After a few hours with Seamus, before he headed home, Jules was hungry again. He decided fried chicken would be his dinner. He pulled the Camry into the drive-thru line. He waited and thought about Reva. He texted her, asking what was for dinner. She replied right away, “Salmon Caesar salad, a mini-baguette and a glass of Cabernet.” He ordered fried chicken, red beans and rice, and a biscuit. After dinner, Jules sat down at his desk, and for some unknown reason had a compulsion to open the bottom drawer, where he buried letters.
He scrounged around and picked one at random. He opened the envelope. It was the letter he’d written to his mother. Jules drifted back four decades, into the fog of memory.
After Lisa abruptly ended their marriage by flying to Barcelona after months of moodiness and chaos, Jules was emotionally paralyzed. Stuck in the shock stage, he became something of a zombie for the first six months. Then, a fierce determination kicked up from his inner recesses. Jules found the grit he needed. Still, the resentments were seared into his psyche. He’d grown up with two emotionally-frozen, or barely-thawed, people. You gritted your teeth and you kept moving, because life is hard!
At the time Jules had written this letter to his mother, he was trying to breathe air back into the rest of his life, escape the cave of interior monologue and existential torment, and dig out from the pain of his past. He’d never sent the letter to his mother, who was dying of lung cancer at the same time Jules and Reva were attempting to recover from Lisa’s exit from their lives. Because of the cancer, Jules couldn’t send it. It was too difficult and direct an attack on his poor, dying mother. Instead, he’d brought the letter to his therapist.
Dr. Katzenbaum, whom he’d been seeing every Thursday for the previous five months, was running late with another patient. He heard sobbing through the door. It made Jules cringe. Maybe Dr. Katzenbaum would be exhausted by this patient and have less energy for Jules. It was always odd for Jules to see the previous patient, an older woman with thick black glasses and closely-cropped auburn hair, as she exited her session. The unspoken rule was not to make eye contact in the waiting room, just pretend that worn issue of Better Homes and Gardens was riveting! But this woman always stared at Jules as she walked out. She was odd. Then Jules would stare at his watch and wait for Katzenbaum’s baritone from beyond the wall. “Come on in!” came the voice.
Jules walked in, unfolding the letter, which he’d just removed from the pocket of his jeans. “I know what I need to say today, Katz!” Jules felt relieved to have a sense of direction. Sometimes the session wandered into the abyss and Jules couldn’t make sense of what had happened.
“Well wonderful, Jules. Come in and have a seat,” Katzenbaum said, scratching behind his ear. Jules sat down on one of the two gray upholstered chairs opposite Katz’ leather armchair. He appreciated the lack of couches in the office.
“I know I’m not supposed to ask, but I heard the sobbing. She okay?” Jules asked, knowing he was crossing the line of patient confidentiality.
Katzenbaum looked around mischievously, smoothed out his thick gray mustache, leaned in and spoke softly, “We’ll see. Husband died recently.”
“Oh no,” Jules replied.
“But let’s focus on you. What’s in that letter?” Katzenbaum asked, pouring two glasses of water.
“Okay, I’ll just read it,” Jules said, taking a moment to collect himself. “It’s a letter I can’t send to my mother. You know she’s got lung cancer and has only a few months left. I wrote this over a few late nights after Lisa took off. Here goes.”
I’m tired of holding onto all of this. Beyond tired. The exhaustion I feel with you. The frustration I hold toward you. Morty is much better at compartmentalizing and keeping it all locked away. Not me. I’m not interested in holding onto the pain of the past, but I'm unwilling to ignore the ways in which it has kept me down over the last 20 years and I won't let the pattern continue without fighting to be free of it in my future.
I know you were overwhelmed with much of your life throughout my childhood, but that was not cause for the ways in which my needs were either ignored or often unmet. I was depressed for much of my adolescence. I wasn’t allowed to make decisions or choices for myself until I applied for college. Your demands and needs often overwhelmed me and kept you from seeing me fully or asking what I needed or wanted. I doubt you ever intended to do these things, and yet here we are.
You might wish that all is behind both of us now, but it has me carrying a heavy psychological load as a father and husband. Now I’m doing it solo. It’s a flashing red light in the present whenever your needs still overwhelm my reality. Whether you have needs around the packages you send or the letters or gifts, or more importantly, your desperate need to avoid the experience of having a difficult or emotional conversation.
You refuse to sit with discomfort. Sitting with discomfort, breathing through it, allowing the other person to speak without interruption or having to raise their voice, this kind of interaction often seems impossible with you. It keeps the other person from feeling acknowledged. Having a good therapist that you trust.
[Jules looked up, nodding to Katzenbaum and both men let out a laugh. Jules went back to the letter.]
