Today is our third meeting. The couple sits huddled together on the client’s couch. They always shiver and ask me to turn up the heat. Leanne holds the white blanket bundle on her lap like a devotee might hold a sacred relic. I can’t get her to put it down.
“So, what are you saying, doc?” Lyle says.
Oh boy, here we go again. Maybe today, they will get it.
“I’m only asking if you, the two of you, think it’s natural to carry her around like that?”
Leanne looks as if I’d suggested something obscene. Lyle senses her distress and lays a hand on her forearm. Her right arm remains frozen, holding the bundle on her lap.
“Honey, she’s only trying to help.”
They lean into each other and whisper something I can’t hear.
“She’s our daughter. What should we do with her? We can’t just leave her with a sitter, can we?” Lyle says this with every bit of outrage Leanne uses every time she asks the same thing.
I pray these two can reach a breakthrough soon. I have other clients waiting to see me.
“What do you feel when you look at her, at your daughter, at Lilly?”
Her. Daughter. Lilly. I’ve got to move them towards a perspective to see the truth.
Today is their third session. If I don’t help them progress, I don’t know what will happen. Such clients are hardly ever granted more than a handful of appointments before being swept aside by the system.
Leanne peels back a corner of the dirty white blanket and glances at the contents.
From my perspective, all I see is a little fluff of angel-fine blonde hair.
“She’s sleeping,” she says at last.
Lyle and Leanne share a confused look.
“I know my daughter, Doctor Palmer; she is sleeping.”
“Are you sure?”
They look at their daughter’s face. They whisper something else I can’t make out.
“Unwrap her a bit more. It is 78 degrees here. I promise you she won’t catch a cold.”
There’s no way she could catch anything.
Working in tandem, the couple unwraps their daughter.
Even from here, the blue tint of her skin is alarming.
They say nothing, so I press ahead.
“She seems to sleep a lot. When was the last time you remember her being awake?”
They remain silent. My heart swells a bit. I remind myself to be patient.
“Will you wake her? For me? Please?”
I watch my clients slowly melt on the couch. This might be my last chance.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?”
In previous sessions-when we reached this part-I pointed out how the law didn’t permit anyone to keep a corpse. Each session ended with them storming out and vowing never to return. But it’s not like they have a lot of options. I’m not the only show in town, but there aren’t many that do what I can do.
Leanne is bawling. I take this as a positive development. The couple clutch each other over their baby that has passed.
I hand Lyle the tissues. Another formality, but what comforts we take in the familiar.
“It’s going to be okay.”
Today, for perhaps the first time, I believe this to be true.
I give them a few minutes to open up to their grief. Again.
The next bit is where I can lose them forever.
“Can you tell me how she passed?”
‘She’ not ‘Lilly’ now. Need to keep some gap, however thin, of objectivity. This could still go wrong.
“We…, we were…, driving. To her mom’s house, for Thanksgiving dinner. The roads were icy…, and I was driving,” Lyle says, glancing at Leanne, waiting for a confirmation nod that his recollection was correct.
Lyle clears his throat and blows his nose.
“I was driving, and we came around a blind corner. I was going too fast…, her mother gets so upset if we’re even a minute late.
Lyle’s face glazes over with a thousand-mile stare. If I had a dime for every time I’d seen it in this office, I’d have a lot of dimes; I’d have all the dimes.
She senses his upheaval, steps in, and resumes the narrative.
“We saw a car broke down, but it was still right in the middle of the damn road,” Leanne says, looking embarrassed at her lapse of decorum.
I nod for her to continue; Lyle is still far away.
“Pardon my language, doc.”
I smile at her with every ounce of compassion I have. Outwardly I look calm, but inwardly I’m a frantic mess of emotions. I care deeply about all my clients. These two are near the top of almost every list I could write regarding my most ‘challenging’ cases. I desperately want them to make it. To help them process their grief and move on.
This is as far in the story as we’ve made it in our previous sessions. I pray they find the strength to finish it for me today.
“Lyle had to jerk the wheel to keep from hitting the car. And then…, well that’s when we saw the kids,” Leanne says before breaking down and bawling again.
Ever the doting husband, Lyle senses her sorrow from whatever great distance he has traveled. He returns in an instant and pulls her tight against him.
“The kids?” I prompt.
“Some teenagers. They looked like teenagers to us, to me, at any rate. They were on bikes! Can you believe it? What kind of foolish parents let their kids drive on rural farm roads, on icy roads with blind corners?”
Don’t say anything. Just let him talk.
I shake my head in tacit agreement. I don’t dare say anything that will derail him at this point.
You can do this, Lyle.
I had to veer off the road to keep from killing all of them.
Oh my god.
And that was how Lilly died?”
I’m acutely aware of how dry my throat has gone. I reach forward and lift my glass, taking a tiny sip.
I set the glass down and raise my eyebrows slightly at Lyle.
“Well…, yeah…, I mean we crashed into the woods…,”
And then he is gone again.
They must have been the sweetest couple. So attentive to each other’s moods.
Leanne is back again, whispering her devotion and her love into his ear.
“Yeah, doc. We crashed into the woods and hit the trees. Duh, of course. There were hundreds of them,” Leanne says.
Okay, one down, two to go.
I must collect myself. I sip my water and glance out my window for just a beat. When I look back, my veneer of professionalism is back in place.
“And then what happened?”
If I had to guess, this is our last chance. There’s so much at stake here. Honestly, I’ve only failed with a handful of clients, and those were many years ago. And I do not know what happens to them when they fall out of the system.
“What do you mean?” Leanne says, glancing sideways at her still vacant husband.
Please, please, please.
“What can you tell me about…, after? After the accident? Do you remember the ambulance driver? Did the kids on the bikes check on you? Anything at all.”
I see her trying to recall anything from after. I almost take pity on her and tell her not to worry about it, but I realize what happens next is crucial.
“Any detail at all would be…., useful.”
She thinks and thinks and thinks.
“I’ve heard of cases like this, like mine, like ours,” she says, nearly laughing. She steals another glance at Lyle. He’s starting to come back to us. She smiles at him warmly.
He surprises me.
“We can’t, I can’t remember anything after the accident because…,”
Please, please, please.
I almost shout for more time. I want to shake him awake and hug him, but those actions rarely lead to the cinematic outcomes everyone expects them to.
“I don’t remember anything that happened after…, because…,”
“Say it, Lyle. You’re almost there.”
“We don’t remember anything from after because…,” Leanne says, looking as sad and sober as anyone that ever sat where she sits.
She also looks awake.
You got this, Leanne.
But it turns out they already did it.
The tiny bundle on Leanne’s lap begins to wriggle.
“Oh, there she is! My baby girl. Oh, baby, there you are,” she says. Lyle and she dote over Lilly for several seconds.
“The reason we don’t remember anything from after, after the accident is because…,” she trails off and glances at Lyle who is cooing at his daughter.
“Say it, Leanne. Say it,” he says without looking away from Lilly.
“The reason we don’t remember anything is that we are both dead…, like Lilly. All three of us died on that Thanksgiving morning. It was no one’s fault,” she says, squeezing Lyle’s hand.
Bright light fills my office. It is so bright. I never get over this part. It’s so bright. I shouldn’t be able to see anything with all this light, but I see it all. I see the three of them, hugging each other, growing brighter and brighter and brighter, until the trio is a pair of meteors hurdling headlong through the atmosphere. They are incandescent and then they are gone.