8 years I’ve been in therapy.
7 years is how long H has been my therapist.
6 years old: the age I was when my mom and I were saved from the hell we’d been living.
5 weeks went by before I was allowed to my see my mom again.
4 months I sat in a chair facing a window, ignoring H while she patiently waited me out.
3 months after my fifteenth birthday my mom told me she was dying.
2 weeks of silence is all I had to say to anyone.
1 year later she was gone.
As soon as she’s through my office door, Nora is ripping the headphones from her iPod. I could hear the music blasting when I went to get her from the waiting room. I don’t recognize the song, but I recognize her mood. She throws the headphones on my desk, and I watch as she plugs in the tiny pink piece of technology into the speaker that sits on my desk, just for her. I anticipate the song she chooses, but only silence follows. She remains unmoving as I make my way around my desk and lean against it so that I’m not quite facing her. We’ve done this dance for years now, but it’s the music that plays that will lead the way. After a few minutes I look to her, where she’s watching me. I can read everything on her face, I always have. Even as an angry, hateful nine-year-old, I saw what no one else did. She wasn’t just a file that held details about a child no one would want to read, not when the child’s suffering happened at the hands of her father. All I really need to know about Nora comes from her face. In the beginning, this was the saving grace for both of us. I could see what she wanted to say, but Nora didn’t know how to communicate it. Expressing herself through speaking wasn’t something she was comfortable with, and I realized this about her immediately. It didn’t take long for the two of us to come up with our own language. I’ve never had this connection with any of my patients, not before Nora, and not since.
Today, everything about her screams uncertainty. As safe as Nora feels with me, she will always default to self-doubt. Years of our therapy sessions together, both inside these four walls, and other places we’ve found ourselves, has allowed her to work through an emotion that was once so crippling, Nora would pass out. Today, I am confident she’ll get past this place of uncertainty. Still, knowing that Nora often needs me to make the first move during these silent conversations, I kick off my shoes, pull my hair back, and sit across from her in my desk chair. Tucking my long legs under me, I reach for my phone, searching.
I love my sessions with Nora. She is always my last patient of the day. As a person, I’ve always felt a pull to help others find their way back from whatever derailed them. As a therapist, this almost never happens. There isn’t a lot of satisfaction or reward, or even a sense of accomplishment. With Nora, it’s different. I can reach her, feel her energy, and while I’ve no doubt come to love her, the connection between us still isn’t something I can understand. It goes beyond doctor-patient, to a place I can’t define.
I feel the air around us lighten as I scroll through my ever-growing library of songs. I find what I’m looking for and set my phone on my desk, swiveling my chair in time with the music. Looking away, Nora visibly relaxes. Sitting in one of the chairs, she folds her arms across my desk and rests her chin. It takes seconds for the entire mood inside my office to shift. Calm and peaceful, I close my eyes and let the words speak from my soul to Nora’s. She lets the song play twice before pausing it. Chin still resting on her folded arms, her eyes meet mine.
“A boy likes me.” she whispers. In those four words I hear a thousand that don’t follow.
Nora is 16. Her dark eyes always make you look twice. And I know more than just one boy is crushing on her with that face. Even in her anger, her hurt, or her tears, she’s beautiful. But when that smile comes out, it’s contagious. Everyone only sees that stoic, serious face that is so intriguing. She draws people to her without trying, without wanting to. Her social skills are no longer severely underdeveloped, but this doesn’t mean she’ll ever have the confidence to use them. To others, Nora is quiet, shy, and reserved. To me, she was a broken little girl that’s grown into an adjusted teenager who still can’t quite trust anyone. Her dark, wavy, wild hair matches the chaotic soul inside she desperately tries to control. But just like half a bottle of leave in conditioner tames her wild curls, music tames her wild mind. But it hasn’t cured her. She still has significant social anxiety. A boy crushing on Nora is a waking nightmare for her. I know this can’t be the first time a boy has shown an interest in her, but it seems to be the first time she’s noticed. After witnessing the things her father did to her mother when he wasn’t laying his hands on her, it’s not surprising that Nora avoids these types of relationships at all costs.
“Do you know a lot about him?”
