The first time I saw David Seidel was seven years ago, October of 1980. He was standing on the steps of his Georgetown home, a tall slender man, sixtyish, with pale pink skin, neatly parted golden hair and a broad toothy grin. He was beckoning to me with his right hand, dangling a cigarette in his left.
A moment earlier, I had called him from a pay phone at the corner of Wisconsin and Dumbarton, because, although he had given me the correct address when I made the appointment, I couldn't quite follow the street numbers. At that point in my life, I was so depressed that numbers would not form in sequence in my mind, letters would not make words, words would not make sentences. A spate of cancer in the family, the imminent death of my grandmother and a generalized identity crisis had unleashed a torrent of anxiety and sadness -- a "sensory overload," as my brother the doctor likes to call it. I was a mess.
The last time I saw David Seidel was three months ago, October of 1987. Of course, I had no trouble finding his office this time. Five of the past seven years had been spent in intensive psychoanalysis with him -- four times a week -- and the cozy office in his basement was as familiar to me as any room I had known: the warm paneled walls, the quiet prints and paintings, the Freudian couch with a petit point pillow at one end and a red plaid blanket at the other, large leather armchairs at either end of the room (one for him and one for patients who preferred to sit rather than lie down), the strands of colored wool hanging from pegs next to his chair for the needlepoint he worked on during sessions, the book-lined shelves, the soft burbling of the fish tank.
This time, I was no longer a troubled Georgetown University sophomore; under his guidance I had graduated from college and emerged as a professional writer -- confident, productive and only occasionally out of sorts. My psychoanalysis ended formally in September of 1985, and I was, as my friend the architect likes to say, "cured -- like a ham."
I still talked to Dr. Seidel on the phone now and then, and twice a year or so, as with this day last October, I went in for what I liked to call a "six month or 60,000 trauma" check-up. A serious bout with migraines had me down in the dumps, and I needed a little psychoanalytic tune-up.
When he opened the door to greet me, it was clear he was not well. His gait was stiff, his movement halting, his speech slow. Instead of his customary tie, there was an ascot. His hair, usually cropped cleanly, was long and wispy. When I commented on his unusual but dashing appearance, he demurred. Recent neck surgery, he explained, made it uncomfortable to wear a tie, hence the ascot. And the hair? Well, he said, he'd been too busy to get it cut.
Toward the end of the session, it was evident to both of us that I was directing an inordinate amount of hostility toward him.
"Why are you angry at me?" he asked.
"I'm not angry," I said, "I'm scared."
"What frightens you?" he asked.
"You look old, you look thin and you look sick," I said, with the freedom of expression that only a patient of psychoanalysis can know.
"I am," he said.
Not to worry, he explained, it was nothing serious, and as Dr. Seidel had always been frank about his health, I believed him. I think he believed it too, for when the session came to a close and we decided that I should come back into twice-a-week analysis for a while, my choice of appointment times was limited. His schedule was almost full, but he managed to pencil me in for Tuesdays and Thursdays. "See you next Tuesday," I said, and dashed out the door, down the steps and through the gate, elated at the prospect of going back into therapy, like a child who looks forward to the croup because he likes the taste of Robitussin.
He called the following Tuesday, said he had the flu and was canceling all appointments but planned on seeing me the following week. I got stuck in New York the next Tuesday and called to cancel. He laughed and said he had been about to call me. The flu was still there, but he thought he'd be back in business the following week.
When I returned to Washington, there was a message at my office: "Dr. Seidel called. In hospital with ulcer." As he had been hospitalized before with ulcer trouble, I was actually relieved by the news. I had begun to worry that his "flu" might be something serious. One of the major neuroses we had worked on over the years was my easy exaggeration of illness in people close to me. Whenever someone I cared about looked even the slightest bit peculiar, I would convince myself that the prognosis was fatal and subsequently work myself into anxious hysteria. Through analysis I overcame this fear, and I wasn't about to get hysterical about Dr. Seidel's "ulcer." No, no, I had learned too much in therapy, I would remain calm. It was just an ulcer. He would be fine.
Thanksgiving came and passed, and I thought I ought to give ol' Seidel a call. It was Monday -- four weeks since I was to have resumed therapy -- and I figured he was probably out of the hospital by now and maybe up to seeing me at my scheduled Tuesday appointment.
"Dr. Seidel's residence," a woman answered.
"Hello, is Dr. Seidel in?" I asked.
"Oh, he passed on about 45 minutes ago," she said.
Passed on? Dead? Dr. Seidel?
"But I have an appointment with him tomorrow," I wanted to say. "He can't be dead!"
