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One of my earliest memories of you is from a business lunch; I was shocked to see you order a glass of wine during that weekday meal. I didn’t know whether you were louche or sophisticated. The world had different rules for women in 1972 than today.
We dined at a restaurant in the seen-better-days commercial district of downtown Brooklyn. You were the most senior staff member present; you were 30 and I, two years younger. It was the first group meal of our newly formed team at a start-up, major state psychiatric center designed to serve a good chunk of New York City. The center was born from the intellectual ferment of the 1960’s and designed with the utopian purpose of eliminating the dire effects of mental illness from entire communities.
Then, as almost always, your judgement proved sound, for although the alcohol made you somewhat more garrulous, it didn’t diminish your poise or mental acuity. I was touched when you spoke of your deep commitment to the care of persons with mental illness and surprised by the desire you voiced to one day pursue your true calling as an abstract painter. You assured everyone at our table that day would one day come.
I can also conjure up a vivid mental picture of your physical appearance from those early times, along with your basic biography. You were a slender, tall and pleasant-looking woman with a narrow face. Your movements were large, demonstrative, and well-synchronized with your emotions. While you were somewhat angular and lacked the grace of a true ballerina, you moved in a manner that was expertly choreographed for business meetings. Further, you had an air of naturalness, intelligence, and self-assurance that you harnessed to power a solid work ethic. Even then, it was an easy prediction to make that your inclusive expressive charm would blossom into full-blown charisma that would transform you into a local celebrity.
Where it all came from, I was never certain. I judged you from the perspective of a tall, thin, average-looking, New York guy loaded with ambition, decent intelligence, and a Jewish-Afro. You were a Catholic girl with German heritage, born in Ohio, largely raised in New York City and educated through your post-graduate degree in the City’s educational system. While we were in the same business, so to speak, we were trained in different, overlapping professions. However, you were ahead of me in age and career advancement. You were already a supervising social worker and budding mental health administrator and I was a newly minted clinical psychologist.
I had never been supervised by a social worker before. We would meet a least once weekly and you would review my clinical work, discuss administrative matters, and my adjustment to our new workplace. Always helpful, you were wiser than your years. Your motivating professional beliefs were different than mine. We both believed that the mental health field would save the world. You focused on the general welfare of people, specializing in those who suffer from mental disorders. I, more specifically, believed that our fates were largely controllable and that most human unhappiness was due to mental dysfunctions or insufficient skill development that could potentially be remediated through the powers of the mind. You never disillusioned me as to that possibility.
We both had an individual sense of destiny to fulfill, while I knew about your desire to become a renowned painter, it was soon evident that you wanted to include Queen of the World in your resume, not that you openly claimed that title. I was more modest. I only wanted to cure mental illness through an act of will and intellectual power, not like a Jesus capable of wholesale events by merely waving his hands filled with the power of God, more like a successful exorcist working retail, one person at a time.
You had a clearer vision of how the pioneering state psychiatric center we were employed by should operate than I did. You saw “The Whole of The Moon”. I was not as familiar as you with this approach to mental health care, nor its ideology, a combination that you assured everyone was as good as penicillin. Our motivation to gain the success of our project was stoked by the quality and energy that our colleagues brought to our shared venture and your articulate and compelling cheerleading. We fully immersed ourselves in the mental health field’s equivalent to a Wall Street dot.com rally. It took quite a few years before we learned that our dreams were not to be as successful as we imagined, although they never went bust.
We engaged in serious business in a relatively informal manner. We maintained a friendly professional relationship that often edged into the social. You always presented a proper non-sexualized, feminine persona; however, I did observe once that when you received surprise notice of a long hoped-for significant promotion, your lips swelled up and cheeks flushed as if you were experiencing a moment of passion.
You always enjoyed a large and diverse network of friends to whom you offered emotional and, sometimes, concrete support. You had the interpersonal reach of a successful politician, relating caringly to staff, patients, and community members regardless of job title, socioeconomic status and political influence and you remembered their names and personal stories. If you were less a luddite, you might have invented Facebook.
You most graciously invited me to join your cadre of friends and feeling honored, I accepted. But as I eventually discovered that many of your friends were very needy or had lost their way, I became uneasy. I began to suspect that you were overly dependent on them being that way. I feared you might need me to be that way, too, and use your substantial influence to forever affix me to a level of professional accomplishment below which I could otherwise earn.
