Picture a man walking into a grocery store — Harris-Teeter, say. An old man in a corduroy coat, tufts of acrylic pile spilling out the sleeves. He stops between the automatic doors, feels around in his pockets, checks his wallet.
He glances around, frowning, as if debating whether to soldier on without it or go back to his car. Other shoppers maneuver around him. There is no end of them; they come and go, come and go until he is dizzy. Finally he steps inside and plucks a small green shopping basket off the stack. His hand shakes — the slightest of tremors, hardly perceptible, but it embarrasses him.
His wife is waiting in the car. Is she crying?
They have just left my office. I am a lawyer.
“Our family lawyer doesn’t handle these cases,” the man told me. He and his wife, he said, wanted to sue their son’s therapist.
Their son had always been awkward. Shy, clingy, didn’t fit in with other children. “Maybe,” the wife said, “because he was an only child. Maybe because we were older when he was born.” A slumping, soft-spoken woman, with gray hair and skin and a beige skirt which she kept smoothing. Her husband sat fiercely upright, a book in his lap as if for ballast. He did most of the talking.
They had hoped sending their son away to college would teach him independence, but he didn’t last a semester. He moved back home and signed up for computer classes at the local technical school. He completed a two-year program, found a job as a technician, eventually moved into his own apartment, eventually stopped coming home for dinner every night.
The “real trouble” started when he enrolled in his company’s sales training program. “He should have known better,” the man said, and looked at his wife. “Remember all those magazines, when he was supposed to be raising money for school?”
“He was ten.”
He tried to cure his awkwardness by joining Toastmasters. He also, without telling his parents, started therapy.
His sales career ended after six months’ probation, and he returned to his old job, again without telling his parents. He didn’t tell them, either, when he bought a gun.
On Christmas Eve, he committed himself to Holly Hill. He was medicated, talked to, observed. His mother visited every day with small gifts: the crossword puzzle clipped from the morning paper; a handful of creme-filled caramels, his favorites. “She doted on him,” the man said. “It was nothing,” the wife said. “A few little treats he could look forward to. We didn’t know how to help him.”
After three weeks in the hospital, the son told his therapist he was feeling better and ready to get on with his life. He even asked one of the nurses out on a date, but she said no, she couldn’t date patients. He was discharged. Two weeks later, he made another payment on the gun. Two weeks after that, he paid in full and took the gun home. The next night, he sat down and wrote his note: fourteen pages of college-ruled paper filled margin to margin with cramped, girlish handwriting. He wrote about his job, his embarrassment over the nurse, his fear that everyone must be secretly laughing at him. Mostly he wrote about his father, a painstaking list of grievances based on minor incidents from childhood. He’s never had faith in me, he wrote. He doesn’t believe I have the nerve to do this.
Then he picked up the gun and shot himself.
His body wasn’t discovered for five days. For five days he lay on his kitchen floor, the gun beside him, the note — all fourteen pages — stacked neatly on the table.
His mother said, “We worried when he didn’t come over or answer his phone for so long.” His father was the one who found him — no doubt what the son intended.
“He was supposed to be in treatment,” the man said. “We didn’t know he’d gone off his medication. Cancelled all his appointments.” In the month since his discharge from the hospital, the son had failed to report for therapy, and his therapist hadn’t checked on him, not once. “That,” the man said, his voice quavering, “is called abandonment.” He lifted the book he’d been holding, a thick gray textbook, The Treatment of Depressive Disorders, and placed it on my desk as if he expected me to read it then and there. “Take a look at chapter seventeen. I think you’ll agree.”
I waited in polite silence for a moment. Then, as gently as I could, I explained the law: no matter how negligent their son’s therapist had been, he couldn’t be held liable for their son’s death unless we could prove that he caused it. “In these cases,” I said, “especially in an outpatient setting, causation is notoriously hard to prove.” I use lawyerly language when I have to discuss difficult subjects, as a sort of verbal anaesthetic. “I’m sure you understand,” I said, though I was sure they did not. Causation is a hard issue even for lawyers.
We would need to hire an expert, an independent therapist to review their son’s records. This could be expensive, I said.
The man took a memo pad from his shirt pocket and made a note. “What about settlement?”
“I’ll tell you what I tell everyone. Don’t file the case if you aren’t willing to take it to trial.” Getting to trial, I said, could take years. And wouldn’t be pleasant.
The man wrote something else, then tucked his pad back in his pocket.