I mumbled perfunctory condolences to the woman, who suggested I call back later in the day to find out about the funeral arrangements. ::
I stumbled through my office like a zombie, hands over my mouth, not knowing how to react. "What's the matter?" a co-worker asked. "My shrink died," I said. She laughed. Indeed, that was the reaction I was to get from most people. They laughed. And I laughed, too. In a Woody Allen sort of way, it is rather funny. Who ever heard of a shrink dying?
Of course, those people who were in therapy were not amused.
"Jesus Christ!" my friend the novelist said. "They're not supposed to die. Listen, I gotta get off the phone. I have to call my therapist."
"Well," said my friend the composer, "life is full of losses, and you gotta learn to accept them."
Yes, I thought, life is full of losses, and that's what you go to an analyst for: to deal with losses. But what do you do when you lose an analyst?
"You should sue him for malpractice!" someone suggested.
"Can't his office refer you to another doctor?" several people asked, as if he had been a dermatologist. No, as is the case with many psychiatrists, Dr. Seidel's was a one-person office. There were no nurses, no
receptionist, no partners. He even hand-wrote his bills at the end of each month.
"Are they going to wake him?" my boss inquired.
Wake him? "He's dead," I said. "He's not asleep."
"No," and she explained the Christian tradition of wakes. I had never been to anything other than Jewish funerals for ancient grandparents (the body's in the ground the next day, then the family stays home for a week receiving condolence calls and casseroles -- it's called sitting shiva), so I knew nothing of this custom.
"You go to the funeral home," she explained, "and he's all laid out in an open casket, and you give your condolences to the family, and then you sit down near the body."
"Like sitting shiva?"
Yes, she allowed, "except there's no food."
I decided to skip the wake, if there was one, even though I was intrigued by the notion of seeing Dr. Seidel lying down while I sat in a chair.
Should I go to the funeral, I wondered? I
called around to ask advice. "By all means," said a friend. "Definitely not," said another. "Do you know any of the bereaved?" asked a third. Come to think of it, I didn't. As is common in psychoanalysis, the doctor often chooses not to reveal details of his private life, instead allowing the patient to form his own views. No, I don't know any of the bereaved, and maybe, I thought, I wasn't even supposed to find out if there were any. Maybe I shouldn't even read the obituary, though the curiosity was starting to get to me. Then it hit me: "Wait a minute," I said to myself. "I am the bereaved."
So I went to the funeral at Holy Trinity Church and I felt very alone. There were a few familiar faces: the patients I passed in his waiting room, the kindly psychologist who referred me to Dr. Seidel way back when. The priests did their bit, two distinguished-looking men told anecdotes, there were flowers on the altar. None of this had anything to do with the David Seidel I knew. But then, it was Dr. Seidel who long ago taught me that funerals are for the living, not the dead. "As long as you're alive," he used to say, "it's your movie. You call the shots. But when you're dead, you're dead, and the show's over."
Suddenly a low sweet sound filled the church, a bassoonist crooning a Bach largo with the organist. Now that's David Seidel, I thought, and smiled as I remembered how we would talk of music, using classical motifs to describe feelings that could not be expressed with words. It was one of many private languages we shared. ::
I left the church and walked down N Street toward Wisconsin, a walk I had taken so many times in those years of intensive analysis when I was living on the Georgetown campus. I remembered the blizzard of 1983, and how I trudged through the snow to his office. Drenched and frozen, I stepped into the waiting room. He took one look at me, icicles forming from my nose hairs, and simply said, "You really are nuts."
When I reached his house on Dumbarton Avenue after the funeral, I paused across the street to watch as mourners began to arrive, mostly men with silver hair and ladies draped in mink. I considered going in, then thought better of it. Although I fantasized for many years about what went on
upstairs -- Did he live alone? Did he have a family? What kind of paintings were on the walls? Was he neat, was he messy? Did he have good taste? -- I decided that if he didn't think it "appropriate" for me to know these things, this was not the time to find out.
David Seidel, David Seidel -- the man who knew me so well but whom I hardly knew at all. The man who guided me out of grief, helped me re-learn how to concentrate, how to read. Were it not for him, I probably wouldn't have graduated from college on time, if at all.
He helped me search for an identity when I was struggling over what to do with my life. One week it was medical school, the next it was law school. Some weeks it was the Army, others the Navy. Each new goal he accepted, encouraged. "There's nothing wrong with trying on hats," he used to say. "Eventually one will fit."
Once, while I was ranting about some grave injustice that had been done to me (an injustice I now forget completely), he burst into laughter.
