Pure Waters Will Flow
Here we are, in this small room with furniture that seems too large. The walls are overwhelmed with framed certificates and generic artwork and photos of the ocean. It makes me wonder how claustrophobics would cope, but before I can ask, she, the short-haired woman who also seems too large for the room, asks me how I am.
Fine, I tell her.
You don’t have to be afraid to tell the truth here, she says. This is a safe place. Everything’s confidential.
Okay, I say.
She asks me how I am again.
Not great, I say. It’s hard to feel focused.
She looks at a clipboard and asks how I’m coping with day-to-day life.
Fine, I tell her. There’s no real problems.
It’s okay to close up, she tells me. You have to feel comfortable before you can really open up.
We spend ten minutes doing relaxation breathing. Breathe in, breathe out, and think of the ocean. Just like the pictures on the wall. You can almost smell the salt breeze.
After a few minutes she says, give me a scenario. Tell me about what you’d do with a full day. A morning appointment perhaps, then work in the afternoon. Tell me how you’d prepare.
Well, I say.
This day begins by waking up, showering, and fixing breakfast, but I don’t really know what I should have for breakfast, as it’s an important day and I shouldn’t overeat as I’ll feel ill, so I settle on something small, a single piece of toast or a small bowl of cereal, or some fruit, but even that’s a question mark as maybe even eating anything will make me puke, so I skip breakfast entirely, and I leave the house ten minutes earlier than necessary as traffic might be bad, and the rattle in the car might be something serious and I’ll break down and have to wait for a tow truck, so I leave the house twenty minutes earlier than necessary, just in case, but a few miles down the road I start to think that I haven’t locked the door, that I left the door wide open, and some random stranger has gone in and taken everything, even the furniture, and the cats have escaped and run away and I’ll never see them again, and so I pull a U-turn and head back to check the front door, which turns out to be locked, and because I know all this will happen I leave the house thirty minutes earlier than necessary so I’m not late, and because I left so early I get there too early and sit around and wait in the car, because I can’t turn up this early, and it’s around this time my stomach twinges a little from skipping breakfast, and I panic and think I should have had something, and because I know all that will happen I wake up an hour earlier and force down some breakfast which then sits so uncomfortably in my stomach I have to puke it back up anyway, and so now I’m sitting in my car, thirty minutes early, with a stomach ache and the rising taste of bile at the back of my throat, and I start to worry if this was because of breakfast or something I ate the night before, and because I know all that will happen I make sure to eat light the day before, or skip that too or maybe even puke that back up in case I react badly the next day, so now I’m sitting in my car, thirty minutes early, with a stomach ache and the rising taste of bile and gnawing hunger pains and light headedness, and my mouth feels kind of sore and I start to think I didn’t brush my teeth well enough this morning, and that the soreness will get worse through the day and there’ll be root canals and extractions and fillings required, and because I know all that will happen I wake up twice in the night to rebrush my teeth just to be safe, so now I’m sitting in my car, thirty minutes early, with a stomach ache and the rising taste of bile and gnawing hunger pains and light headedness and tiredness and a headache and my mouth still feels kind of sore anyway, and because I know all that will happen I call up the day before and cancel the fucking appointment, call in sick to work, and sleep in.
That is how I’d prepare.
Except I don’t really tell her that. I give her the Cliff’s Notes version of that, omitting details like the puking, as you don’t want anyone to think you’re bulimic or something, and maybe downplaying the waiting and the leaving early. In fact, maybe trim it down to double-checking the door and skipping breakfast, because that sounds more manageable.
She smiles warmly and speaks soothingly. Picture a safe place, she tells me. Somewhere you feel comfortable. Most people pick a forest on a summer’s day.
I’m picturing this forest, and she tells me to walk through it, keep walking, slowly and calmly, one footstep with one slow breath. Keep walking until you reach a river.
That river, she says, is your stream of thoughts. It’s where everything flows. The water’s probably rushing fast, and leaves are tumbling in and getting stuck somewhere. She asks if I see the river, and I tell her I do.
Good, she says. In our safe place we can control this river. We can control the ebb and flow. Make it slow down so it’s as peaceful and safe as the forest.
White water churns, then settles, then stills. It’s so smooth and calm now. I sit down next to it and dip my hand in, just to test if it’s still there.
Those leaves, she says, floating along the river, are your thoughts. Every thought you have is one of those leaves. There’s a leaf there with needing to lock the door, and a leaf there with wanting to skip breakfast. Sometimes we get caught up trying to get those leaves out of the river, instead of letting them float on by.
Sometimes, she says, something else is blocking the flow of the river. Maybe it’s around the corner, just out of sight. You don’t know it’s there, but it’s there, and all these leaves are pushing up against it and backing up.
She asks if there have been any deaths in my family, which at first seems like a non-sequitur and for a moment I wonder if I skipped a part of the conversation.
Some, I say.
She asks which is the earliest I remember.
My grandfather, I tell her. My grandfather on my father’s side.
I’m maybe eight or nine years old, and my grandfather is taking me up to the attic to show me how to work his printing press. I always pictured my grandfather as this giant oak. He always seemed so tall and solid, but in that kind of safe and protected way. The kind of oak you’d seek out in a wood on a sunny day and sit under.
The press is antique, one of those cast iron beasts that only exist in museums now, with hand-set letters and a handle that pulls the iron press down manually. I can barely move the handle an inch. He makes it look effortless as he presses out a card. It went in blank. Now it has my name stamped out in tiny copperplate, surrounded by an ornate frame. He lets me look through the drawers of letters. Endless drawers, hundreds of letters in myriad sizes. Tiny metal blocks with a single character intricately stamped onto the end. They cover every surface up there. 3pt gothic script might be spilled across a workbench. 10pt block serif, good for letterhead stationery, spread over a countertop. More letters, a jumbled collection of typefaces and sizes, littering the floor like sand. The largest are about the same size as a candy bar. The smallest are no bigger than grains of rice.