So, while the development of a close friendship was a “no deal” for me, given the circumstances, I was grateful for the way you did support my talents as far as I could take them. Over more than two decades of working together, we both gained many meaningful promotions, each of us gaining responsibility for a substantial chunk of mental health and social service resources on behalf of our charges. Sometimes we were peers, but you always managed to leap ahead of me in the complex governmental hierarchy in which we worked. My talent for technology would never yield the administrative authority that you achieved through your poise and political instincts, all backed by substantial intellect and knowledge of the field.
Your political gifts were so great that you could accomplish magical administrative feats that dazzled all as if you had defied the bureaucratic law of gravity, such as by obtaining new funds and staffing resources during a budget crunch. Your reputation was such that staff assumed that if you didn’t get your way, your professed goal was subordinated to a secret true agenda. Generationally, you came after Houdini and before David Copperfield in your ability to only leave fingerprints where and when you wanted them. Whether you were merely a gifted magician, or a witch, I never determined.
Despite the relative closeness of our professional collaboration, and my willingness to be an eager listener, the engrossing stories of administrative intrigue you shared never offered a full accounting of how you accomplished your supernatural-seeming deeds. In truth, despite my readiness to learn your ways, I understood that I just didn’t have your talent for it. You made me wonder, at times, if you dabbled in administrative black magic, especially since the little Catholic girl that still resided in you would often confess without providing explanation, “I could go to hell for this.”
If, on rare occasion, I quietly grew angry at you or fearful of you, it was when there were obvious hints of deceit in your administrative sleight of hand. I tended to ignore that aspect of you if it benefited me; however, on those very rare occasions when it affected me negatively, I obsessively struggled to understand what truly transpired. Still, I could never stop admiring you for the way you mesmerized me into admiring you.
Yes! We always got on well together. You gave me all the freedom I needed, I only had to acknowledge that you were my master. Fortunate for me, you ruled with an easy hand.
Then, in your early 50’s, having already achieved commissioner status in the New York State mental health system and facing the decisions that middle-age triggers, you decided your ambitions in the mental health field were sated and declared yourself ready to move to rural Maine. You sought to follow a pre-planned vocational glide path that landed you in the artist’s life you long craved. Of course, you had a multitude of other good reasons, which I was not privy to.
Me. I stayed in the urban scrum. I loved the work too deeply to go anywhere else. I viewed your departure as a personal setback, for not only did I regard you as having the capacity to attain national prominence, I thought you trusted me enough to take me with you as you rose to the top. I must also admit, it was a comfort knowing you were around.
Following your move, we didn’t keep in regular contact with each other. I’m not sure why, because I went to your farewell party and we said our goodbyes on warm terms. It seemed as if our lives didn’t intersect any more
We saw each other only two times in the twenty-seven or so years since your departure. Both involved no more than brief, friendly conversations at public reunions of our psychiatric center’s staff. While each of us had both certainly moved on, there were two additional exchanges of handwritten notes in the 20 years that followed those reunions. Both based upon the reports we received from a close and trusted mutual friend.
When I heard about the unexpected death of your beloved 31-year-old son in 2008, I sent a handwritten note of sympathy. Then, early this summer you offered very kind words upon learning I had finally achieved grandparenthood.
Less than two months after your note, our same mutual friend told me that you had a serious heart problem that must be corrected. Then boom! Surprise! Even before you left the hospital for post-surgical rehabilitative care, you found out your body was riddled with stomach cancer. You sought only palliative treatment and died two months later.
I did wonder whether I could help you in some way. Then, I recalled we were out of each other’s lives and our friend said, “she doesn’t want anyone to know.” I never thought to ask our friend if there was anything I could do on your behalf. I am deeply sorry for that. I owed you that.
You died in the 50th year, after our meeting. Your passing leaves me to ponder what you’ve meant to me during, this, our Golden anniversary year, and I’m sure many others who knew you feel the same. You believed in cremation and didn’t want flowers, funeral, or fuss. As you wished, I donated money in your memory to your favorite charity, a social services agency. Despite your early concerns that you were doomed to the pit for the practice of administrative black magic, I think not, for you were our field’s local equivalent to Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton. Should there be such a place, I am certain that you are heaven bound. And if not, I hope that the essence of your distributed ashes contributes to the remarkable color of the grass or the shape of the trees captured in some extraordinary artist’s major painting. That would be a very fitting tribute for a life well and kindly lived.
Harvey Lieberman, PhD is a clinical psychologist and mental health administrator. His work has been recognized by major national awards and he has held visiting professorships at multiple universities. His private practice supports clients in preparing and publishing their remembrances.