I knew why the school had requested a meeting with me. It was nothing he had done directly, actually, it was likely because of what he didn’t do. Watching Jack grow up, I knew he was a little different. He wasn’t behind or slow, actually he accelerated academically. He had a knack for figuring out things and problem solving. He was an avid reader and I fueled his natural curiosity about the world around him with books and magazines. I encouraged him to learn, to question, to solve problems. But I think maybe I had pushed the academics a little too hard at too young an age. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t as social as other students his age.
It wasn’t that he was shy really, he just preferred to be alone with his books and puzzles instead of playing. I tried to encourage him to go outside and play with the neighborhood kids, but watching them, he just wasn’t interested. He would start by talking to them, but after a short period, he would be off on his own once more, investigating an interesting bug or picking and tasting various plants, his peers long gone, not missing him and he not the least bit noticing they had moved on as well.
I was nervous about him entering school and really wanted him to attend somewhere privately, but my husband and I didn’t have the financial resources to make that wish come true. And so, just before his sixth birthday, I dropped him off at the local public school for his first day of kindergarten. We had talked about school and he was interested in attending, but I was hesitant. I knew he lacked some of the social skills necessary for a successful overall experience.
His kindergarten teacher was wonderful. Mrs. Meyers took over twenty children, all squirmy and full of laughter, and turned them into productive students by the end of their first year. I knew Jack would excel academically, he entered the class already demonstrating almost all of the required skills necessary to progress to first grade. She asked about Jack’s social skills after just one week with him. I explained he was an only child and that he seemed to prefer the comfort of mental activities over physical ones. She suggested he participate in some sports to help with his social skills and so, entering first grade, he started soccer.
I knew before we even started sports wouldn’t be his thing and I was right. He was knocked unconscious the first quarter of his first soccer game. But I made him finish the season; he wouldn’t be a quitter. We attempted a few other extra-curricular activities, but none seemed to fit him. Or maybe he just wasn’t talented in the areas outside of mental tasks. Regardless, I continued to push him to participate in activities that required some form of interaction with others, much against his wishes.
I had survived many parent/teacher conferences, talking about his apparent lack of social skills. Around his third grade year, he had been tested for giftedness. Although he had a very high intelligence quotient, he failed to make the requirements for the program. I always felt it was due to his strengths and focus being too narrowed. This year, his fifth grade year, I was called in, not by the teacher (which was standard protocol), but by his guidance counselor. He called it a child study team meeting, though I wasn’t sure what exactly about Jack we were theoretically studying.
I arrived just before my one o’clock appointment, dressed a little more professional than usual, knowing he wasn’t the only one being studied. I was called in promptly at one and took a seat in Mr. Preston’s office. He was an older, but very sweet man and had been Jack’s guidance counselor for two years. Seems the counselors at this school split their students by lower and upper grade levels. Jack would have him one more year for sixth grade before moving to the middle school. I had met Mr. Preston last year and he seemed to genuinely have Jack’s best interests at heart. We each proceeded through the usual pleasantries before he finally got down to the reason as to why I was sitting, once again, in the administrative offices of Jack’s school.
“His teacher is very pleased with his academic progress,” he got right to business. “Jack has done very well this year and she is recommending him for advanced classes at the middle school level.”
I smiled, I was always proud of his accomplishments. “He loves school and certainly loves to learn.”
“Yes, but as you and I know, as does his teacher, school isn’t just about the academics.” He shifted in his chair, leaning back a little. “Jack seems to struggle a bit with socializing and getting along well with his peers.”
If he was waiting for me to make some excuse or encourage his opinion, it wasn’t coming from me. I figured if he asked a direct question, I’d answer it, but otherwise, I wasn’t feeding the school’s concern. It wasn’t that I was in any form of denial; Jack was a little different, almost awkward in comparison to his peers. I knew that, but he was doing well and surviving socially and thriving academically.
Getting no verbal response from me, Mr. Preston continued. “Well, it’s just that Jack tends not to make friends. Does he socialize at home? Are there any friends in his neighborhood?”
There was the question. “Yes, he does socialize, though probably not as much as his peers.” The first question was answered. “But he does go outside and play with other kids his own age. And he has friends in his neighborhood, many who attend this school.” I kept my response truthful. He did go outside and attempt to play with peers, even though it was usually at my insistence and a short-lived experience.
“Well, that’s good to hear.” He shuffled a few papers on his desk, stacking them neatly. Was that necessary or just a nervous fidget? “It’s just his teacher, Mr. Varon, was a little concerned about his lack of socialization. We were thinking, if there was something we could do to help…” He didn’t get to finish his sentence.
“Jack doesn’t need help socializing.” I was right. He was my son and I’d known him since before he was born. “He’s a little shy, I know, but he has friends in and out of school. Please keep in mind that, due to his excelling academically, he takes that part of school very seriously. He pays attention in class, he studies nightly, he hardly ever misses a day, even if he’s ill.” All of that was very true. “He socializes more after school, when he’s not thinking about everything going on academically, than when he’s in school. Surely you can appreciate that.”
“Of course! We all appreciate the hard working student, and Jack is just that.” He leaned back a little, trying to relax. I was pleased to have him on the defensive. “It’s just that even during social school times, you know, lunch, recess, PE class, he still has that same focus, that same academic drive. He doesn’t seem to turn it off.”
“I assure you, he does, especially at home.” I was starting to wonder if this was our only topic for discussion this afternoon. If so, this would be one of the shorter meetings I’d had with school staff. “He’s actually expressed an interest in learning music when he gets to middle school. We’re exploring instruments, but he seems to like the brass.” Truthfully, I was planning on introducing him to music, whether he liked it or not. His instrument would be his selection, but adding his preference to brass sounded good. Although, as soon as I spoke, I realized I would have to introduce this sooner rather than later, on the outside chance his counselor mentioned it to Jack or his teacher.
