Thursday, September 19, 2013

My Father and the Frog

  The night my dad died, my mother and I sat in the waiting room together.  They cleared out all the other visitors so that the doctor could talk to us alone.  He explained that my dad’s heart kept stopping.  They had restarted it six times.  Finally, they had to call it and let him go.  My mother was totally gracious.  She would hold it together in public, and we would cry together in private.  
  Over the next few months I was furious with the doctors.  I knew the anger was normal, yet it persisted.  At the time, all I could think about was how they had zapped my father six times when he was trying to let go.  I couldn’t think of it as anything less than torture.  This stayed with me. 
  I was in college biology the following semester.  One of the first things that we did was to dissect a frog.  This was not any normal backyard frog.  This frog was a foot long, and it lay in a dish in front of me.  The professor led us along cautiously so that we would get the most out of it.  It really didn’t take long before the insides of the frog were exposed.  I don’t know what made me do it, but I placed the flat side of the scalpel on the frog’s heart.  Immediately, it started beating.  I jumped.  This totally freaked me out.  It must have beat 10-15 times before it stopped again.  I put the scalpel back again.  Again it started beating.  This time it only went 7 or 8 times before it ceased.  I repeated this three or four more times before the heart stopped for good.  I can’t describe the feeling of power it gave me to start that heart.  It was amazing.  
  I was so overwhelmed by the experience I talked to the professor.  He assured me that the frog was not alive, but that the cold scalpel had triggered an autonomic response of the nerves to make the heart beat.  I had not performed a miracle.  
  This experience allowed me to forgive the doctor.  I understood how it felt to bring my father back to life.  If the heart kept responding the doctor wouldn’t have been able to do anything more than keep trying.  Forgiving him was extremely helpful as it brought me one step closer to forgiving myself.  

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

My Father's Cigarettes

I was 16 years old when my Dad had his first heart attack.  Growing up on a farm, I knew about life and death, but I didn’t think it applied to my father.  This was really scarey.  We sat in the hospital room worrying, when a doctor appeared at the door. 
“Hello, I’m Dr. so and so and I’m the chief of cardiology at this hospital.  I’m going to be working with you.”  After the formalities, they started talking.  Then he spied something on my father’s nightstand.  “Are those your cigarettes?”
“Yes, I’ve been smoking camel straights for 42 years.”  No wonder he had a heart attack! 
“Well, if you want me to be your cardiologist, you’ll have to give up smoking.”  
To which my father picked up that pack of cigarettes and tossed them in the garbage.  My father never smoked again.  He later told me that he continued to miss them the rest of his life.  He especially missed the first one in the morning.  Yet, he didn’t smoke again, and I was impressed.  To be able to throw them away after all those years of smoking was incredible.  I was awed by my father’s strength.  I thought he did a great thing for himself.  I had no idea what a gift this was for me. 
This act of my father’s worked on me.  I frequently thought about it.  It took me years to realize what an impact it had on me.  If my father could give up those cigarettes after all those years, just think what I could do.  Smoking is undoubtedly one of the most difficult addictions to quit, but he could do it by making a decision.  This act of my father’s spoke to me about my own capabilities.  When I doubt myself, I just think about my father throwing away those cigarettes.    

Sunday, September 1, 2013


It was April of 1977.  On Saturday morning my brother called inviting me to attend a Carl Whitaker Workshop he was participating in.  The Gestalt Insitute of Connecticut was an elite group of therapists who came together for their mutual education and support.  They invited the noteable gurus of psychotherapy from around the country for workshops each year.  
I jumped in my car and flew down to Madison.  When I entered, they were still on a break.  My brother took me around to meet everyone.  There were a number of clinicians from Elmcrest Psychiatric Hospital that I already knew.  I had met Carl before, but was reintroduced. 
Shortly, everyone set down and the meeting convened.  I found a couple of pillows next to my brother and sat down.  When it was quiet for a minute, one of the men started thanking Carl for his work with his family last year.  The work had resulted in greater connectedness and joy within the family.  I thought that was cool.   
Following another short silence, my brother spoke up.  “Carl, about 6 months ago, our mother was killed.  At the time I was close to Billy, but we’re not close any more and I want to work on that.  Every eye turned to me.  
I was totally taken by surprise.  This I did not expect.  I didn’t know what to do.  Then Carl extended the invitation.  “William would you like to work on this?”  In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have known how to say no.  “Sure.”
When I said this, several things happened at once.  I literally could feel all the people sitting around me very slowly moving away.  The next thing I was aware of was Leo Berman moving over to the video camera and turning it on.  What made this all tolerable was that Carl came over and sat down on a pillow with my brother and I.  It was now a threesome sitting alone in front of the camera and a room full of people.  
Like my brother and I, Carl Whitaker grew up on a farm.  He was a big strong farmboy who had left the farm for a professional career.  He was tall and broad.  His personal stature alone was an intimidating presence.  To describe him accurately would take volumes.  However, I must emphasize his kindliness and his brilliant mind.  I felt safe with him next to me.  
For the next two hours, Carl went up one side of my family tree, and then down the other.  He explored deep family themes.  We talked about the lonliness we each felt.  We talked about the horror of the murder.  We both cried repeatedly.  The funny part was that immediately after the session, I would not have been able to tell you one specific thing we said.  Over the years, I have come to understand this.  Carl talked in such a basic, primitive language, that he kept pushing us into the unconscious side of the brain.  He talked primary process and my brain followed him into the depths of my thinking.  It wasn’t that we talked about the love for our mother that we had when we were three or four; we felt the love for our mother that we had when we were three or four.  Being that we were talking from the deepest part of our memory, my mind wasn’t holding on to what was being said.  
I do remember how it ended.  After lovingly exploring our family for two hours, Carl leaned back and gave a big laugh.  He then held out his two big arms as if he was hugging someone and said, “I feel like I have each of you on a different breast and I can’t get you together.  He then wrapped his hands behind each of our necks and pulled us together.  
As soon as we touched, we started hugging, we experienced a new level of our crying.  We were now two little boys who had lost their mother.  We held onto each other and sobbed.  It went on for a few minutes, before the moment ebbed.  My brother sat back and looked at me.  “You know that now we’re both orphans?”    
Carl spoke,  “I want you both to leave, walk on the beach, hold hands, throw sand at each other.  We’re going to talk about what just happened and I don’t want our talking to alter what you just experienced, so you have to leave.”  We slowly wandered out to the sand and walked and talked.  
What happened over the next few months was extraordinary.  As I went on through my grieving and my attempts to avoid my grief; when I came to a roadblock, I would remember something that we had talked about.  It was as if he had scattered breadcrumbs all through my unconscious.  As I stepped on one, a memory would come back that would be like a new piece of the puzzle, that would help me make sense of who I was and what losing my mother really meant.  
It took me 10 years to get that video tape from Leo Berman.  I don’t know if his excuses were real, or he just did not want to give me a copy.  I finally gave him a blank tape and put it in his hand. 
Carl later told me that it was during this session that I captured him as a foster grandfather.  Up until his stroke, he nurtured me.  He shared with me what he thought psychotherapy was, but he talked much more to me about what it meant to be a person, a husband, a father.  He gave me permission to become who I am and I will forever be appreciative of this gift.