One, who didn’t, nodded off. The other, a young woman at the counseling center where I teach, disappeared to the restroom once or twice a session after something I said. Only the ladies room was to the right. She’d turned left and return with a response. Upon seeing my book, “Writing from Personal Experience,” she asked to borrow it, and said the following week she lent it to her mother.
“Did you tell Mom I’m your patient?”
She excused herself. Upon returning she said, “Of course not.”
“Pneumonia’s serious at his age. Make your travel plans, Nancy.” Mildred, still tender and tough and impeccably groomed, was shorter now and had a dowagers’ hump.
My mother, in a nursing home with a broken pelvis and longtime dementia, thought Dad had a cold. “You’ll deal with her after,” Mildred said.
Mildred saw me through my father’s funeral, grieving and moving my mother to her final nursing home where she died three years later.
At 29 and stuck on a magazine article, I consulted Mildred, whom I had known from a New School writing seminar. Her comments impressed me. About a psychiatrist in a classmate’s story, she said if he couldn’t handle psychotic patients in institutions, he should find another profession.
At our first session, I jumped into my mother’s mental illness during my childhood. When I later mentioned my discomfort as a hired wordsmith, Mildred said, “You can only be a Nancy kind of writer.” I resumed writing personal essays.
My desire for a child coupled with my fear of becoming my mother took more delving and time. When I gave birth, Mildred’s bouquet, arriving first, filled up my hospital room. “You’ll be a Nancy kind of mother,” she wrote on her card.
We worked on that and through my divorce. My first post-marital beau left when I rejected his proposal. “He’s getting the milk, Mildred.” She said, “He wants the cow.”
When she raised her fee, she recommended less-expensive Bernard, who insisted his patients partake in group therapy. In my individual sessions, I discussed hating group. And everything else. Bernard validated my rage, giving me tools for managing it, which I still use, but I hated paying a baby-sitter, so I could attend group, which I hated more.
I returned to Mildred until she retired. I then saw others who didn’t come close.
Katherine Sheppard Carrane recently published an essay about a memorable patient whose struggle illustrates the promise and limitations of therapy. (Chicago Tribune, John Keilman)
Three years ago, I consulted a therapist with a hyphenated last name and a hairstyle with pieces she twirled. I told her I only wanted a few sessions to discuss an issue around my mother’s death. She said she only saw patients once or twice a week on a long-term basis but agreed. Her 45-minute hours were wide open.
I wondered aloud if she was in another galaxy. The hyphenated therapist wondered louder what I meant.
Last year, I visited Mildred in the Alzheimer’s unit of the nursing home where she lived. I told her I remarried, had grandchildren and consider her among the most important people in my life. “You were so young, Nancy,” she said. “So were you,” I shot back. We hugged.
She died last month at 95.
The note-taker rarely takes notes nowadays. He says he knows me better. When he does write, I don’t care. He listens. He is good enough. Good, actually. Just not “a Mildred kind of therapist.”
Nancy Davidoff Kelton (www.nancykelton.com) is a writing instructor at The New School and the author of numerous essays and seven books, including the memoir "Finding Mr. Rightstein" (Passager Books, 2016), which she is adapting for the stage. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. She is offering a writing workshop at the Strand Bookstore in New York City Aug. 22.