“He’s in every single class I have. He’s not loud.” Loud is Nora’s word for anything that attracts attention. “I don’t want him to like me. I don’t want anyone to like me.” All these years with Nora, and she can still make me fight back tears. But I find comfort in what we’re talking about. This is a normal, teenage girl worry. We aren’t discussing anger issues, or the fact that tomorrow Nora will be sitting with her mom as she goes through another chemo treatment. These are the observations that make for notes I eagerly add to her files. She has too many notes and comments about setbacks.
“We can’t control what others see or feel when they look at us.”
Nora sighs in annoyance, but it makes me smile. She knows what I’m going to say next.
“But we can control our own reactions. Yeah, I know…” she trails off, leaving silence. I let her be, knowing she would tell me in one way or another what was really bothering her. I scroll through the iPod, hoping she’ll speak before I find a song to speak for her. These are the signs I watch out for, that tell me where Nora’s head is, and whether she’s in a good place or lost inside herself.
“What is my reaction supposed to be?”
N O R A
I wish I could feel at ease around other people. I want to be able to laugh with friends. I want to have friends. But whether it’s the classmates I’m currently shutting out, or strangers I can’t evade, ignoring everyone has worked for me for so long. It’s a habit I’m convinced keeps me safe. Everything is different with H, though. The only person I trusted was my mom, and then H came into my life. She wasn’t loud, but she wasn’t soft, either. She was safe and familiar, a stranger that felt like home. It made no sense, but I never questioned it. There were never any questions to ask, just answers I didn’t know I needed.
Of all the answers H has given me over the years, none have been as important as music. Music, for me, is the answer to everything. When the chaos inside of me reaches the point of crippling weight, music sorts out the feelings and emotions that I can’t. And when the words I can’t speak overflow my brain, music is how I release them. It’s how I let my mom and H know I love them, I need them, I’m not okay, I need you to hold me, don’t touch me, but don’t leave me, yesterday was hard, but I’m so happy today, so please stop worrying. I am a mess of contradicting emotions, and music is my translator.
I wonder who I would be today if my past wasn’t so intricately woven into all of my tomorrows. Before I started therapy, I never gave a second thought to my lack of communication. Silence was armor that sometimes kept me safe from angry, violent hands. Silence kept me from saying the wrong words, words I’ve witnessed bring my mom to her knees. They weren’t meant to hurt her. They were meant to save my mom from him.
I never come near to what I want to say. Staying mute is safer than the words I can’t ever seem to get to come out right. The sounds my mother made that night, and the sight of her inconsolable on the floor, used to be a relentless loop inside of my head. It was a constant reminder that something I said caused that amount of pain for the only person in my life that I loved – until H made me see how my silence tortured my mom as much as it did me.
“Nora?” I look up at the sound of my teacher’s voice interrupting my thoughts. Without looking at the time, I know why she’s calling for me. As I gather my things, I wonder how many more times I’ll be doing this.
I don’t have to wonder for long. As I reach the front office, I feel two things before I see H. The first is H herself. I’ve always been able to feel her presence without actually seeing her. She’s hard not to notice, though. It’s difficult to tell what you see first: her towering height, or the bright red hair. Her pale skin, thin frame, and beauty scream “runway model” and not “I make the world a safer place by medicating all your local psychos.”
The second feeling is a crushing weight of panic. It’s not supposed to be her picking me up at this specific time of day.
I freeze where I am for a second, before I’m hyperaware of everyone around me. H has me out of the school doors seconds later, away from the stares, away from the sympathetic looks that are killing me inside. The silence inside of H’s car is too loud, and before I can reach for my iPod, she turns the car on. The song that plays tells me everything. No thought enters my mind without being obliterated by the lyrics singing the truth. There is no chance for the “maybe” or “what if” scenarios to comfort me. Music deals the hard blow with sweet melodies and heavy words.
When we reach the hospital, I want nothing more than the safe confines of my room, where I can be alone. Instead, we walk into a loud room full of beeping, voices, humming machines, and feelings I can’t keep at bay. The room feels claustrophobic with nurses and doctors and their grim faces, rushed movements, and lack of eye contact. The only stillness comes from the bed, where my mom sleeps peacefully. I don’t know what my face looks like, but it must mirror the terror I feel inside because H comes behind me and wraps her arms around me. For a second, as she pulls me to her, I think she’s crying, but it’s not her. It’s not her shaking quietly, not realizing that she’s falling apart. I can’t make my body go to her, can’t move my feet closer to the bed. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not yet. We were supposed to have more time.