“I’m not telling you not to pursue this,” I said. “I’m just trying to prepare you.”
During my speech, the wife’s face had turned pink. Her cheeks looked scrubbed, her eyes pained. I could almost hear her thinking: Go ahead, say it. Please, just say no.
“You don’t have to make up your minds now,” I said. “You have some time. If you decide to take the next step, I’ll start looking for an expert.”
“What about the literature?” the man said. “This book . . .”
“I’ll look at it,” I promised. “I’m sure it will be helpful. Even so, we’ll need a therapist who’s willing to testify. That’s the rule.”
The man nodded. He nodded for several minutes. Then, tightening his grip on the arms of his chair, he pushed himself up. He stuck out a hand to shake mine; his was cool and hard, all bones. “We thank you for your time,” he said. “We’ll think things over.” Then he turned and, with a tenderness that surprised me, helped his wife on with her coat. The two of them walked bravely out, the wife in front, the man behind her, his hand on her shoulder, for comfort or balance, I couldn’t be sure.
Practicing law is painful. It was especially painful in my early years, when I had no experience or self-confidence and had to pretend. Pretending took its toll. I never seemed to know who I was: the new-lawyer me, with my suits and floppy bow-ties and pantyhose and pumps, my diplomas in tasteful frames, my office in a big marble building, or the me I had always been. My husband would call me at work and remind me of my other life, my life at home — we had bought a house, a brick ranch with a big yard, our own vegetable garden — and I would get irritated. One day he called to tell me our carrots were coming up. I wasn’t exactly short with him, but I remember wondering why he thought I would have time to talk about carrots.
Later, after he moved out, I turned the garden back into lawn, which I hired someone else to mow.
After the man and his wife left, I opened the gray textbook to the chapter on suicide. Tucked into that chapter, marking a section titled “Special Considerations Surrounding Discharge and Follow-Up Care of Hospital Patients,” I found a small sheet of paper torn from a memo pad, a list written in shaky blue ballpoint:
The old man’s shopping list.
His son was dead, his wife didn’t want to do anything about it, but still the man had to buy food. I imagined him taking his groceries home, preparing a simple meal for his wife, sandwiches or soup. His wife sitting at the table, staring at her plate or bowl, not wanting to face him, not wanting him to see how she blamed him. “You have to eat,” he would tell her. “I’m not hungry,” she would say, and he would answer, “Eat anyway.” Understanding, both of them, that everything they did, everything they would ever do from now on, they would do anyway.
The last place I saw my husband — my ex-husband, by then — was the grocery store. Wellspring, before it became Whole Foods. This was years after our divorce. He was finally leaving Raleigh, he told me. He was moving to New York or California to find a more creative job. There was something clear and hopeful in his eyes, and I wanted to encourage him. It was on the tip of my tongue, how I hoped he would find something worthy of his talents. But I didn’t say it. I couldn’t let my guard down that much, even then.
“I’ll send you my new address and phone number,” he said, and then, reading the why? on my face, added, “if you want to know.”
“Sure,” I said, “I’d like that.”
But I wasn’t convincing. He didn’t send me his address. Later, when I found out he was sick, I asked my mother get it from his mother.
Fourth Street, Berkeley.
If you had asked me beforehand how my husband would die, I would have guessed in a wreck or by violence or suicide. He was an alcoholic, dangerous when he drank. He drove fast, got into fights, got arrested. In our nice brick ranch house, he hurt me. I didn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t. I was a lawyer.
He always apologized afterwards. I would say to him, But how can you be sorry for things you can’t remember? How can you make an informed apology?
Once he tried to kill himself. I wasn’t at home — I had escaped during one of his rampages. He put an album on the stereo, Rock of Ages by The Band, and turned it up to full volume. Then he sliced his wrists, got into bed, lit a cigarette, and passed out. The bed caught fire and woke him up. He dragged the mattress into the yard and left it to smolder while he drove himself to the hospital and got his cuts stitched up. It was still smoldering when I came home.
He used to criticize me for being passive. “Your life just happens to you,” he would say.
“What am I supposed to do?” I would say.
What am I supposed to do?
What to do about these clients, for instance? According to the old man’s textbook, their son was in a high-risk category: young single male, living alone, just home from his first hospital admission. A competent therapist would have been more aggressive about follow-up care.
Would it have mattered?
No one can know, of course. But a fourteen-page suicide note, single-spaced, in longhand? I’d call that the work of a man who was hoping to be interrupted.
