I know my three o’clock is out in the waiting room, but I force myself not to let her in yet. Instead I slump down in my office chair, glaring at the clock, rolling and unrolling my tie. I wouldn’t normally wear a tie to the office, but I thought I’d dress a little nicer today. I’m controlling the controllables. That’s what I always tell clients to do.
On this rainy Thursday afternoon, a lot of things seem to have slipped beyond my grasp. There’s a pile of notes on the desk by my computer, awaiting transcription. A dozen times I’ve glanced over at them, and a dozen times I’ve decided that I can’t. I’ve yet to submit any of my insurance claims for the week. I left the coffee machine on after lunch, which has now left me with the rude stink of burnt coffee. I could have gotten up and turned off the burner, but I was rooted to the seat of my chair, staring at a particular spot on the bookshelf.
With three o’clock coming closer, though, I finally have a concrete reason for action. So I get up, shut the burner off, and set the seared carafe on the counter beside it. After a quick spritz of potpourri, my office takes on the superficial smell of a spring meadow. By then it’s 2:57, which is close enough, so I open the door and step out into the waiting room.
All my intakes fidget. Sarah is tapping her heel at a rapid pace, her knee jiggling from side to side. She’s wearing sweatpants and a heavy cardigan, and a hardcover textbook sits closed on the sofa beside her. When she hears the door, she glances up with an exhausted look on her face.
You must be Sarah, I say with a smile.
I must be, she says, like she’s pronouncing a death sentence.
Sarah follows me into the office, but she takes a look around before she sits. I’ve often wondered how my office looks to clients, especially those who’ve seen a therapist before. Grace says it has a “tweedy charm,” but I dunno. There are a couple landscapes on the walls, my degree and license, the dusty bookshelf next to the couch. I’ve consciously foregone the sorts of rah-rah, you-can-do-it posters that a lot of my colleagues put up. They’ve always felt disingenuous to me.
After Sarah declines my offer of bottled water and comments on the odd smell still lingering in the air, we take up our appointed positions – me in my easy chair, her on the couch, an old, IKEA-grade coffee table stretching between us. We run through the formalities that accompany every intake session. She has no releases to sign, no questions about the informed consent notice. At last, I pick up my legal pad from the coffee table and lean back in my chair.
Well, I say. Where would you like to begin?
Sarah digs into her purse and comes up with a small spiral notebook. Flipping through it, she stops at a page with what appears to be a series of bullet points.
Sorry, she says, brushing a strand of brown hair from her face. I’m a grad student, I take notes on everything.
That’s fine, I say. What do you study?
For a moment the muscles in her jaw tense up. Then she rubs one eye with the palm of her hand and says, Cosmology.
Yeah, she says, with a resigned little nod.
I don’t understand, and for that I’m grateful. Here at last is some work to do, a puzzle to solve. Here’s something to interpose between me and the gaping maw of 5:30 PM. I can sink into this moment, and think entirely of someone else.
Okay, I say, clicking my pen. Tell me more.
Thirteen hours earlier, I was sitting on the balcony of our little midtown condo, staring down the long, concrete canyon of a deserted city street. My espresso was already cold, and I was about halfway through my third cigarette. I was thinking about a fourth, about maybe lighting it off the tip of the third, when I heard the soft, symmetrical hiss of the sliding glass door opening and closing behind me.
Christ, Grace said. It’s two AM. What are you doing out here?
She was wearing striped pajama pants and her old Northwestern hoodie. Ruffling her frizzy, graying hair with one hand, she pulled up a wire chair and sat down next to me.
Had a hankering, I said, lifting the little demitasse in a mock salute. Sorry if the machine woke you.
I don’t think it was the machine, I just woke up and you weren’t there. If you drink that, you’re not gonna sleep tonight.
Not much chance of that anyway.
There was a harsh scrape of wire on concrete as she pulled her chair closer to mine. Then she leaned over and rested her head on my shoulder. I could feel my muscles relax, releasing tension I wasn’t aware of carrying. That gentle weight on my shoulder is always welcome, always disarming.
Imagine you were a client, she said. Her voice was soft, careful, and I almost lost it in a sudden gust of September wind. Imagine somebody came to you with this. What would you tell them?
I took a long sip of espresso and held it in my mouth for a moment, savoring the bitter taste. This thought had occurred to me, of course.
I would question the usefulness of torturing oneself with hypotheticals, I said. I would tell them that there’s no use panicking until there’s something to panic about.
Grace snuggled a little closer, bracing against the wind. And she said, but you’re struggling with that.
I am. How about you? Staying philosophical?