Having a good therapist would be one small way to start addressing your issues. When other people have issues with you, I have rarely heard you reflect on your own behavior. Your response is usually confusion, and sometimes to blame the other. You want it to be fixed, but you don't know how to fix it, which makes you overwhelmed.
When I talk with you about your anxiety, it all stems from these feelings you have of needing things to be a certain way all the time. Needing to do everything “right.” Refusing to reflect on your own behavior. Not allowing life to surprise or even delight you. Not accepting things after they’ve changed, or allowing people to change. Not understanding other people's frustrations. And now the cancer is taking over your body, and I’m seeing you weaken. I want to hold you and comfort you, in ways you struggled to comfort me.
You and Dad often seem to live like strangers, under the same roof. Separate beds, different ideas, opposite opinions. It is safer to be alone, without depending on friends or extended family. That is what you’ve chosen. You say you love your time alone. The problem seems to be you don't spend time in a contented state of solitude. You obsess about small details. You forget, or ignore, the fact that other people have busy lives. You forget, or ignore, the fact that other people have emotions.
You say you "know your limits…" but my experience is not of your self-awareness but your extreme rigidity around other people. This is an excuse to excuse yourself from others. Your desire to get up and leave as soon as things become complicated.
For years, I remember watching you in the seat next to me at the cinema. Whenever there were violent or scary scenes, your fear was triggered, and you’d put your hands up to cover your eyes. You couldn’t tell yourself, “This isn’t real. This is a movie on a screen.” Like it was all happening to you and it was all too much. This was your way of coping. I guess you never learned how to calm yourself from the feeling or notice the feeling. It overwhelms you.
I know you’re sensitive. Like me. Like Reva. I’m not intending to judge you for being who you are, even though that’s how it may sound. Those examples are meant to show you what others experience around you. What I experienced being within your orbit for so long, being your youngest child, your baby.
I have to give Reva autonomy while also providing boundaries and limits. I know you didn’t have enough support. Your experience of parenting us during my childhood, when Dad had to work six days a week, only coming home for dinner. I wish you’d gone back to school. Maybe when I entered high school. Your love of reading and art seemed to fizzle out with each passing year. My parenting experience used to include being part of a team. Lisa and I had to work together to help guide our daughter. Now it’s just me. She couldn’t handle it anymore!
[Jules stopped and barely managed to keep himself from bursting into tears, screaming and throwing the nearest heavy object against Katzenbaum’s elegantly decorated wall of modern art prints.]
It’s difficult! Made more difficult because I had no example of compromise! That dinner-table silence between you and Dad. It was deafening! The silence took up all of our oxygen. That table was uncomfortable for all of us. Why do you think we all ate so fast?
Katzenbaum let the silence hang in the air for what was one of the longer moments of Jules’ life. The experience of reading the letter was cathartic, but left Jules feeling unmoored, floating, and unsure of time or space. Katzenbaum took a moment to drink from the glass of water, then looked at Jules, smiled and exhaled. “How did it feel to read that?” Katzenbaum asked, genuinely interested to know.
“It felt necessary, but it doesn’t leave me feeling cured of anything,” Jules said.
Katzenbaum sighed. “There’s no cure,” he replied. Jules laughed ridiculously. “Well if there’s no cure, why did I even bother!?” Jules was exasperated. Katzenbaum smoothed his mustache again and took another sip of water.
Katzenbaum spoke while gazing out the window. “You bothered because you had to. You had to get it out. Otherwise it’ll just keep eating away at you. You have to find some kind of acceptance with it. Your mother’s past, as you’ve said, was horrendous. Terrifying. Escaping Ukraine in those conditions. Most of her life was just spent surviving, even though her childhood was over. She was only dealing with only today, unable to think about tomorrow.” Katzenbaum’s eyes seemed to sparkle for a moment.
Jules knew Katzenbaum was right, but it didn’t change the fact he’d grown up feeling how he’d felt, he’d grown up under those conditions, under that pressure, feeling that loneliness, that lack of comfort.
Jules looked out the window of Katzenbaum’s second-floor office. Summer had turned to autumn and now autumn was beginning to turn to winter. Leaves were falling from a maple tree. In the late-afternoon sunlight, glints of gold, dark orange, and maroon leaves were swaying down from the extended branches. Jules spoke softly, “Nothing is permanent.”
Katzenbaum agreed. “All we can do is get through each day, and try to love each other.”
Jules took Katzenbaum in. Probably five years from retirement. Who know how many hours spent consoling people? He had a grandfatherly presence now, in his mid-60s, slightly stopped.
“Thank you,” Jules said.
They both rose. The session was over.
“Good luck, Jules,” Katzenbaum said, extending his hand. Jules walked unsteadily out of the office, back into his life.