A Worthy Life

by Sylvia True

McLean

Belmont, Massachusetts

1984

Sabine stood in the vestibule and looked at the steel door that had a wire-mesh window. She knew that air was a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen and traces of other gases. She knew there was no molecule that made fear, yet fear was what she breathed on that cold, damp, November night.

She wanted her husband Tanner to press the bell, to show her that he was with her on this.

Instead, he stood behind her and played Eskimo noses with three-month-old Mia, as if they were at home about to eat a spaghetti dinner, not standing at the entrance of a mental hospital.

If she didn’t have a baby maybe she could have kept up the façade of pretending things were fine. But now with Mia to consider, Sabine needed to get better.

When she finally pushed the small red button, a man, wearing a tan sweater and faded jeans, who looked about twenty-six, her age, stepped into the hallway. “Visiting hours were over at eight.” He nodded in the direction of the stairs, as if they should turn around and leave.

Sabine didn’t think she could speak without her voice cracking. She glanced at Tanner, who looked away.

“I saw Dr. Lincoln an hour ago,” she said, the words wavering. “He told me I should come here. To get admitted.”

The man gave a small, tired sigh, not wanting to be bothered, and led them down the hallway. Her head lowered, Sabine took furtive peeks. If there hadn’t been a glassed-in nurses’ station at the end of the corridor, North Belknap Two might have passed for a college dorm, with its wooden doors decorated with posters of rock bands and furry animals, a worn linoleum floor, and the mustiness of an old warehouse.

“You can wait in there.” The man pointed to a dining area with tables of varying shapes and sizes. A few scattered people sat alone.

“Let’s sit at the back.” Sabine wanted to get a sense of the place, to make sure there weren’t any people like in the movies, zombies wearing hospital gowns and spewing nonsense.

Tanner took Mia out of her purple snowsuit. The moment she was out, she kicked her legs and smiled, her dark brown eyes glistening with the joy of being free. Sabine kissed her daughter’s forehead and felt like the luckiest most miserable person alive.

A large man with a mop of disheveled blond hair shuffled in from a swinging side door with a bowl of cereal filled to the brim, milk lapping over the edges. His expression was empty—a medicated flat.

“Maybe we should go,” Sabine said, worried she would be given drugs that would turn her into a husk of a human.

Tanner jumped up, his round eyes wide, nearly black. “Yeah, you don’t belong here.” The hockey scar that ran above his right eye turned an angry red.

But she couldn’t go back to the bed where she couldn’t sleep, to the kitchen she couldn’t clean, to the back steps where only last night she’d done what she promised she wouldn’t do once she had a child. She had lit the cigarette. The smoke stung her lungs and made her dizzy. Then she stared at the burning tip, bright orange with specks of black and gray. She’d brought it close to her wrist, felt the heat of it, and couldn’t resist. The ember point rested on her skin, and a tendril of smoke curled upwards. This kind of pain had always been so much easier to bear.

“Let’s wait,” she told Tanner.

A tall, thin, elderly man walked down the hall with long, loping steps. Maybe he was the doctor. Maybe he would help. But as he approached, Sabine saw his long, yellowed nails and slipper-clad feet. “There’s cyanide in the coffee.” With that he turned and walked away, leaving a vague scent of mold behind.

“Come on, Sabine,” Tanner pleaded. “I’ll stay home from work tomorrow. We’ll figure this out. This place isn’t right.”

If a doctor hadn’t walked into the dining room at that moment and introduced himself, Sabine would have left. He looked like what Sabine imagined a psychiatrist should look like: salt-and-pepper beard, dark hair graying at the temples, and wire rim glasses. The only thing that was a little off was that one of this pant legs was tucked haphazardly into his black sock.

“Sabine Connolly?” he asked.

“Yes,” she answered, feeling excited for a second, as if his knowing her name was some sort of confirmation that this was all going to be fine.

Dr. Baron brought them to a small windowless room next to the nursing station. It was furnished with four blue institutional chairs and a wooden end table that held a box of Kleenex. Sabine reached for a tissue but the box was empty. Strange. For a split second she wondered if it meant something, some sort of sign she shouldn’t ignore. But the thought vanished as she looked at Tanner who bounced Mia on his lap. Sabine sat across from Dr. Baron and made sure the sleeve of her baggy green sweater was covering her burn. She kept her back straight, crossed her feet at the ankles, and smiled, determined to show this admitting doctor that she wasn’t a lost cause—even if her hair was a frizzed-out mess and her eyes were red and swollen.

