There was welcome shade under the apple trees that hot and humid summer of my seventh year.
It was just after the war that my mother’s parents moved their family out there, to the flat open farmlands of New Jersey, leaving the South Bronx behind for a new beginning selling fresh eggs.
Bordered by a dirt road with no name, the property was dominated by the main house, a long driveway of small yellow stone, and three large chicken houses.
My grandparents had already retired by the time I was around, and the chicken houses were now empty. But the still pungent smell of manure permeated my nostrils, whenever I explored the deserted bins and stalls.
Every summer my parents dropped me off there for about two weeks. It was nice to be out of the confined space of our third floor apartment where my older brother and I shared a small room, even for a short while.
A sturdy and industrious woman, my grandmother was always busy with chores and her favorite pastime of gardening. Around the property were numerous beds of carefully planted flowers of every variety and color.
Separating the big front yard were a line of thick lilac bushes dotted with tight clusters of blue flowers. The lilacs had been planted in one long row, and so one didn’t have to walk all the way around, there was an open pathway between them where the tops of the bushes met, forming a sort of tall gothic archway.
This path between the lilacs was well traveled and I followed my grandparents through them as they made their way to the other side of the bushes where the long chicken houses stood, one behind the other.
And it was between those lilacs that my grandfather and I made our regular trip to the chicken house where a resident cat was expecting a litter of kittens. There she lay; nestled within one of the steel bins that was once the home of a chicken. It all seemed very natural I thought, and I was warmed by the caring nature of my grandfather.
I had always loved pets but was forbidden to have one by my father. And so I enjoyed playing with the cats at my grandparent’s house and looked forward with great anticipation to the day the kittens would be born.
One morning when my grandfather and I walked out to the chicken house to check on her, we found that the mother had given birth to four small babies during the night. I watched in fascination as she carefully cleaned her young and moved them around. It was the first time I had ever seen a mother nursing her young.
The next day my grandparent’s appeared busy between the lilacs. In the center of the opening was placed a dented metal pail that my grandmother was filling with water. And oddly, my grandfather was struggling to carry the large round slab of concrete that normally lay over the septic tank.
I continued to watch with an urgent curiosity as they as they set about their task, whatever it was. I didn’t think much of it, especially as they seemed always busy with some rural chore unfamiliar to a city boy like me.
My grandfather began walking out to the chicken house and I ran to catch up with him so we could walk together, just as we had done so many times before. But once inside, I was stunned when he suddenly and forcefully took the kittens away from the hissing and crying mother.
Now trying to escape the hold of my grandfather’s large hands, the kittens were carried back between the lilacs where the pail, the concrete slab and my grandmother were waiting.
And there they dropped the kittens in the water, one at a time.
Unable to comprehend what I was witnessing, I naively questioned my grandmother as to what they were doing. Without looking up she said that that they were going to “give the kittens a bath”.
But a wave of shock ran over me when my grandfather lifted the disc of cement and placed it atop the pail so the kittens, now helplessly thrashing in the water, could not escape.
I began screaming at my grandparents and ran toward the pail, trying to knock it over and save the kittens. But my grandmother repeatedly shoved me away, knocking me to the ground several times.
Getting on my feet to try again, my grandmother pulled the gardening trowel out of her apron pocket and flung it at me hitting me in the leg.
But the struggle was soon over. On the ground with a bleeding leg, I knew that the kittens had already drowned.
In the silence that followed, I resolved to save my anger for the arrival of my parents in a few days, when I would tell my story, and surely then there would be some form of reckoning.
And when my father’s car pulled up that long driveway of yellow stone I wasted no time in expressing myself.
After I told my story to my parents in no uncertain terms, I waited… while there was some private discussion between them and my grandmother.
Although my parents seemed disturbed by my story, they did nothing. But not only did they do nothing; they did the only thing that could have been worse than doing nothing and took sides with my grandparents. And my mother, minimizing this event into insignificance, flatly said to me, “you are just too sensitive”.
A defining moment, this event marked a painful realization of my mother’s need to protect the image of her parents at all costs regardless of their actions, despite any and all evidence that might indicate otherwise.
The lessons of that summer remained difficult for me to understand. But on an emotional level, I knew that not only were the kittens dead, but my mother’s ability to discern reality was apparently dead as well.
The passage of forty-three years now finds me with notepad and pen counseling those suffering from disorders of the heart, mind and spirit.
For the many clients I work with who live with the enduring effects of domestic violence, trauma and or sexual abuse, the one feature that stands out as the most emotionally damaging, even more so than the event itself, is the betrayal of the victim, after the fact, by those who claimed to love them.
The most profound examples of this are young women who, after confiding that they had been sexually molested by a family member, were in turn either told that they were lying about the incident or blamed for the assault by their own mothers.
And this is the central injury, the deepest cut; the wound that won’t heal. Surpassing even the event itself in its capacity for long-term emotional pain is the betrayal and emotional abandonment by the parent.