"What the hell is so funny?" I asked.
"You," he said. "You really should be writing this down."
And that was the hat that fit.
He guided me through my first major romantic relationship and helped me learn how to accept love. He helped me out of that relationship when I wanted out, and then, God bless him, helped me back into it when I wanted back in.
He forced me through profound revelations, but helped me examine the daily habits of my life with equal dedication. Breakfast, for example, was a common topic of discussion for the first few years of our work. I always left the house in the morning without eating breakfast and felt lousy and hungry for much of the day. Boy, did we ever analyze breakfast: what kind of breakfast I had as a child, how breakfast was about beginnings, and how beginning your day with breakfast was a sign of caring about yourself, a stamp of self-esteem. We talked about bacon, we talked about eggs. We analyzed oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, Cap'n Crunch, coffee, juice and danish. Breakfast, breakfast, breakfast!
Finally, one morning when we were dissecting the subconscious associations of syrup, I said, "By the way, Dr. Seidel, what do you eat for breakfast?"
"Oh, I don't eat breakfast," he said quite casually.
I spun around on the couch in a rage. "What do you mean you don't eat breakfast?"
Undaunted, he put down his needlepoint,
looked me straight in the eye and said: "I'm not hungry in the morning."
He saw me at my worst and at my best. He watched me grow and change and mature. Yet, all the while, I realize, he always seemed to stay the same.
He taught me when to express my anger and when to suppress it. He taught me how to see the world through other people's eyes.
He once gave me a lousy recipe for lasagna. He taught me how to tie a bow tie.
His extraordinary patience in our financial relationship was without comparison. When I first started seeing him I was a struggling work-study student, and even when I graduated I was barely earning enough to feed myself. My parents helped pay the first few years, a friend helped for another, but then I was on my own. And though the debt piled up -- several thousand dollars -- he never said a word. Each month I would give him what the health insurance would pay and $50 or $100 of my own. In dribs and drabs, I paid him off. With the final check, sent just this past August, I enclosed a brief note: "I now owe you nothing -- except my life and happiness."
The day after he died a colleague of his called me, unaware that I already knew the news, and explained that Dr. Seidel's death was indeed very sudden. He suggested I contact the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute for a referral. But I didn't. I had been one of the lucky people who found a perfect match right away and stuck with him through thick and thin. I had never "shopped" for a shrink before, and that was the last thing I wanted to do.
Weeks later, though, knowing full well the damage unresolved grief can cause, I relented and decided to try another therapist. My internist gave me a referral.
He seemed nice enough, but as I stepped into the office and looked around, I knew something was wrong.
"Where's the couch?" were the first words out of my mouth. "What kind of a psychiatrist doesn't have a couch?" I looked around the room, checked the wall for signs of a Murphy bed -- or a Murphy couch, as it were. Nothing.
We talked for a good long while (face to face, in chairs, like two men having tea) before I realized that this was the other kind of psychiatrist -- the kind who works with words and drugs, not the more traditional words-only psychoanalytic approach I was used to. After two more sessions, it was clear to both of us that he was the wrong kind for me.
"You need someone with a couch," he said.
I left his office and walked out onto the street. Enough looking for now, I decided, for after 1,000 sessions with the same analyst, I wasn't really shopping for a new one; I was looking for something that didn't exist: A new Dr. Seidel. ::
There are certain deaths that we are all, in a way, prepared for: our parents, our friends and, perhaps, ourselves. It's not that we expect these deaths, but that society provides rituals for mourning these losses, and we generally know the role we must play.
There are other deaths that we cannot prepare for. Indeed, if the death of an analyst is like any other death, then it is closest to the death of a child. A good analyst is not someone from whom you take -- he is someone to whom you give: time, money, pain, joy, triumphs, weaknesses. You give and you give and you give and you expect a good solid return on that investment, someone you can call on or turn to, someone who understands you completely and can say just the right words to make you realize that you're O.K. You're really O.K.
I'm furious that David Seidel died. He had no right to do that to me or his other patients. A good shrink is very hard to find. "To miss is to love," he used to say. How I will miss him!
And as I imagine myself back in his office on the couch, staring at the ceiling, flailing my arms and venting my anger about his death, he is right there behind me in his chair, calmly doing needlepoint. And I know exactly what he'd say:
"You really should be writing this down."
Matthew Sigman is assistant editor of Symphony Magazine in Washington and U.S. correspondent for Classical Music in London.
David Lewis Seidel, a Washington physician and psychoanalyst for more than 40 years, died of leukemia at Sibley Memorial Hospital on Nov. 30. He was 69.