I push back against H, desperate to be somewhere where this isn’t happening. She’s solid behind me, though, and the only move she makes is to bend to my ear.
“Just go to her, Nora. She can feel you, and she can hear. Just tell her.” I hear H’s words, but it’s what she presses into my hand that makes sense. I don’t have to look to know what it is, and I grip it like a lifeline as I go to my mom.
She’s dying. It’s not like I didn’t know it was coming, but nothing seems real until you’re crawling into a hospital bed with a body that’s been cold to the touch for too long, and pulling out headphones to listen to a song that leads to goodbye.
She doesn’t move. She’s under layers of blankets. For the last few months, nothing had been able to warm her up. Everything else about her, though, especially her smile, stayed warm. Looking at her now, I panic at suddenly not being able to vividly see her smiling in my head. How could I have lost this already? Before I can be pulled under by this thought, music fills my ears. At first, I think H must’ve set up this iPod, but then I recognize the song. There is only one voice that could sing to me the words my mother can’t speak to me, and for the rest of my life, that voice would be the most significant one that I would associate with the most important person in my life to leave me behind. There would be days to come where the headphones wouldn’t come away from my ears, days where I shut the entire world out so that it was just me, that voice, and my mom. The days will also come, fast and hard, where I won’t be able to hear that voice without feeling like someone lit me on fire. Fire burns and blisters, and it destroys whatever it touches, so that the only proof something existed is because those who once loved them have them safely tucked into a back corner of their minds. Songs will coax them from that dark space and the right lyrics will put them back when it’s too much.
No, this wasn’t from H. This song, these words, came from someone else.
“Mom.” I whisper. But there’s only silence from her. So, I put her song to me on repeat and close my eyes, ignoring the world outside of us. This was all I needed and everything I didn’t want.
I watch the scenes unfold. I watch helplessly, frustrated that there is absolutely nothing that I can do. I can’t stop Ruby’s suffering, and the rippled effect it’s created. We’ve all started to feel it, but I’m feeling it on different levels. I watch as her daughter’s therapist. I watch as her daughter’s protector.
I watch as someone I love slips away, faster than I can prepare the other person I love for this very loss. Time spent together as strangers in stressful, sensitive situations brought about trust and a unique bond between the three of us. When Ruby was required to attend therapy sessions she saw another doctor outside of my practice. We thought it was best that Ruby speak to someone who had no association or personal connection with Nora. Ruby had wounds that needed healing, too, pain that existed outside of Nora’s. I never refused Ruby my friendship, though, whether it came to her, or Nora. Months of progress, setbacks, reluctant smiles, emergency sessions, and panicked phone calls made us a family. We ate dinner together once a month, and had movie nights. Girls night out with Ruby was equivalent to my time with Nora; it was something fulfilling in my life. The time I give Nora helps her grow, but what Ruby gave me in those moments when it was just the two of us, two women only a few years apart in age, but living significantly different lives, is impossible to put into words. On a professional level, I understood why Nora needed music to communicate her feelings. But it wasn’t until I got to know Ruby that I was able to truly comprehend this overwhelming emotion on a personal level with Nora. What Ruby unknowingly gave me that particular night was a gift to both me and her daughter.
“How many different ways did you imagine your future?”
“An embarrassing amount.” My answer makes Ruby laugh, the darkness surrounding us making it seem louder. We’re at a comfortable place together after nearly two years, but I can feel things starting to shift as we grow closer. Our roles are becoming less “therapist and worried mother of a traumatized child” and more of a friendship between two adult women who still feel like we don’t know what the hell we are doing. “I only ever imagined my future going one way, and I think that’s where I fucked up.” I turn away from the stars to find Ruby watching them like all our answers are somewhere in between them. “Because it didn’t go like you thought it would, and now you have no idea what to do?” Ruby smiles before she narrows her eyes at me, asking, “Friend or therapist?” It’s my turn to smile while I roll my eyes and answer, “Friend. Always friend. I thought helping people would be the easiest thing in the world. I never imagined I’d get so invested in someone, and then never know what happened to them. Never know if I helped them enough to stay alive, or to build a better life that made them want to stay alive. It’s not something I’ll ever get used to.”
