A year ago, while walking past a tattoo parlor in downtown Boston, I had a sudden urge to get my first tattoo. This was no youthful lark. I was 42, married, with three little kids and a full-time job. I’d been en route to Whole Foods (grapes, crackers, hummus) and The Gap (swimsuit for toddler). But in an instant I was rooted on the sidewalk, envisioning a wiry, goateed man in a leather vest happily etching out my request—the word lieben, the German infinitive to love, in black cursive on the inside of my forearm.
When I described the incident to my psychiatrist, Dr. B, the next morning, her owl-eyes shifted from one of my arms to the other, as if trying to home in on the tattoo though my clothes.
Dr. B knew immediately that my desire for the inky lieben had to do with my parents, each of whom had fled Germany as children in 1939. More than my husband and my closest friends, Dr. B would understand the significance of the word. This was not just because Dr. B was a kindly mental health practitioner who had been helping me dissect my parents and their post-traumatic stress for almost a decade. It was because her parents had fled the Nazis, too.
My parents got married late in life, then had me, their only child, even later. Dr. B was close to sixty, but I liked to imagine her as the sibling I never had. The big sister who could’ve rolled her eyes behind my parents’ backs in a show of empathy and alliance. Like when my parents wouldn’t let me see Madonna with my friends because they thought I’d get crushed to death in the stadium. Or when I discovered their wads of money hidden around the house. Or just on the mundane occasion when they uttered their favorite refrain: You think that your [cheating boyfriend, bad grade, fight with friend, broken finger, etc.] is suffering? That’s because you don’t know what suffering really IS.
For nine years, I’d spent my Wednesday mornings in Dr. B’s basement office. Above ground, in my everyday world, I attended my kids’ soccer games, hosted dinner parties, held an excellent job as an English professor. But when I descended into the alternate world of Dr. B’s subterranean haven (an overdetermined metaphor if ever there was one), I indulged in the muck of my darkest themes. My fears of becoming like my unhappy parents. My guilt that I wasn’t actually unhappy.
When I rolled up both my sleeves to show Dr. B that there was no tattoo, that I didn’t actually go through with it, she sighed deeply, obviously relieved. She adjusted her plump body on the giant leather chair, tugged at a snug blazer, and contemplated me silently.
Finally, she spoke.
“Why do you think you wanted that tattoo?”
“It would’ve been like a talisman,” I explained, “or at least a reminder that I could be OK. Moving on after the Holocaust even if my parents aren’t. Kind of like a curative reenactment of the real camp tattoos . . .”
Dr. B cut me off.
“Oh, please. The tattoo’s not going to make the hard feelings go away, Michelle. And it’s probably not a coincidence you had the ‘tattoo incident’ the day before our appointment.”
“Maybe not.” I conceded.
Dr. B rolled her eyes.
“I think that part of you knew it was wrong. The needle in the flesh? That’s no ‘curative reenactment.’ That’s no love-prevails-over-pain narrative. That’s straight up pain. This is the real story: you hurting yourself out of guilt.”
Dr. B and I liked to talk about narratives. In addition to the Holocaust stuff, we had this in common. Both English professors and psychiatrists are interested in how stories are put together, but in the psychiatric world, a narrative is the construct through which we give our days logic, purpose, and direction. It’s how we understand where we have been and where we are going next and why.
Dr. B sat up straight in her chair and took a deep breath.
“Do not get a tattoo. Not at any time. If you feel the urge, picture a stop sign and just stop.”
She pushed her hand forward to mime the concept of “stop,” crossing guard style.
“OK,” I agreed. Easy as pie.
“I’ll see you next week,” we told each other at the end of the hour.
But I didn’t see her the next week. Or the week after that. In fact, it would be a very long time before I saw her again.
An express-mailed letter arrived the day before my next appointment. “Dear Patient,” it began. It was a form letter from another psychiatrist notifying me that Dr. B had to cancel appointments for the foreseeable future, and possibly for a long time. He included a regretful but encouraging paragraph about how there were other doctors who were ready and willing to take in Dr. B’s patients. All we needed to do was call them, he enthused.
I didn’t make such a call. In fact, I didn’t mention anything about the mysterious disappearance of Dr. B to my husband or friends.
Over the next two weeks, I was amazed that no one noticed anything different about me. But what would they notice? I cheered with gusto at my son’s soccer tournament, happily chatting with the other moms about a multi-family trip to Cape Cod over the weekend. I attended a friend’s birthday party and had a couple of dinners out with my husband. I bought my kids the guinea pig they wanted. I went on a hike with close friends who knew all about my relationship with Dr. B.
I’d been dependent on Dr. B for nearly a decade. She saw me through three births, my father’s death, my first book, and tenure. Still, I said nothing to anyone.
As weeks became months, I thought often of that philosophical question “If a tree falls in the forest . . .?” If no one knew that Dr. B was gone from my life, what was the nature of her existence?