Dr. Baron glanced down at the clipboard in his hand and sighed. “So, you saw Dr. Lincoln?”

Sabine nodded.

“Depression, with possible mania,” he mumbled more to himself than Sabine.

“I might be a little depressed,” she said. “But nothing else. I just met Dr. Lincoln today for the first time. Maybe I’m really fine.” A part of her hoped this new psychiatrist would tell her there was nothing wrong with her. If he believed she was fine, maybe she’d believe it, and that might stop the panic, the feeling she was walking on a tightrope and about to fall off.

He nodded indifferently, and then asked a series of standard questions. Age, physical health, occupation.

“Mother,” she answered to the question about work, and felt a swell of shame. She dropped out of grad school in biochemistry when the cycle had started there. First came the dreams, then the heightened senses, the sleeplessness and the nights she’d stay out roaming—dancing, smoking, befriending homeless people. Slowly her body grew exhausted, and she crawled up the stairs to her apartment and couldn’t leave for three weeks.

She couldn’t work full time after that. It took an enormous amount of energy to maintain normalcy. There were days the swings were drastic, from wanting to jump off a building to falling in love with the blue sky. The last part-time job she’d had was at an animal shelter, but she stopped that near the end of her pregnancy.

“Do you ever feel euphoric?” Dr. Baron asked.

“I was happy when Mia was born,” she replied, knowing that’s not exactly what he meant.

“Do you ever spend money recklessly?”

She did. “A little shopping here and there.” She thought of the boxes and boxes of oil paints stored in her cellar. Art was going to save her at one point.

“What about hallucinations?”

“None.”

“Any mental illness in the family?”

“Absolutely not.” She was the weak link in an illustrious chain.

He jotted a few notes.

“Will they be able to help me here?” she asked, hoping her desperation didn’t show.

“We will certainly try,” he said flatly and handed her a piece of paper. “If you could just sign the form where the X is, we can get you checked in and show you to your room.”

She glanced at the paper. The top line had the word “voluntary” written in bold. The panic subsided for a moment. She was not going to be trapped.

She signed the form and gave it back to him as Mia began fussing. Tanner handed the baby to Sabine, who put Mia on her breast. Born at ten pounds, she was a healthy baby and a noisy, fast eater.

“There’s a nurse waiting for you,” Dr. Baron explained. “She’ll show you to your room.” He stood and walked to the door. Somehow he seemed shorter than when she’d first met him.

“Wait,” she said. “How many days do you think it will take for me to get better?” The sharpness in her voice surprised her.

“I’m afraid babies are not allowed to spend the night,” he replied, ignoring her question.

“But I nurse her.” Sabine snapped her bra closed, pulled down her sweater that smelled of wet wool, and wrapped her arms around Mia.

“I’m sure she will do fine on formula.” He looked down at his feet and straightened his pant leg.

Get out. The voice was clear, as if the woman was sitting right next to Sabine. But she knew better. She didn’t turn, didn’t give away that she’d heard something the others hadn’t.

“I won’t leave my baby.” Sabine glanced at Tanner, who had scooted forward on his chair, his hands rubbing his knees, his eyes glancing around nervously, as if he might be the next one to get trapped. “You can’t just stop breastfeeding like that,” she told Dr. Baron.

“I am sure this is very hard.”

“I can’t stay.” The words came out hushed and terrified.

Tanner stood. Sabine looked up at him. She’d leave with him. They couldn’t stop her. Could they? Tomorrow she would find another plan.

“The form you signed states that you have to stay for at least three days. Three business days. Weekends don’t count,” Dr. Baron informed.

Tanner put his hands on the baby.

“It was voluntary,” she said, holding onto Mia as she glanced around the room, looking for something, anything that might help. A part of her wanted the voice to talk to her, tell her what to do.

“Good luck,” Dr. Baron said, and walked out.

Sabine stared at the door.

