By Example

Today I found out that my friend Chuck died, and I went to see a psychiatrist for the first time.  Big day.

Chuck and I got our coffee at the same place for many years. He was in his 70s when I met him.  We read the newspapers together, and sometimes he asked me a question like, “What do you think about all these people coming up from Mexico?”  With no leading note at all.  He just wanted to know one reasonable person’s opinion.  I would tell him mine, and he’d say, “Hmmm.”  We might chat a little more, or we might not.

I asked a friend what to wear to the shrink:  “Should I try to look extra crazy, or more sane?”  “Just be yourself,’ she added.  Totally lame.

Every time I wore red lipstick, Chuck told me I looked beautiful.  I loved that.  We asked after each other’s families, and shared happy news and sad news.  Sometimes we shared secrets, like that we were sad, or that we hoped someone would change his mind.  We bemoaned the unfair singleness of the single (isn’t she so sweet?  isn’t he so nice?)– including, sometimes, myself.

No marriages, no kids, I told the nurse. She asked me if I’d had suicidal or homicidal thoughts.  You can’t say, well, I think about killing my students all the time!  At least I was finding my thoughts funny.  It wasn’t easy to sit there.  Did I have support?  Oh, yes, lots of family, nice friends.  And then the mental status game, counting back by 7s.  I totally knew that was coming!  Why didn’t I practice?

Chuck was saucy.  He liked to tell the story of getting thrown in the “clap shack” when he was in the military.  (He didn’t actually had the clap.  Or at least that was part of the story.)  He always referred to one of our other friends as “Big Ugly.”  Every time he saw someone he knew, he said, “Hey!” like a gleeful sports announcer.  Whenever he introduced me to someone, he said, “And, you know, she speaks French!” sounding part proud father and part giddy suitor.  As he got older, he had to be on dialysis, so he couldn’t drink.  He took me to lunch at a nice restaurant once, and I felt awkward ordering a glass of wine, since he couldn’t indulge.  “No!  Get one!”  he insisted.

“You have a lot of biological tendencies to anxiety,” the doctor told me. “You can either tough it out, and be uncomfortable a lot, or we can give you something else.”  The anxious patient, the same woman who had three glasses of wine last night, thought, I don’t want to put these crazy chemicals in my body!  What will they do to me?

We partied together.  Chuck came to my 30th birthday and my housewarming, and I went to his 80th birthday.  At my party, we danced together.  His wife put a napkin on his bald head for a photo.  At Chuck’s 80th, the bar was packed.  Everyone was wearing a button with a photo of the birthday boy at a different age.  I sat next to a friend of his and heard stories about riding the streetcar over a high, scary bridge, from KCK to KCMO, and stealing shoes from shoe stores.

As I stomped back into the snow, prescriptions in hand, I thought about my grandmother.  The one I never knew.  She was mentally ill.  Much sicker than I am now, or ever have been.  I had gone to this appointment for her, and everybody who was suffering in the brain and didn’t get any good drugs.

I worried about Chuck dying pretty much from the time we met.  Because he was old, and I loved him, and I knew I would miss him.  Even when I’m brain-sick, I can follow his lead.  Through exhausting and painful dialysis session, through small disappointments, and worries about family and friends, he set the example: chatting with acquaintances, occasional drinking parties, and puzzling out the news of the day.  If I can keep all that up, I’ll be all right.

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