For my fortieth birthday, he gave me a Steuben glass heart. When my son George was born, he gave me a small porcelain box with a “G” on it; I put a lock of hair from George’s first haircut in it, and it sits on the desk in our bedroom. Once, he gave me a set of CDs of Bach’s complete piano music, and I often listen to that music while I write; I am listening to it now. I gave him occasional Christmas gifts, carefully selected ones. We enjoyed these material exchanges. I am a bit of a dandy, while Dr. F was not a man of breathtaking personal style. He did, though, have a remarkable collection of neckties, and I complimented him on my favorites. Our point of contact was intellect, but the physical worlds we inhabited, though different in appearance, shared a modicum of substance. In 2016, his son, Jeremiah, had a daughter, Tess, Dr. F’s first grandchild. He talked about what a marvel she was. He showed me pictures, but when I gave him a baby present, he seemed flummoxed.
Two years ago, Dr. F had shingles and took almost four months off. I knew that he was devoted to his work; in the previous twenty-three years, he had missed only a handful of sessions. When we finally met again, he shook slightly and held onto his desk when he stood. He described terrifying neuropathic pain that had persisted for months. He had been prescribed fentanyl, he told me, but one day, realizing that he was becoming addicted but not achieving analgesia, he ripped off his patch and resolved to do without it. He was still in pain when we met, but nothing essential in him had changed. He spoke about Sue’s care for him with something near rapture. She had been unflagging; he would not have survived without her.
It was in the months that followed that I asked him whether our relationship transcended the transactional. He said, “Of course it does. We’ve built something very real over these years. We love each other.” I said, “That’s what I thought, but I wanted to be sure,” and he chuckled in his characteristic way. I took to signing some e-mail messages “With love, Andrew”—but his always ended “Warm regards, RCF, MD.” He said I could call him Rick, but I was so used to Dr. F that I never made the switch. Apropos of a prominent psychiatrist with whom I had crossed paths, Dr. F told me that he could have had a bigger, more public career if he had “played the game”—a game he thought I played more than he did. I asked him whether he regretted his choice. He sighed and said, to my surprise, “Yes, Andrew, I do regret it.” Then he paused and added drily, “I couldn’t have done it that other way without enormous psychic strain. It wasn’t worth it to me. But I regret it anyway.”
Latterly, he guided me through a family crisis, and stared down a stiff depression that came for me in 2018. I often supposed he held my sanity in his hands. But he also sometimes laughed at me, which I found distressing. I would make what I thought was a reasonable statement, and he would sit in that chair of his and give one of his full-throated guffaws. I would tell him that he was making me angry, trivializing what I was trying earnestly to reveal. About half the time, he made me laugh, too, in the end. About half the time, I left his office swearing I’d never go back.
I should note that while Dr. F’s insight was spectacular, his practical advice could be inept. He advised against certain relationships that turned out to be sustaining ones. He suggested courses of action with my family that could only have led to disaster. He proposed that a relative who showed some challenges be hospitalized immediately; the person in question just needed some therapy. He questioned things on which I spent money in a way that seemed to align with his financial values rather than mine. But he also proposed extravagant expenditures that were clearly out of my league. “Why don’t you hire someone to handle that?” he would ask, or, “Why don’t you get a plane?” He thought my lower-back pain was catastrophic, while I thought it was merely annoying, and suggested an uptown gym where Chinese prizefighters could instruct me on how to eliminate it through the use of acrobatic calisthenics. He told me that the best way to lose weight was to drink two Bloody Marys every night and skip dinner. He occasionally tried to foreclose my writing about personal difficulties, though writing about such difficulties is the essence of what I do.
More disturbingly, he projected homophobia onto people to whom it didn’t apply, and did so so consistently that I began to wonder what homophobia lingered in him. When my brother didn’t invite me to his apartment for a while, he suggested it might be because he didn’t want people in the lobby exposed to his gay sibling. When my father disappointed some expectations, he thought it was homophobia again, even as we explored what seemed to me like more plausible motives. As he asked me naïve questions about gay practices and proposed inept suggestions about my intimate life, I had to remind myself that Dr. F observed gay life and had gay patients, but was outside gay culture.
My mental health will always be somewhat precarious, but, in many ways, I have the life I hoped for when I first sat in that Eames chair. I am happily married, have children whom I love, enjoy reasonable career success. I have a balanced relationship with my family of origin. I once said to Dr. F that if I had been able to see one day of life in my fifties when I first entered his office, I wouldn’t have had to go through so much anguish and peril along the way. He replied that if I hadn’t gone through so much anguish and peril along the way, I wouldn’t have ended up with the life I had.
Three weeks into the coronavirus shutdown, I got a call from Sue, a call I had always dreaded and for which I was nonetheless unprepared. Dr. F had died, apparently from complex metabolic issues and low blood pressure. We didn’t know if COVID-19 had played a role. Sue had opted against an autopsy on grounds that there were more urgent purposes for medical personnel during the pandemic. His departure left me bereft not only of him but also of my own history and of some of my inner life. He had died very quickly, as people do these days. I would never again go into his office on Central Park West, where much of my emotional life had risen into language; never again feel mild irritation about the knots in the cord of his floor lamp; or the single, exhausted turquoise hand towel in his bathroom; never again provoke his sudden laughter. I would never again lay my coat over the books on his daybed; we would never again talk about Bach, Mozart, Freud. For twenty-five years, I looked at the wood grain on the side of his desk and saw anthropomorphic faces, but it never seemed like the right moment to show them to him. I never would.