When my first shrink died a few years ago, I felt betrayed. How could she leave me? Even worse — how could she have cancer when she knew so much about healing?
Being this honest might make me look incredibly self-involved. Then again, we’re talking about therapy, which means I have to be super-honest. And in the end, this special woman remains an enduring mentor because she challenged me by her example in both life…and death.
The last time I saw her was during an unbearably hot, humid May afternoon at her beautiful Manhattan home. I’d stopped therapy a few years earlier, feeling sufficiently “cured.” But we kept in touch. Near the end, the news was terrible. The cancer had returned. A stroke had left her paralyzed on one side. Hearing all this, I felt a need to see her again.
A nurse’s aide let me in. My beloved therapist was in bed with no makeup, hair mussed — and stark naked except for a pair of giant old lady underpants. There was no air conditioning. I fed her a little soup, then laid down with my arm around her clammy, bare shoulders. She couldn’t talk much anymore. Yet, she managed to say one sentence very clearly, with that signature fire in her eyes: “I want to do this my way.”
The next week, she died. Ever since, I’ve been trying to reconcile that last image of her broken body with the petite, feisty Jewish grandma who took me through my career, the arrival of my daughter and the end of my marriage.
It would be easier to remember her as the warm-hearted diva with the coiffed blonde hair, red lipstick and cute clothes. But she had other ideas; her final gift was to let me past the powerful, professional boundaries of our relationship and share her personal despair.
To this day, I remain somewhat shocked at the memory of seeing her in such a diminished state. Then again, she was the kind of shrink who was always pushing me to find myself, to live outside the box. Now she was showing me how to be real.
Taken together with her other life lessons, she laid the foundation for me to truly change and make my own destiny. She also had the amazing ability to blurb her ideas in profoundly simple one-liners that eventually wove their way through our years of therapeutic conversations:
Your parents can’t give you what they never had.
If your parents didn’t give you what you needed, then you’ve got to get it from somewhere else.
How you exit a room is as important as how you enter it.
“Money” and “competition” are not dirty words.
You can be furious with your mother — and still love her.
In times of conflict, don’t walk away with your marbles. Stay in the game!
Ask for what you want.
I wrote blog posts based on three of her tips:
You can be single and still have romance in your life. What a relief to get this all down in a single post. If feels like I’ve finally made peace with her passing. Guess I can let go now, and do it with affection, appreciation and hopefully, some grace.
P.S. — Here is a link to a post you might like: “How to find a good shrink” on BettyMingLiu.com. :)