No, she said as she lifted her head from my shoulder. I’m freaking out, too. But I have an eight o’clock meeting.
With that, she kissed me on the cheek and stood up. Again I heard the door hissing open and closed behind me, and again I was left alone with the wind and the distant shout of bar patrons pushed out into the night.
After another minute or two, I ground out my cigarette and stepped inside. My head was throbbing, and for a moment I almost went up to the loft and laid down beside Grace, espresso be damned. I knew that was a trap, though. I’d get all settled in, and then the whole mess would come cascading over me again. Better to go through it down here. So I spread out on the couch and stared up into the darkness, and watched as all the good things in my life reeled past me.
An afternoon fishing with my dad. Holding my nephew when he was a baby. And Grace, of course, lying in the tall, golden prairie grass with me – her smile so casual, her hair still chestnut brown.
I must have slept at some point. In a blink, it was morning. My eyelids fluttered open to a living room awash in sunlight, the smell of burning bacon hanging in the air. That’s what really got me. Grace doesn’t cook. She doesn’t find it relaxing in the same way I do, and she’s also pretty terrible at it. On this day in particular, she had an early meeting with her firm’s newest client. And yet she had chosen this morning to try and make me breakfast.
Grace, too, was trying to control the controllables. I took in the acrid smell of burning bacon, and I listened to Grace saying shit, shit, goddammit, and I almost started crying right then and there.
My specific area of study, Sarah says, is the ultimate fate of the universe.
I lean forward and squint. What?
The end, she says. The end of the universe. Of everything.
Alright, I say. Tell me about that.
For the next fourteen minutes, she does. Sarah goes on and on, in a rapid cadence, about the absurd and doomed alchemy of the cosmos. She tells me about the foolproof clock of entropy, about molecules slowly spreading out to their cruel and final equilibrium. She fawns over supermassive black holes, impenetrable and uncaring as diffident gods. With particular relish, she speaks of the cosmological metric itself, perpetually expanding beneath us, inexorably moving everything further and further apart.
Someday, she says, the light of other stars will be too far away to reach us. There won’t be enough time left in the universe. And the Earth will be gone then, long gone, but if it wasn’t you could watch. You could watch as each of those little pinpricks of light went out.
I’m sorry, I say. Let me stop you right there.
Sarah looks up, startled. What?
Is this why you hired a grief counselor? Because the universe is ending?
No. Well, yes.
She shakes her head and shifts in her seat. I wonder for a moment if she slept any better than I did. There are bags under her eyes, drooping shadows, and she has the instinctive slouch of the chronic insomniac.
I see that shit everywhere now, she says at last. I see a building going up, and I think about it crumbling. I go to my mom’s place for dinner, and I see her in a hospital bed with tubes in her nose. That’s all I see in anything. Endings.
If you’re studying this stuff at the graduate level, I say, none of this end-of-the-universe stuff is new to you. So when did it start to bother you? Did something happen recently?
Sarah’s posture is a fortress – arms crossed, one leg laced over the other. She stares off over my left shoulder, into the middle distance. I can see her lip quivering, ever so slightly, and I can see her force it to be still.
No, she says. Nothing comes to mind.
I lean back in my chair and make a note on my legal pad. There’s something there, but I’ll have to circle back to it. She doesn’t know me yet, doesn’t trust me. We’ll get there. Not today, but we’ll get there.
Y’know, I say, in some ways it seems like a pretty attractive thing to study.
Really? Sarah raises an eyebrow. How do you figure?
Well, I say, everybody faces death. If you gotta face it, this seems like a palatable way to do it. It’s sterile, scientific. More of a puzzle to be solved than an inevitability to be accepted.
Right, Sarah says, and a wry grin spreads across her face. I guess you’d know, huh?
I was in graduate school myself, once, and it was in those lean and hopeful years that I met Grace. She was working on her MBA then, and had even less time than I did. That was okay, though. It was our urgent and incompatible schedules that gave our little getaways, rare and brief as they were, a sense of giddy relief. She was my oasis, and I was hers, and it was in that spirit that we once found ourselves lying in a field of tall prairie grass just outside of town. We’d just finished sharing a joint, and the late afternoon sun was slinking off toward the western horizon.
No way, she said, nuzzling into my shoulder, her eyelids drifting downward. Life would get old. It would become too routine.
I was patting around on the blanket next to me, trying to find my pack of cigarettes. And I said, bullshit.
What? Grace propped herself up and rested her chin on my chest. She was smiling, even as she shielded her eyes against the western sun. You’d want to live forever?
Of course I would.
So you’d want to watch everyone you love die?
No, I said. I’d want them to live forever with me. So would you. So would anybody.