So why am I not pushing the parents to sue?
You know why. Five days. A jury may not forgive them for waiting five days to check on him.
My ex-husband would say, Then tell them no. Don’t represent them.
But that isn’t who I am. I’m a lawyer. I listen, I dispense information, I advise; but ultimately I allow my clients the dignity of their own choices.
I am not forceful like my ex-husband.
In the beginning I thought he was exotic: a Canadian, with that round-voweled, phonetically precise way of talking. Once I took him to a soul food drive-in and he ordered “the chit-ter-lings, please.”
I wrote on my napkin, victuals. “Say this.”
“Vict-you-wools,” he said, and blinked his thick eyelashes.
How could I not love him?
His father was a veterinarian who’d given up a large animal practice in Ottawa to start a pig farm in North Carolina. He kept us in meat the whole time we were married — bacon, pork chops, ribs, sausage, all wrapped in white paper. Our freezer was always full of white packages. I wasn’t fond of the pork — the bacon was sliced too thick, the sausage had too much sage. But my husband’s father raised a few cows, too, and we occasionally got ground beef, a couple of steaks. My favorite was cubed steak, which I cooked country style, with gravy, the way my mother had taught me.
I did all the cooking in our marriage until my second year of law school, when I was injured in a wreck. During my recovery, my husband’s father gave us extra beef, and my husband learned to make beef stew in the crockpot. He put in potatoes and carrots and turnips and garlic and red wine. We ate beef stew for two months while I healed.
One Friday in the fall of my third year, my husband surprised me with a picnic at the beach. We’d been given the use of a friend’s house on the Intracoastal Waterway near Ocean Isle. He picked me up at school that afternoon and we got to the beach while it was still daylight. We unloaded the car and carried our things to the landing, our cooler and camp chairs and Hibachi. Then he took out the supper he’d packed: fresh bread, brie, a bottle of Merlot, and a thick steak, not from his father but from Fowler’s in Chapel Hill, a gourmet shop we couldn’t afford. He grilled the steak and we ate it slowly, in small bites. We drank the wine. We watched the sun set. We watched the bridge turn to let boats pass. Birds skimmed the water. My husband smoked a cigar.
After I became a lawyer, we could afford all the store-bought meat we wanted. It stopped being special. Eventually he and I stopped having meals together. One night near the end of our marriage, my husband invited a friend over and grilled hamburgers for the two of them but wouldn’t let me eat. He wouldn’t let me leave, either; he disconnected wires in my car to keep it from starting. So I walked next door. The neighbor, an old woman we had sometimes mocked for her yard ornaments, fed me supper and made me a bed on her sofa.
In the end, my husband was the one who moved out. He rented an efficiency apartment so small he had to leave behind the kitchen table he’d built, one of the few things he treasured. He invited me to dinner one night to work out our separation agreement, and I sat at his counter. He cooked me pork chops, his father’s. He sautéed them in a brown sauce. They were delicious. They broke my heart.
I wrote to him after he got sick. There wasn’t much to say. “I’m sorry,” I wrote. I had chosen a notecard with a picture of red shoes — a whimsical, light-hearted drawing, as if I believed a miracle were still possible.
He wrote back on stationery from the design firm he’d been working for. “Some luck with transplants,” he wrote. “Otherwise, you pay your nickel and take your chances.” He signed his note:
Like that, with no comma. His closing imperative.
Maybe my husband was right. Maybe I should be more of a take-charge lawyer. Spare this couple the burden of deciding whether to sue their son’s therapist. I could call the old man right now and say, I’m sorry, sir, there’s nothing I can do about your son. But the good news is, I found your grocery list.
My husband ran away from home when he was thirteen. He never told me why, only that he and his father didn’t get along. He left his family in Ontario and moved to Vancouver. Three years later, he returned; by then he was bigger than his father, ready to forgive and be forgiven. But his father had moved the family to North Carolina, to my hometown. It took my husband another year to find them. His parents made a room for him in their garage, and he even worked for a while on his father’s pig farm. When he and I were first dating, I sometimes visited on his lunch break. I didn’t like the farm — the stink of the lagoon, the way the pigs squealed when they were kicked.
After he died, I went back to my hometown to pay my respects to his parents. It was the first time I’d seen them since the divorce. My husband’s mother told me how happy he’d been after he moved to California. He grew lemons and broccoli, she said. He grew roses to give them away. “He should have lived there all along,” she said.