Ruby nods, eyes shining. “All I wanted was a family. A husband, kids, pets, baseball and soccer games, photo albums full of family vacations. All of that boring shit. Instead of being the mom that went on class field trips and made cookies for the bake sale, I became the single mom that rearranges her schedule for court ordered mother-daughter therapy sessions.” Eyes on the stars, she reaches out her hand, and I’m already grabbing it. “I would’ve done anything to save my little girl. So, I locked away that dream and focused on building a new dream, even though I had no idea what that was. I was scared shitless that first year we started therapy. My baby was gone, and I knew I had to do something before I lost her forever.” We’re both staring at a blurry sky, our gripped hands keeping us grounded. “You saved her, Brooke. I will never know how to thank you. But I’ll always keep trying to show you how grateful I am that you love her as fiercely as I do.” For the first time I can’t understand what I’m feeling, and after hours of restless sleep, I finally have the realization that this is exactly what Nora goes through. Taking a cue from her, I pull up one of her many playlists saved on my laptop. I scan the songs, unsure of what I’m looking for, and settle on putting everything on shuffle. Six songs in, it happens. My head is full of so much that it’s easier to let it go running off out of control. I don’t know how long the song plays before my mind is so empty that I don’t realize my eyes are open, and I’ve been staring at the ceiling. It’s like the words chased away the thoughts that didn’t belong and put the rest in a sequence I could understand. I am momentarily paralyzed at what just happened, overwhelmed at the abrupt absence of being overwhelmed.
I play the memories over in my head as I watch my best friend sleeping serenely, when just hours ago I was sure I was watching her die. The sounds of pain that came from her will never leave my memory. I’m grateful Nora hadn’t been here to witness any of that. What she’s getting now is what she needs. Silence, so that she can speak. Silence, so that she can hear. Months ago, Ruby had asked me to help her come up with a playlist for Nora when the time came. What started out as a good-bye turned into something so much more. And what should’ve been another weekly chemo visit has turned into what I’m unable to acknowledge.
Hours go by without incident. Nora is another appendage to Ruby, the two of them lying in the hospital bed, one blissfully unaware and the other far too fragile to be in the center of all of this. I can’t tell if Nora is going through the playlist, or if she’s stuck on one song, but she’s got her headphones in each of their ears. In this moment, we are secluded in this tiny hospital room, with its suffocating lack of light. There are no windows and the dull, colorless walls only reinforce the fact that this room has seen the death of many. I’m afraid to stay how we are, because I know the longer we do, the more pieces Nora will shatter into when the time comes. We’ve skipped over all those preparations for hospice, a time that Nora would’ve been able to adjust at a slower pace, and gone straight to the end instead. The end that comes two days later.
8 agonizing days went by before Nora shed a tear.
7 different times I tried to tell her.
6 songs played on repeat.
5 weeks later she finally listened to something different.
4 days later I finally told her.
3 times she told me she hated me.
2 days in a row I woke up with Nora sleeping on the floor beside my bed.
1 month from now will be the biggest test of our relationship.
N O R A
I never thought the day would come when music would betray me. When I’ve needed it most, when the emotions inside of me have been as contradicting and confusing as ever, music has turned everything into a knotted mess more tangled than my headphones. Some days I listen to the playlist my mom left me from morning until night. Other days, I can’t stand the sight of my iPod. One song leaves me calm, but the next leaves me drowning with doubt about everything. And because I can’t figure out one feeling from the other, I resort to the one I know so well.
I can’t remember the last time I screamed at H. I can’t recall the last time I felt this much anger towards her. I do know the first time I felt hatred towards her because it was just a few days ago. I spoke the words “I hate you” with so much emotion that my throat burned for hours after. It hurt just as much the next two times I shouted it in her face. I can’t face in her the light, so I go to her in the safety of shadows and silence at night. In these quiet moments, I can feel it. That connection with H has never been as strong as it has since I came to stay with her weeks ago. It’s the source of all my confusion, and not one song has come close enough to speak what I can’t make sense of, the words I need H to hear. Thirty-nine words you won’t find in a song keep me company when I can’t sleep, something that is just as torturous.