Tanner tugged Mia away and put her back in the purple snowsuit. Sabine’s hands clapped her chest. She wanted to protect herself, and Mia. And stop the small shoots of splintering pain. It hurt to breathe.

“We should have left before.” Tanner zipped the snowsuit.

“They can’t stop me,” Sabine said. “I’m walking out with you.”

The door opened and a woman with short hair who introduced herself as Nurse Nancy walked in.

“I’m leaving with my husband and baby,” Sabine told her.

“If you try to walk out we will have to restrain you,” Nurse Nancy said too perkily.

Sabine glared at Tanner, who glanced sideways, looking at the door. He was ready to bolt. She was to blame for getting stuck in here. She’d found Dr. Lincoln’s name in the yellow pages that morning. She’d asked Tanner to take her, she’d pressed the red buzzer—and signed the form. But that was before she knew they would take Mia.

“I’ll accompany you to the door where you can say goodbye,” Nancy explained.

Sabine walked next to Tanner, clutching Mia’s mittened hand.

The man who let them in opened the steel door and stood in front of Sabine making sure she wouldn’t try to escape. A dull static pulsed through her. How many years had she feared a place like this? How many dreams had she had about it? How many warnings?

There was the episode in college with the orange Tabby cat she had killed. It had attacked her one night, in her dorm room, leaped at her, like a demon, flying through the air with its four paws aiming at her chest, claws extended. It gripped her T-shirt and hissed. Just as it was about to sink its fangs into her face, she ripped it off by the scruff of its neck and slammed its body against the wall. It whimpered. For a second when Sabine had a pang of remorse, she loosened her grip, and the Tabby lunged. This time she hit it against the wall with more force. There was a high-pitched wail and then a whimper of defeat. Its limp body, a large clump of fur, was stained red.

The Tabby had befriended her, slipping in at night, and curling up on her pillow. His sandpapery tongue licked her cheek as she drifted into her nightmares. When she woke screaming, he would settle her by gently pawing at her chest, rhythmically. She never really understood how he got in, and she didn’t want to spend time pondering the question. Because she needed him. Her room was on the first floor of one of the old brick dorms. The windows were rickety, and she didn’t lock her door. So there were possibilities.

The night she killed him, as she stood paralyzed in the middle of the room, holding him at arm’s length, someone knocked.

“Come in,” she called.

It was the RA, Cindy, a studious senior, who loved following rules. “You were screaming.”

Sabine lifted her hand, to show Cindy the cat. Only there wasn’t a cat. And Sabine could see the confusion on Cindy’s face.

“Just a bad dream,” Sabine said, and turned to face the window. Of course there had never been a cat. And thankfully her slips into delusion only happened occasionally. At night. When she was alone. A blessing. A relief not to have to explain. Not to get thrown in some institution that would lock her up.

Yet here she was. Inevitably.

Now she stood on the linoleum floor, feeling paralyzed as she watched her daughter’s purple hood descend through the wire-mesh window.

Arlesheim, Switzerland

1984

Inga pressed her fingers on the envelope, enjoying its thickness. Yes, there would be parts of this long letter from her daughter that rambled, but that didn’t matter much. She would read Lisbet’s letter at least three times. It would take half the morning, which would make the rest of the day breeze by. The drab, vague emptiness would be lifted today.

She used her silver letter opener and began reading, skimming the first two pages that detailed the weather. Then came stories about Lisbet’s skating students, then something interesting about Inga’s grandson, about how the bank he was working for insisted on paying him a higher salary. Page six had a sweet account of a bunny in the garden, and then suddenly, Inga read a sentence that didn’t belong. She took off her glasses, rubbed her eyes, and tried again. But the words didn’t change.

She put the letter down and held onto the edge of the desk. The walls looked a shade darker, and the pine tree outside of the window appeared almost black rather than green. She remembered herself as a young woman, kneeling next to a hospital bed. Vials of medicine littered the floor. A metal bowl with traces of yellow stomach fluid sat next to her.

After a minute or two, she felt more settled and wiped her brow with her handkerchief. She made herself a cup of tea and returned to her desk. The fir tree was once again its handsome forest green, and she was once again herself. She reached for the miniature painting that sat on the top shelf. In it, her sister Rigmor wore a red gown that showed off her slender shoulders and porcelain skin. But it was her stance, deferential and poised, that revealed her soul.