His girlfriend, I guess you’d call her, the woman who took care of him while he was dying, Lisa Angel (her real name), phoned me with her condolences. Lisa had traveled from California to North Carolina for the funeral, hoping to meet me. She was sorry I hadn’t come.
“He thought I would like you,” she said.
She told me their history. They’d met the summer after he moved to Berkeley. The following summer, his symptoms started. Work exhausted him. He couldn’t take a walk around his neighborhood without stopping to rest. “Then one night he was taking a shower,” Lisa said, “and his hands and feet went numb and his prick turned blue.” A quick stab of a word, prick: crude, too intimate.
Almost a year to the day after their first date, he was diagnosed with agnogenic myeloid metaplasia, a form of bone marrow cancer. He died six months later, on Valentine’s Day.
“We never said we loved each other,” Lisa said. “But every time I told him hello or goodbye, it meant I love you.”
She needed to be with him, she said. “I got butterflies whenever I wasn’t. The thing was, if he hadn’t gotten sick, we wouldn’t have stayed together. He drank. Not around me — I’m a recovering alcoholic myself, five years sober. There were a lot of nights we couldn’t see each other because he was drinking. He was depressed. Even before he got sick, he wasn’t interested in sex.” She let the word hang in the air. “I stayed with him because it was my destiny,” she said. “I believe that.”
She tried to bulk him up with buttery mashed potatoes, rich cream sauces, a variety of eggy concoctions. But he had no appetite, and she ended up eating all the food herself. “I got fat trying to save him,” she said. “I’m still trying to lose the weight.”
I wondered how it was for him, being cared for by a woman he wasn’t in love with or even attracted to, someone who kept getting fatter as he withered away. Someone loud and coarse, who disturbed all the other patients when she stood at the nurses’ station and demanded to know why he wasn’t getting better.
Is it easier to die if you’re leaving someone you’d just as soon be away from?
That isn’t what he told Lisa. After his splenectomy, after the chemo, after the bone marrow transplant, when he had wasted away to nothing, when he was bald and helpless and needed oxygen and couldn’t eat more than a couple of spoonfuls of anything, when he was like an infant, she stayed with him in his hospital room. Once, near the end, as she was getting up to leave, he managed to say to her, “No, no.”
When he died, my mother took his parents a ham (ham for a pig farmer! but it was what she had on hand), dinner rolls, potato salad, a Sara Lee cake. My mother is small and frail, and she struggled carrying the cooler to their front door. My husband’s father came out and, without offering to help, told my mother no, no, they didn’t need anything. She had to plead with him to take the food. “For when the other children come to visit,” she said.
According to the medical examiner, my clients’ son’s last meal was pizza. A small cheese pizza from Domino’s. The delivery boy, apparently the last person to see him alive, remembered little about him, just that he paid in cash — exact change, no tip. He ate the pizza, broke down the box and laid it flat in the recycle bin under his kitchen sink. He rinsed his drinking glass and upended it in the drain. Had he used something other than a gun, he might have left a clean kitchen.
I predict, and I hope I’m not wrong, that the old man and his wife will decide not to sue the therapist. A lawsuit won’t bring our son back, they’ll tell themselves. Maybe they’ll blame it on money: they can’t afford to pay for an expert without some guarantee of success, which of course I can’t give them. The old man may tell me privately that his wife isn’t strong enough to withstand the emotional upheaval of a lawsuit.
I understand, I will say. I will reiterate how sorry I am. I’ll return the gray textbook and their son’s records. But I will keep the grocery list.
Tonight as on most nights I stop in the gym on my way home from the office. A girl on a treadmill is talking to another girl on the treadmill beside her. Their faces glow in the light of the aquarium. “That’s a triggerfish?” the first girl says. “I just ate one. I didn’t know they were so pretty.”
Before I was a lawyer, my husband and I used to go fishing. We fished from a makeshift platform on the girders of the trestle bridge over High Rock Lake, and the midnight train would rattle overhead and shake our tackle box.
At the Outer Banks he taught me to surf-cast for flounder.
On Saturdays when I didn’t have to study, we would pack a lunch and find a spot along the bank of Abbott’s Creek or the Eno. We would sit side by side, holding our poles, talking, not talking; waiting. We always caught something, and we always ate what we caught. Crappie, bream.
I remember the smell of fish roasting in the oven, six or eight small ones in a single pan, the kitchen full of the rivery smell of them. I remember their sweet white meat, their perfect, delicate, soft bones.