But the jig was up after we took our usual bi-monthly trip to visit my mother in D.C. First, I got agitated by her comments on my husband’s psoriasis flare up: He’s not suffering. He doesn’t even know what that word means. But when she told my 8-year-old that she’d spent her own eighth birthday running from the Nazis, I broke.
I missed Dr. B so much. After that trip, I told everyone: Dr. B was gone but I didn’t know why.
My best friend, a doctor, was particularly upset. “I’ll get to the bottom of this,” she vowed.
She proceeded to do a shake-down of her Boston doctor grapevine.
As a result, I got a call from a close friend of Dr. B’s who informed me that Dr. B was being treated for ovarian cancer, diagnosed after a routine check-up. The friend wanted to let me know that Dr. B was worried about me.
This news was exciting and shameful. My doctor had cancer, bad cancer, and now I’d added to her stress. Still, I was enormously relieved that she was thinking of me.
“She knows that your situation is complicated,” Dr. B’s friend said. Of course it is, I thought. I’m not just one of her regular kooks.
“You’re the only one who hasn’t found someone else,” the friend explained.
“All her patients have been referred, successfully.”
“But not me.”
I gave a little snort of laughter, but there was silence on the other end of the line.
“Shall I tell her that you’ve been in a state of shock and haven’t reached out to another doctor yet?”
“No,” I told her. “Please don’t tell her that.”
“That’s fine. She should be well enough to call you next week.”
When Dr. B called the next day, I was elated. She sounded exhausted, but still eager to talk. When she told me that she was officially in remission, I felt nothing short of ecstatic.
“You know what?” I said to her. “I knew this would be OK.”
She laughed, louder and harder than I’d ever heard her laugh before.
We agreed that we should see each other as soon as possible.
On the day of our appointment, it had been five months since I’d last seen her. I struggled over what to wear. Should I look devastated? No, that might be overwhelming for her. I settled on a put-together-but-weary aesthetic. Nice jeans, heels, but no makeup.
Other than a wig that didn’t look at all like her regular hair, and a little extra puff to her normally fullish face, Dr. B looked just fine. She was wearing one of her favorite blazers. Her home office, always a bit dark and shadowy, gave a particularly dramatic ambience to our reunion.
“You’d be so proud of me,” I began. “I still haven’t gotten a tattoo.” I mimicked her “STOP” gesture.
She laughed. “It’s very good to see you, Michelle”
When we started to talk, I could tell she wasn’t her usual self, but that didn’t dampen my need for her, my deep gratification to be back in our relationship. As she confused the names of my two daughters, I told myself that this was a minor infraction. Cancer treatment muddled people’s heads a bit, that was all; she was probably forgetting things about her own family, too. I prattled on energetically, trying to get her up to speed on a half-year’s worth of my angst.
At the end of the session, Dr. B handed me a list of other psychiatrists and their phone numbers. All covered by my insurance, she noted, so that it would be as easy as possible.
I was stunned. What did she mean by this? So what if she wasn’t seeing her other patients? That didn’t have to include me.
It occurred to me that this might be my only chance to win her back.
“By the way, I figured out the lieben,” I said quickly. “I think it’s you . . . I mean, how important you are to me in all this.” I waved my arm around spastically to indicate the “all this” of my life.
Dr. B’s mouth twitched a little, as if trying to hold on just a bit longer to the words about to come through.
She spoke quietly. “Your parents didn’t take care of you properly, and I won’t be able to either now.”
I’d cried many times in her office over the past decade, but the scale and decimal of these tears and blubbering were something else altogether. I hadn’t known what was wrong with Dr. B for all those weeks because I was not part of her real life. If she died, I wouldn’t be invited to her funeral. Our relationship was established through co-pays, not blood.
She shook her head. “Remember how you didn’t get the tattoo? You didn’t need that tattoo . . . . and you don’t need me.”
Finally, I gave in to that sick plunge in the stomach that heralds the full-blown, terrible shock of loss.
It seemed so ironic that our hug, the first time we’d ever made physical contact, was the formal end to our intimacy.
At the end of the hour, I walked out of her dark office into the sunshine and practically gulped down breaths of the fresh air.
As the sun filled my eyes, warmed my hair and cheeks, I made a decision: I would revise this story. How could I envision an ending that would be credible and emotionally satisfying? Instead of being a straight-up tragedy, it would be a bittersweet narrative in which I find out that I’m OK without Dr. B, a character who shifts from being my Doctor to a person just like me, making her way in the world, coping with her own painful experiences.
My parents probably wouldn’t see this as a story about how I suffered, an experience worthy of a denouement such as “I will survive this.” But I had no doubt that Dr. B would.
About the author:
Michelle Ephraim is Associate Professor of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She’s published the usual academic stuff (articles, book) and co-writes the blog Everyday Shakespeare with fellow Shakespeare professor Caroline Bicks (www.everydayshakespeare.com). Her personal essays and other writings have appeared in McSweeney’s, Tikkun, Lilith, The Washington Post, Errant Parent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Morning News.