Forty-nine years ago, when Inga and her mother left Germany (she did not like the word fled), the large portrait of Rigmor that hung in the main drawing room had stayed behind. She had taken the miniature that the artist painted as a sample.

Rigmor had always been Inga’s better half. Yes, the phrase was used for spouses, but it was better suited, at least in Inga’s case, for a sister. Interesting, how in the past few days, even before the letter had arrived, she had been drawn to the portrait.

She straightened her spine and picked up the letter once more. In the ten pages Lisbet had written, there was only that one line, a deathblow of a sentence, cushioned in trivialities.

Sabine has been put in an asylum with the name of McLean.

Inga went to the kitchen where she put three jars of her homemade jam in a basket. Then she slipped on her winter tweed coat, put the letter in her handbag, and set out to visit Arnold.

A year ago, she had not been entirely pleased when he reentered her life, but she had come to look forward to visiting him, to reading him the correspondences from her daughter. Their conversations brought comfort to her, perhaps because he’d known her in her prime. He’d seen her at her best…and her worst.

Her right hip nagged with arthritis as she climbed the hill that led to the nursing home, called, of all things, The Sonnen Heim. The Sun Home. How odd that so many institutions used the word sun in their name, as if they were trying to mask the darkness inside their walls. At the door, Inga composed herself and pressed the bell.

“Frau Sommer,” the matron exclaimed. “I don’t believe we were expecting you this afternoon.” Inga heard a slight disapproval.

“I have come for an informal visit and was hoping Arnold would be available.”

“Of course.” She gave a small, almost imperceptible bow. “Will you wait in the green room?”

Inga placed her basket on a chair in the foyer. Invited or not, she never arrived empty handed.

The green room, a small lounge that looked onto the gardens, was furnished with a beige couch and two burgundy colored armchairs. Inga sat on the smaller chair and perched her handbag on her lap, gripping the thin leather strap. The room had the advantage of good light, and the disadvantage of harboring one of the worst paintings of the Matterhorn that Inga had ever seen.

A nurse wheeled Arnold in. As he met Inga’s gaze, he did not hide his concern. His brow furrowed, and the right side of his mouth, the working side, curved downward.

The moment the nurse was gone, he asked, “What has happened?”

“Are they feeding you well?” she asked.

“My dear Inga. That is not why you are here.”

She pulled a handkerchief from the breast pocket of her starched blouse and kneaded it. He waited, his eyes looking like marbles under thin sheets of tissue paper.

She undid the clasp on her handbag, took out the letter, and found the page.

“The third sentence in the second paragraph,” she said. She handed the paper to him. “It is underlined.”

She watched him read and thought of the day he had surprised her, over a year ago. He had knocked on the door of her chalet and stood in front of her in a three-piece suit, holding a cane. She’d recognized him immediately, though it had been forty-eight years since she’d last seen him. He still had all of his hair; it had turned completely white. She had no idea what to say. They had promised each other there would be absolutely no contact. No letters, telegrams, or phone calls. He had honored the agreement until that point.

He said he had come to see her one last time, for a final truce. Truce seemed the wrong word. She agreed to meet him for dinner later in Basel, but only with the promise that he would not speak of their time together before the war.

The evening had been more pleasant than she expected, and she had enjoyed his stories about his work in the States and was pleased that he’d found love. A month later he phoned from a hospital in Basel. He’d had a stroke after their dinner, and his left side was paralyzed.

He had no one left. Not in Germany or the States, and so she found a nursing home in her village and took meticulous care of the logistics in getting him placed there. She even helped with some of the expenses. Rationally, she knew she owed him nothing, but it saddened her to imagine him so alone.

“Well?” Inga asked now.

“Tell me again, how old is Sabine?”

“Twenty-six,” she replied.

“And there were no signs?”

“A touch of melodrama as a child,” Inga said. “Certainly nothing recent that I was told of.” But Lisbet had often kept Inga on the outside, viewing her as meddling and even controlling, regardless of Inga’s good intentions.

“She just had a baby, did she not?” Arnold asked.

“Yes.” Inga nodded.

“Perhaps it’s nothing more than a post-partum depression.”

