There's More Than One Way to Lose a Child—And Get Her Back
I am lulled into the belief that this will be the routine of my life indefinitely: from Bank Street to the hospital on a continuous, hypnotized track. My tense, encouraging smile is a fixture on the ward. "Father, you are farther away than yesterday," remarks Sally. While she sleeps, I sit in my favorite spot in the day room, under the reproduction of a painting by Chagall: a couple on a wooden bench, a picket fence in the foreground, and a shabby angel hovering over them under a full moon. Although I have noticed little change in Sally, I am informed by the attending psychiatrist that "the most acute phase" of her mania has passed. The nurses look in on her less often and in general seem to be less worried about her taking a turn for the worse—the psychiatric equivalent of being removed from intensive care.
Three weeks after her admission, we are informed that in a few days Sally will be discharged. A social worker has been assigned to help "facilitate a smooth transition" to the "less supervised environment" of Bank Street. "I've located an outpatient program that may be just the ticket for Sally," he says. He has the halting speech of one who has overcome a childhood stammer. Knowing that I am a writer, he bashfully tells me that he too is "in the arts"—a cellist—social work is his backup profession, the freelance life was too stressful, the self-abnegation it required, the raw tests of endurance and nerves. "I guess I caved," he says.
I take the sympathy that flows between us as a good omen and permit myself to worry aloud about what lies in store for Sally.
"What is it you want for her?" he asks.
The directness of the question jars me, and I hear myself wishing for the return of what has been demolished in her, if it ever really existed. "A center, I guess is what we normally call it, where she can check on herself, even if she doesn't pay it any heed." I wonder if such a basic and ineffable thing can be built, like a prosthetic, or learned through a series of exercises the way one learns algebra or a second language. "If only I could give this to her," I say.
The outpatient behavioral clinic is located in an austere granite building with carved keystones over the windows in the Washington Heights section of northern Manhattan. The clinic is a modest suite occupying a narrow sun-drenched corner of the sixth floor.
"Will you be okay, Father, when I'm grown-up and it's time for me to leave you?" asks Sally. And she busses me on the cheek as if she has leapt into an imaginary future in which it is time to bid me goodbye.
After a couple of minutes, a woman comes out to the waiting area to greet us: Dr. Nina Lensing, Sally's new psychiatrist, German-born, in her mid-30s, wearing a wrinkled top with spaghetti straps, small scholarly metal-rim glasses, and a helmet of bright blonde hair.
As soon as Dr. Lensing has introduced herself, Sally blurts out, "Why did this happen to me? Why me?"
Lensing's face opens up into a delighted smile. "I've asked the same question about myself under different circumstances a dozen times. And you know what? We're going to work on finding the answer."
Sally's leg is shaking at lightning speed.
"I bet you feel as if there's a lion inside you," says Lensing.
"How did you know?"
"Have you been pacing a lot?"
"It's all I do. When I'm not sleeping."