When a young person is forced to absorb the trauma of abuse, and is then betrayed by those on whose well being they depended, a lifetime of attitudes and behaviors are formed and maintained to compensate for, and hide from, the underlying pain.
Undeniably, it was the events of my own childhood that first inspired my thirst for knowledge in the humanities. Proficient in expression within other art forms, I could have taken other paths.
My father, a pretty macho guy, had strongly expressed his objection when learning that his youngest son was planning to “waste his time and effort” on the study of psychology. It had always been his opinion that anyone involved in the mental health profession had to be disturbed in his or her own right.
And it was only recently that my now aged father reasserted his heartfelt contempt for the study of psychology, stating that myself, and those like myself, had “ruined the world”.
But despite my father’s irreverent viewpoint I feel that I have come to make the most of things. Indeed, by my father’s standards, and in the court of distortion over which he presides, I am disturbed. But… this disturbance is, and always has been, my compass of truth.
There is an upside for those of us who have experienced life on the other side of reality; the side inhabited by the so called troubled and disturbed.
It is not without notice that those who seem most successful within the helping professions are persons with a natural sense of empathy; the ability to perceive what another person is feeling in a caring and non-exploitive way.
However, you may have noticed that some in the helping professions, despite long lists of academic credentials, are not authentically empathic.
Two clichés that come to mind are the medical doctor standing over his patient asking “and how are we feeling today?” and someone who is in legitimate emotional distress being told to “think happy thoughts”. I wish that these were only clichés, but you and I both know otherwise.
I don’t know if persons are born with an innate sense of empathy. It seems to me however, that those who have experienced a degree of their own suffering are more able to identify with the suffering of others… regardless of the nature of that suffering.
Like most professional endeavors, those in the field of mental health must continue to expand their training and experience in order to seek mastery within their chosen areas of specialty.
And towards this end I am joined by my colleagues in the investment of endless training programs certifying us in this or that, and then attending follow up seminars just so we are granted the privilege of holding on to those certifications.
It was at one such seminar where I was to experience an event not listed on that days agenda of clinical workshops.
Held in a large auditorium, I chose to sit off to the side where there was extra room for my overcoat and briefcase. I was feeling a bit tired, but attributed this to the long drive up to the seminar.
I settled into my seat, and sat quietly as well-dressed professionals filed in to the auditorium. I watched as those who were about to present made final adjustments to their notes.
As the lights were lowered for one of the power point presentations, I found myself experiencing a sense of profound sadness. This gradually escalated to an overall state of anxious grief…accompanied by tears running down my face faster than I could wipe them away with the cuff of my blazer.
The presenter’s monotone voice droned on in the background as I quickly glanced around the dark room, concerned that my tearful and sniffling condition had been noticed by my colleagues.
Clutching a handful of wet tissues, I quietly slipped out of the auditorium. And by the time I located the men’s room in this unfamiliar building, I had become a sobbing emotional wreck.
Slamming the stall’s door behind me, I held tightly onto the chromed coat hook as I loudly and openly wept.
My mind was deafened by the haunting sound of water thrashing in a dented metal pail between two lilac bushes. The sound of a child’s screams, desperately grasping at an old woman’s house dress, and being knocked to the ground before finally being cut by her flying garden trowel.
The gray door of the stall ran wet with tears as I cried like never before. It was a visceral gasping that came from deep within me.
And piercing the sound of the thrashing water were the tiny voices of those kittens… first all together, then steadily quieter, until only one voice remained …and then silence. It was the most horrible silence I have ever experienced.
I couldn’t save them… I tried so hard to save them.
After several minutes of deep breathing I opened the stall door and splashed my face repeatedly with cold water. After drying my shirt, tie and jacket sleeves with the hot air dryer I slowly made my way back to the auditorium. The lights were now up and people were milling around waiting for the next segment of the presentation to start.
A man who had been sitting near me had noticed that I had left the auditorium without returning. He had been thoughtful enough to collect an extra set of handouts that had been distributed at the end of the last segment. As he reached out to give me the papers, he looked me in the eye and delicately asked if I was all right.
No my friend, I am not all right. In fact, I’m not sure that I ever have been all right.
Settling back into my seat with a cup of coffee, I looked around the room and asked myself what we were all really doing there.
We were there, of course, to further our professional development and career opportunities. But beyond this I knew, that at least for more than a few of us gathered there, the reasons ran a little deeper than that.
I think that most of us were there because we sought to help others cope, not only with their own pain, but also to lessen the infliction of pain on others, especially upon those who do not have a voice of their own.
And for all those who have sought my counsel… for their own tears of sadness… I pray that I have been a source of comfort and guidance.
And this I think has been a fitting epitaph; my way of giving a voice to four little kittens who were drowned by the hands of their keepers… between lilacs of blue.