From where Inga sat she could see the words, Sabine has been put. Inga thought of Lisbet, of how she would not be able to manage this, how she would put her head in the sand. Inga loved her daughter, even though she did not always understand her.

“I doubt you really believe that,” she said and snatched the letter from Arnold’s lap. For a moment tears stung her eyes. The thought of Sabine in some institution, forlorn and in distress, pained Inga. She fought to regain her composure as she stared down at the Oriental carpet.

“Inga,” Arnold said gently. “You must not jump to conclusions. There is not enough information yet, to assume something terrible.”

The air felt close, the room hot. She folded the letter and fanned herself with it. “Then I suppose it will be up to me to get the information. I will go there myself.”

“Surely Lisbet will go; she can tell you what you need to know.” He took a breath. The stroke made it difficult for him to talk sometimes. “I think it’s unwise to rush.”

“I am not rushing, and Lisbet will not go.” Lisbet was likely fretting and rubbing an eyebrow. Such a tall, handsome woman, kind too, but with the disposition of a nervous mouse. “Sabine could be on a ward with truly mad people, or be given the wrong diagnosis.”

He sighed. “Things are different now. Very different. Medicine has come a long way. There are some excellent drugs.” He put a hand on the arm of her chair. “You mustn’t worry.”

She felt as if she had a piece of coal inside of her chest, black carbon that had been inert for many years, and had just now begun to smolder again. “Yes, of course I know times are different.” She pressed a hand on her heart. “But I cannot just sit in Arlesheim and wait for a letter that may or may not come and may or may not have any useful information. I cannot do nothing.”

“You could make some phone calls,” he suggested.

She shook her head. “It is always best to have conversations face-to-face, especially when there is difficulty, and the chance of misunderstandings.”

“Your hip is bad. You are not young. I worry this will be difficult for you.”

She held up her chin. “It is true, I am not in my twenties, but my granddaughter is ill, and she will need me.”

“Inga.” He sighed. “I fear a journey like this could put you in a precarious situation.”

“Nonsense,” she told him.

They sat in silence. She glanced at the dappled window pane and thought that this felt familiar, the two of them together in disagreement.

“The weather is miserable,” she said.

He gave his lopsided smile. “Is that what you’d like to talk about?”

“My decision is firm.” She opened her handbag and placed the letter inside.

“May I ask something?” he began.

She nodded.

“What do you think Sabine might in fact need?”

Inga felt as if there was a large, invisible hand on her back, pushing her forward. Saving, she thought. Although that sounded lofty and pretentious. She only said, “Sabine will need someone.”

Arnold tugged at the faded collar of his shirt. “You are strong. But…” he hesitated. “But on the inside we are all vulnerable.”

Of course she was vulnerable. More now than when she had arrived thirty minutes ago. Exactly the opposite of what she’d hoped for. It might have been nice for him to have shown some faith in her.

“I will not be talked out of going,” she said, gripping the strap of her handbag.

He bent his head, relenting. “I know of the hospital mentioned in the letter. An old colleague of mine has a top position there. It’s not a lot, but it’s all I can offer.”

“Very kind of you,” she said, sounding colder than she intended.

“You may very well help Sabine. But please, you must also look after yourself. Don’t only stay at the hospital. Go for a walk or out to a nice dinner.” He paused. “And if it gets to be too much, and you can’t manage, call me.”

The surface of his eyes had been altered by cataracts, but the essence of them, the kindness, hadn’t changed from the first time she’d met him many years ago in her family home in Frankfurt. He had come to them highly recommended, eager and naïve, perhaps too ordinary a man to take on what lay ahead.

The walk home to her chalet was more difficult than Inga had expected. The damp weather had seeped into her hip, which ached sharply. And though nothing Arnold said would deter her, the apprehension she’d been feeling earlier was now doubled.

But she simply had to go. She owed it to Sabine, to Lisbet, and to Rigmor.

About the Author

Sylvia True

I have published one novel, THE WEDNESDAY GROUP, with St. Martin’s Press. I was born in Manchester, England. Both sides of my family fled from Nazi Germany. My mother’s family moved to Switzerland, and my father’s family ended up in England. My mother, who was a champion figure skater, met my father in Manchester, where he was a professor of theoretical physics. Later they moved with their children to Chicago, where I was raised.