I’m not angry at her. I’m hurting, I feel lost, and the anchor that has always secured me to earth is giving me the distance I don’t want, but most certainly deserve. And I know the reason H isn’t pushing me is because she’s just as confused. We have a new dance with no music to lead us, leaving us stumbling over each other’s feet, with one of us occasionally knocking the other down.
I’m reminded of those first months when I started seeing H, who was Miss Brooke back then. By the time she got to me, I’d already seen more psychiatrists and psychologists than the years she’d been in practice. It didn’t matter though, for me or for her. She didn’t treat me like I was the damaged, fragile child every other therapist had. And she wasn’t just another doctor I was afraid to talk to. I didn’t know what she was, I just knew I felt comfortable with her, nothing like how I’d felt with all the others. It would take a few years before I would be able to define Miss Brooke, but from that point on, I would always refer to her as “H.” I’ve never shared with her why I call her this, and she’s never asked. I feel like my mom might’ve known, though. I’m not sure why, I just always had the feeling she understood. It was like I suddenly knew how to breathe again, and she knew as much as I did that it was entirely because of H.
I’m on the verge of sleep with memories of times that my mom, H, and I would spend together outside of therapy when the song comes to me.
On that third morning I wake up to an odd feeling. All night I had dreams of the court hearing we are supposed to have in a month, the one that will legally make me Nora’s guardian. It takes a few seconds before I realize that my alarm clock isn’t going off. Instead, music is playing. I sit up, expecting Nora to be on my floor again, but I’m alone. I sit back with a sigh, unsure of whether the knot in my heart is bigger than the one in my stomach. I know I need to be easier on both myself and Nora, considering what we’ve been through. And if I let the psychiatrist in me do her job, I could admit that we are both coping with normal behaviors and emotions. But I am no longer Nora’s therapist.
A brief pause in the music grabs my attention, and I realize that the song is on repeat. I sit up, a piece of paper just within reach on my bed. Just as I turn my head, letting the music fill my ears, my eyes fill with tears with a heartbreaking recognition at what I’m reading.
Hello, good morning, how you do? What makes your rising sun so new?
I could use a fresh beginning, too, all of my regrets are nothing new.
Hello, good morning, how you been? Yesterday left my head kicked in.
I never, never thought that I would fall like that, never knew that I could hurt this bad.
So this is the way that I say I need you
This is the way the I’m learning to breathe, I’m learning to crawl
I’m finding that you and you alone can break my fall.
It’s the very first song Ruby added to Nora’s playlist, the one that gave her the idea to create one in the first place. When I heard the words, sitting alone in my living room later that night, I wanted no more part of this project. How could I? These were the words Nora was going to need because her mother would no longer be around. She was overcoming one betrayal at the hands of one parent and falling headfirst right into another tragedy from the other.
For the first time, I allow myself to cry – the hard, painful kind, a reaction I’ve always had to fight when it came to Nora. But this time is different. This time Nora belongs to me. And the way Ruby and I left this detail unfinished can only be blamed on me now. We talked many times about how to tell Nora that I’d be her legal guardian if Ruby died before her eighteenth birthday. Aside from the legal documents, though, we never could settle on how to tell Nora. It was as if we were sealing Ruby’s fate if we solidified this last detail, and so we foolishly left it unfinished in the only way we could.
To admit this has backfired is the easy way out. Finding a way to apologize in Nora’s language was going to be hard on us both, but I’m the only one that deserves this pain. My first opportunity to protect Nora is a glaringly obvious fuck up on my part. A small part of me holds onto the fact that I know where Nora stands, with a bigger part of me acknowledging that she reached out on her own to show me. I know exactly how to bridge this gap, and then I can let Nora cross it at her own pace. I just need to be patient.
N O R A
I’ve had my ear up to my wall for an hour, listening for anything to come from H’s room on the other side of our adjoining walls. The only sound is my song to H, playing on repeat. I start to get worried around the same time my neck starts to hurt. I wait another twenty minutes before the tears become too hard to hold back. The ache inside of me is worse than my neck. I let myself fall back onto the floor, where I can still faintly hear the music. I reach for my phone to play something else so I don’t have to listen to it. When I touch the screen to pick a song, a text comes through, and I accidentally open it instead. It’s from H, and it’s something shared from her iTunes. A song I’ve never heard. I wait, letting the magic of this language work its way throughout me, putting my insides together, and feel it settle into the parts that are so hard to control. I listen as I’m told, over and over again, that this is the day. This is the day that my life will surely change. Things will fall into place. Eight times he sings me these words, and eight times I believe him.