That night I dream about the attic. I dream about the way the floorboards creak underfoot, the way it has that mellow smell of sawdust mixed in with the coppery tang of oils and greases. I dream about how these letters wash over everything, as if they were liquid. This black pool, this tarry alphabet soup, begins to leak through the cracks in the floorboards. Tiny metal blocks pour through in their hundreds, in their thousands, and my grandfather has to keep buying replacements. He can’t keep up. He’s buying replacements faster than he uses them, and eventually he gives up and abandons the printing press. The letters drain out of the attic into nothingness, and soon it is completely empty.
The next time I see him I spend close to three hours picking letters up off the floor and from between the cracks in the boards.
I had that dream maybe once every couple of weeks for another six years, even though the oak only stood for another three.
Perhaps it’s your grandfather that’s blocking the river, she says. She says something about early childhood memories and recurring dreams and themes and psychoanalysis, but I’m not really listening by now. I’m thinking about the letters for the first time in nearly two decades. Maybe if I go around the corner I’ll see a giant oak blocking the river. Maybe there’ll be countless letters dammed up against the wood, so much so that they break over the banks and spill onto the pathway. But I don’t know.
At the next session she asks what other deaths I’ve experienced. She says that unresolved grief is usually a strong catalyst for all this.
I tell her about my grandmother on my mother’s side. When I was a kid, I used to sit by her, on the floor. We’d watch some comedy show on TV, some family friendly sketch show, and she’d smooth my hair with her velvet hands the whole time. She died suddenly, of a pulmonary embolism, when I was 14. I heard the news and then played Mario Kart with my friends all evening, as if nothing ever happened.
She makes some notes in her clipboard and asks if I think I grieved enough for her.
A few days after her death I cried in my mother’s arms as she tried to get through a phone conversation with someone about where to spread her ashes.
I’m tired of talking about death, I tell her. All it does is bring me down.
We can talk about whatever you want to, she says.
By then our session is up.
I do the breathing exercises and picture the river. It helps, I guess, and I pick up little tricks to make things easier. Spin around three times before you lock the door so you remember you did it. Keep a food diary. Remain as social as possible. Some evenings I visit my remaining grandfather.
I used to take him shopping on Thursdays, and he would buy a pack of bacon or sandwich meat, that he already had in the fridge anyway, unopened, well past expiration date. The nursing home takes care of his shopping now. The halls there smell of bleach and vomit and stew.
Sometimes when I visit he thinks I’m his son. Sometimes he thinks I’m eight years old. Sometimes he calls at 3am and tells us he can’t find his wife anywhere and that we should call the police and report her missing. Then five minutes later it all comes back to him and he has to relive her death once more.
If that ever happens to me I’d like for someone to quietly smother me with a pillow one night. It would be more humane.
On his better days he tells me his latest jokes, which are his latest jokes from last week, and the week before, and the week before that. They want to put a clock on the Leaning Tower of Pisa, because what’s the use of the time if you don’t have the inclination? He still keeps a Kit Kat and a can of generic supermarket coke in the fridge for when I stop by, because even though I’m in my late twenties, he says I’m still a growing boy. When it rains out he tells me it’s good weather for ducks. Little quirks and mannerisms that I’ve absorbed and replicated like they’re part of my genetic makeup. When he’s like this, leaves seem to pass normally.
Sometimes, she said, something else is blocking the flow of the river. It’s just around the corner, just out of sight. You don’t know it’s there, but it’s there, and all these leaves are pushing up against it and backing up.
There’s some truth to that now. Maybe it’s all to do with feeling safe and protected. Not safe as in the small room with large furniture and photos of oceans on the walls, safe and confidential, but safe in abstract terms. The smell of sawdust and grease as you print stationary cards on an antique press. Sitting on the floor feeling a warm hand stroke your hair as you watch family-friendly sitcoms. Kit Kats and supermarket cola and good weather for ducks.
My grandfather dies, peacefully, in his sleep, a few months later.
I don’t revisit the therapist. I don’t return to the small room to sit in an uncomfortable plastic chair and talk about death. I don’t return because she wants me to go around that corner of the river and see what’s there, just out of sight. I don’t return because I know what I’ll find there. I know, but don’t remember it. I don’t remember it because I can’t. I know that, heading through the forest and following the path of the stream, watching the leaves float along on glassy calm waters, instead of a mighty oak I’ll find a new sapling, barely even there.
I don’t remember what that sapling looked like, or how he sounded when he cried, or how the household was with him in it. I don’t remember what he looked like, but I think his skin that morning must have been the same kind of blue you get on a hazy day in early winter. I don’t remember if my mother cried when trying to plan where to spread his ashes. I don’t remember, at the age of two, being the one to discover him in his crib.
On the bookcase there’s a scrapbook of childhood memories. I flick through it sometimes. The only photo I have of Simon is in there, nestled in between pictures of Halloween costumes and school ceremonies. Just one photo of this stranger, sat with me and my sister. We are family portrait smiles. Simon has that confused look all babies seem to have. My parents are probably behind the photographer, watching their children proudly. If you could see that photo, you would say that this was a good day, a day before leaves floating along rivers, before nursing homes and fallen oaks and unlocked doors, before printing press letters and stomach cramps and broken saplings.
Maybe this photograph was one of those safe places too, maybe there’s some distant memory of the smell of the studio, whether it was warm or cold out, whether my brother laughed or cried, but I don’t know. I only have the photograph, stuck in the back of the scrapbook.