Jimmy opened his mouth, out came a flood of frustration and bitter memories: injustices, rejections, oversights. Stunned by his rage, I didn’t dare interrupt. But how could I possibly do my job if I couldn’t speak?
Back at the hospice office, a chaplain asked how I was coping with Jimmy. “I couldn’t get a single word in edgewise,” I said.
“So why do you need to talk?” the chaplain asked.
His question stayed with me as I climbed the stairs to visit Jimmy again. In the room I sat, silent and attentive, and listened. Ninety minutes later Jimmy abruptly stopped, fixed his eyes on mine, and asked, “Why aren’t you saying anything?”
From some untapped place within me came these words: “Because you are not finished yet.”
Jimmy began to cry. I reached for his hand, which lay curled and trembling at his side, and the strength of his grip took me by surprise. His voice steady, Jimmy told me how he had been class valedictorian and a promising baseball star and had been offered a generous scholarship to medical school. “But my father would not hear of it,” he murmured. “I was to take over the family furniture business.” Jimmy exhaled slowly, and his grip softened. “I’ve never felt like I finished anything.”
I am grateful to Jimmy for teaching me the value of a simple listening presence. Sometimes saying anything is saying too much.
Dan W. Busch
Charlotte, North Carolina