She introduced herself to me with a gentle, slightly apologetic smile. "I'm here because I'm dying." She sat across the room, and told me details without emotion. She'd been through the treatments, but they were ineffective. It was only a matter of time.
"I need someone to talk to," she said simply.
I liked her instantly. She was in her mid-forties, as was I, and in other circumstances, we might have been friends. She laughed easily, dressed casually and seemed comfortable in her own skin. Her hair was long and loose, and she tossed her feet up on my couch without asking.
She told me all about the business she had developed. It was small, but quite successful. She was proud that she employed several hundred rural Moms who worked from their homes.
"They can stay with their kids and still earn a living. I like that," she said.
"Do you have children?" I asked. "No, but I was one," was her quick response. "And I loved having my mother around."
Over the next few months she told me about her Mom, and her sisters, and her wide circle of friends. Each week she added more to her story. She talked about her education and her relationships, her goals and her achievements. In all areas she had wins and losses, successes and failures. Her life story wasn't perfect, but it was, from a psychologist's perspective, entirely normal. My usual probing questions found little to explore, and even less to be concerned about as she walked me through the phases of her life and shared the highlights like treasured photographs.
"And your illness," I prodded, "how are you handling that?"
She was quiet for a moment, then responded with a sigh. "Well, I'm not happy, but I'm OK with it."
As she told me more, I could see this was true. She surrounded herself with people who cared about her, spoke openly about her fears and her feelings, and let others help her solve the practical problems that she would leave behind. Most important to her was that the business not be lost, and she told me in detail about the efforts being made to ensure that no one would lose their livelihood when she lost her life.
At times she shed tears, and wished for more: more time, more joy, more love. But always more of what was already there in her life. She felt blessed to be grieving what she had, not what she never reached, never felt, never experienced. "My life was simple, but I am proud of it," she told me. "I just would have liked it to last a bit longer, that's all."
I listened week after week, wondering silently if I could be so strong in the face of such news. Wondering how she had come to this gentle peace. Mostly I wondered what good I was doing. What was this process and my presence adding to her journey? One day I asked, "Why do you come here?"
"I come because I can cry here and it does not cause you pain," she answered.
"My family loves me, and when I cry with them I see their pain. I feel their loss, and I feel sad for all the pain this causes them. But you, you do not love me. My grief does not cause you pain. I can grieve here and it will not make you cry. Here I am free to cry for my own loss."
As she weakened, she came less often. One day she paid me for an extra hour. "There may come a time I need to talk with you and can't get here," she said. "I'd like to pay ahead."
When that day came, we spoke on the phone, but she was too weak to do more than whisper a few words, and our call was short.
A few days later there was a message on my answering machine. Her good friend left directions to the church and information about the funeral. I could tell by her voice she wanted me to come. "She told me how helpful you were to her." she offered. "And I would love to meet you."
Yes, I thought, and you will be disappointed in me when I do not come.
But I knew something else. I knew that she had protected her family. "They are giving me everything they have," she said, "and it might hurt them to know about my coming here. I want to leave them with no doubt that their love was everything to me, because it was."
And so, on the day she was blessed by family and friends in a tiny church on a hillside in Maine, I cancelled my appointments and walked for miles. I dropped a check in the mail to a children's charity to refund that extra hour's fee, and clear her account.
I thought about her words.
I can grieve here and it will not make you cry.
That day, she was wrong.
Mary E. Plouffe Ph. D. is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives and works in South Freeport Maine. She has previously published in Survivor Review, as well as On the Issues Magazine, Whistling Fire and National Public Radio, among others. Information about her writing and her upcoming memoir about childhood grief In Know It In My Heart: Walking through grief with a child ... can be found at www.maryplouffe.com.