I’m so entranced by the song that I don’t even feel H watching me from my door. She joins me on the floor as the song finishes, and takes my hand. Her green eyes are bright, the pale skin on her face flushed. I’ve only seen H cry once or twice, but I always know when she’s sad or upset when there’s color in her face.
“We didn’t know how to tell you.”
“We fucked up.”
“This is going to happen again. We can’t help it. But we’ll figure it out, we always have. One day this might feel like home to you, but know that nothing can ever replace your real home…Nora?” I hear H call my name as I run out of my room, looking for a box I had yet to unpack. I find it in the front room, and when I open it, what I’m looking for is sitting on top, waiting to be opened at the perfect moment.
This is the moment. This is the day our lives are going to change. I turn around when I hear her come behind me, my H. I silently hand her the envelope, and watch as she sits down to open it and begins reading. It won’t take her but a minute, and so I wait for her to read those thirty-nine words that have filled the cracks inside of me since the day I met H.
Hiraeth: a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home that maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning for a homely feeling; an expression for the bond you feel to someone or something that feels like home.
I read the words on the paper, not quite understanding. They feel familiar, despite the fact I’ve never heard of this expression. I read them over again, trying to make the connection, trying to understand why-
H. When I look up at Nora she’s patiently standing there, this look on her face I will never forget. When she comes to me, I pull her onto my lap. I’m a blubbering mess, holding Nora tight, as she calmly lets me fall apart. She’s so tiny compared to me, but it feels like she fits perfectly.
“I didn’t know what the word was until years after I met you, but this feeling has been there since that first day. I didn’t know I was homesick until I sat with you in your office. But more than anything, you are my hiraeth because you are my someone that feels like home.”
“An expression for the bond you feel to someone that feels like home.” I whisper. “That’s why you call me H?” My red hair falls over her brown hair when she nods, and I know she’s out of words. I pull her to me even tighter, her head over my heart, both of us content to stay in this moment.
We are finally home.
E P I L O G U E
Later that same night, I find another piece of paper inside the envelope from Nora. As I unfold it, a newspaper clipping falls out, one that I recognize immediately because I have the same one pressed between the pages of my mother’s favorite book. The handwriting in the letter catches my eye.
My dear friend,
My mom always told me that any sacrifice, any good deed, and any kind act, no matter how small or big, was worth the effort because you didn’t know the impact it could have on someone. It might be all they needed to turn their day around, or it might just be as important as making them want to see the next day. Brooke, what you do matters. Please don’t ever doubt this.
I know you’re confused about the newspaper article, the one about the woman who was kept on life support for two months so that her baby could live. That woman knew she wouldn’t survive the car accident she’d been in and begged her doctor to save her baby, no matter what. As you know, that doctor kept her promise. That doctor, who was my mother, kept the promise she made to her best friend, who also happened to be my godmother. I was about four when she died, so I don’t remember much about her, the woman who saved her baby. My own mother died before Nora was born, but she made me promise every time she told that story that I would name my first daughter after my godmother. She never knew what became of the baby. The father raised her, and they moved away without a word, days after she was born. The only information she had was the baby’s name, the same as her mother’s.
I once told you I would risk anything to save Nora. This included taking a chance on a new therapist for her, except that the one I happened to find wasn’t just new, she was hardly experienced. Something about you made me feel safe, though, and I knew my daughter would be safe with you, too.
My mom saved the baby of her best friend, who then grew up to save the baby of her own best friend. I told you I’d never be able to thank you for giving me my little girl back, but I would always keep trying.
Look at Nora’s birth certificate. You have always been connected to each other, and now she belongs to you.
Your best friend, Ruby
My hands shake as I look through papers and documents, my mind racing as I try to connect all the dots. I’ve been given an overload of information that doesn’t quite make sense. I end up having to look through the stack three times before my fingers graze the paper I want. My eyes dance until I find it, along with the clarity that comes with it. All my questions are answered when I see her name.