There was a long silence, pierced only by the caterwauling of an ambulance on a nearby country road. I found my pack of cigarettes, momentarily lost in a fold of the blanket, and started digging in my right pocket for a lighter.
So what? There was a frown in her eyes then, but I didn’t know if it was me or the glare. You think I’m lying?
Only to yourself, I said. It’s the original sour grapes, from which all others descend.
Grace glared at me for a moment, her lips pursed. Then she reached up and flicked the tip of my nose.
Right, she said. I’ll bet you’re fun at parties.
And I said, honey, you’ve got no idea.
By the end of our session, Sarah is spent. She’s been carrying all these fears around for God knows how long, and dumping them out for a stranger is hard work. As I look at her lying sideways on my couch, limp and deflated, I know I can’t just send her back out there like this. I have to give her something. So I set my clipboard down on the coffee table and lean forward, resting my elbows on my thighs.
Look, I say. You’re afraid to die. Right?
Sure, she says, and her voice seems so small, so far away. Isn’t everybody?
Absolutely, I say. It’s a scary thought. But while the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.
Sarah props herself up on one arm. What the hell does that mean?
You have full awareness, I say. And in that awareness, you’re primed to make changes. You’re prompted to grapple with your fundamental human responsibility. You have to construct an authentic life. A life of engagement, connectivity, meaning, and self-fulfillment.
Sarah is still frowning, but I see the gears turning behind her eyes. She has no way of knowing that I’ve cribbed this little monologue, in its entirety, from a book I read in school. Staring At the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death. Irvin Yalom, Wiley & Sons Press, first published in 1998. I think it’s on page 17. I’ve memorized it over the years, because people seem to find it comforting. But they’re just words, something a human made up and wrote down when the universe was already several billion years old.
I don’t know, Sarah says. Her voice is skeptical, but she’s clearly chewing on it. So it’s a good thing I have to die?
No, I say. It’s a good thing you love your life.
After we agree to meet again – same time next week – I walk Sarah out. Then I’m alone again, with the resurgent stench of burnt coffee and the snapping, slavering jaws of 5:30 bearing down on me. I slump back down in my chair and wait for Grace. By the time I hear the steady click of her heels on the hardwood floor of the waiting room, I’m not sure how long I’ve been staring at the wall.
Hey, she says. She’s wearing a cream-colored blazer and a look of perfect neutrality. You ready?
The downtown clinic is bright, cheery, buzzing with activity. Grace and I take seats along the back wall, far from the mounted flat screen blaring celebrity gossip. She looks down at her phone and squeezes my hand. I stare dead ahead, tracing the purple zig-zag design on the upholstered chair in front of me.
The passage of time is parabolic, stretching toward infinity as the horizon approaches. Every tick of my watch’s second hand seems labored, like it might just die on me. Each footfall on the shiny, white linoleum seems to pound in my ears. Grace’s hand is soft and cool and reassuringly firm, as if she could hold me in this moment forever.
Finally, at 5:38 PM, a man in dark blue scrubs comes out from behind the counter. He looks around the waiting room and says, Martin Hauser?
And I stand up and say, that’s me.
In the examination room, I sit in another absurdly-patterned chair and wait for Doctor Chen. She’s the one who ordered the scans, the one who asked me to come back here today at 5:30 to hear what she had learned. Finally, the door opens and the doctor steps gently in, as if this is my office and she is somehow intruding. She wears a white coat over her formal blouse, her graying hair pulled back in a long ponytail.
Hello Martin, she says. Thank you for coming in today. As she sits down in the rolling office chair across from me, her eyes meet mine, and she lets out a sigh, heavy and grim.
I try to return her greeting, but I can’t. There are no words. I have nothing left.
I have spent over twenty years working with people who have suffered a recent loss, and no two cases are exactly the same. But there is an expression I see again and again, usually when a client is talking not about the person who died, but about death itself. The eyes glaze over, the edges of the mouth slip downward. It is this shadow that I see over Dr. Chen’s face now. The haunted gaze of one who has just brushed up against eternity.
In a blink, a fraction of a heartbeat, I know just how the scans went. But there is still this moment, before she says it.
There is still this breath, before Dr. Chen starts talking about options, time frames, arrangements.
In this moment, I’m in the tall prairie grass with Grace. Our faces are smooth, our hair not yet gray. The sun has set, and the stars are out, specks of brilliant light floating in a sea of perfect black. We look up at them for a long time. Maybe centuries, maybe eons. The grass grows up around us, dies back, grows again. And we lay there together, staring into the blackness, watching the stars blink out one by one.