“That’s great – the middle school band is an awesome experience. And if he’s good, he can continue into high school.” He seemed pleased with my answers and I relaxed a little, though I kept my mental guard high. And I made a note to talk about music with Jack tonight over dinner.
“Is there anything else you wish to discuss with me this afternoon?” I was eager to go.
“No, I guess that’s about it.” Mr. Preston stood as I made the physical motion I was about to stand. I took that as my cue we were finished and rose as well, standing tall and smiling at my victory.
“Well, I do appreciate your, and Mr. Varon’s, concern about Jack’s social life, but I assure you, even if he doesn’t show it here, he has many friends and enjoys playing with them.”
We shook hands and I glanced at the clock above the door as I turned to leave. It was ten after one, making this one of my shortest school meetings ever. He escorted me back to the reception area of the school and I made my way to the car. I could feel his eyes watching me as I left. I knew he thought I was in denial about Jack, but that wasn’t completely true. I did know he was a little different. I acknowledged that and I was working with him in an attempt to socialize more. But he wasn’t in need of the school’s help. They simply needed to keep him strong academically. I would work on the rest at home. Jack simply had strengths and weaknesses, just like any other child.
As I pulled out of the school’s parking lot, I revised my mental note to talk to Jack about joining the band. I hoped he liked the trumpet.
I couldn’t be more proud of Jack as I stood next to him watching Allie walk down the aisle. She looked stunning, her dress sleeveless, highlighting her dark tan, gathered tight around her chest and waist, showing off her slender figure. Her hair was swept up casually with blond curls dancing around her face. Her father walked stoically next to her as they made their way in our direction. I looked over to Jack; he was smiling. It wasn’t a nervous smile, but a genuine smile filled with happiness and love. And I was happy for him. He had come a long way since we met and I felt as though I had something to do with his success, even if his life hadn’t followed a more traditional course.
I met Jack in middle school when he joined my drama class a few weeks into the school year. I had seen him around, but really didn’t know him that well. After a few weeks in class, I realized he was a pretty okay kid, but he tended to shy away from others, preferring to be more alone than hanging out with our classmates. As I got to know him, I thought maybe he was an outsider like me. I couldn’t have been more wrong on that point. He was most certainly nothing like me, but he was definitely not like most.
I liked Jack and I knew I could trust him with my own secret, although he wasn’t forthcoming with his. I knew he had one, but was never really sure what it was until we were in high school and he finally confided in me. Our mutual trust sealed a real friendship between us and I tried to keep him on the straight and narrow through high school.
I remember the night he showed up to my house unannounced, blood running down the side of his face. It wasn’t the first time he’d used my place as a sanctuary, but it was the first he was so badly injured. I bandaged him well and he ended up going back home, though I never really understood his loyalty to his mother or father. Neither had done him any real favors, though at least his mother put forth effort. His father was completely useless and I know Jack was pleased when he passed shortly thereafter.
I’d helped Jack navigate middle school and survive high school. By college, he was definitely more independent and I was pleased when he met Frank. Although Jack put forth the effort, I kinda knew school wasn’t his thing. I was right and as soon as Frank got him a few roles in theater and two minor movie gigs, he seemed to just fade from campus, a few credits shy of his associate’s degree. It was a good move for him. He was being successful and well paid to do something he did on a daily basis – act.
I’d known Jack a long time and actually helped him learn to fake his way through life. He just didn’t feel emotions naturally as they occurred with the rest of us. But he learned them well through drama and was quite good at applying what he learned into practice daily. I remember when he fell for the lead in the high school Shakespeare play our freshman year. I was so proud of him – he fell in love. And he did it naturally, without having to think about it or practice it. The feelings just happened naturally and man, did he have good taste in women! Of course, he swore to me he decided never to act upon his feelings as she was two years older than him. I know better. He can act well, but I knew Jack. I’m certain he let his feelings be known and she probably pointed out the fact that he was only a freshman. He dated anyway through high school, but I never saw him fall in love again until he met Allie.
I had heard the story of how they met, involving a funeral and poison ivy, and I couldn’t believe he had been so bold in courting her. After only a few dates, we double-dated together and I finally got to meet her. She was perfect for him and I knew they would be together a very long time. They dated not much more than six months and he proposed. Standing beside Jack, watching him marry Allie, I was proud and sad. He had done it. He had started what I was sure would be a successful, though maybe modest, acting career and was now marrying the love of his life. I knew I had helped him and I was happy to do so. But I also knew he was ready to continue his life without my direction. I had to trust Allie would take good care of my best friend.
“You’re smiling.” Jack looked at me with that hint of a smile he seemed to always have on his face when he was up to something.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” He pulled me a little closer and kissed me gently. We continued to sway to the music. It seemed like heaven, the stars above us and nothing but the ocean surrounding us. I couldn’t have imagined anything so beautiful and serene. Although we were one of many couples dancing on the upper deck that night, looking into his face, I felt as though we were the only people on the planet.
“I have my beautiful wife in my arms dancing to my favorite music, a sky full of twinkling stars and the depths of the ocean beneath us.”
“You make it sound almost as wonderful as it really is.” His smile grew and we moved a little faster to the music.
“Do you remember the first time we met?”
My first thought was, ‘how could I forget?’ and that’s just what came out of my mouth. The many drinks we had enjoyed that night were definitely catching up to me. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s one of my favorite memories.”
We continued to dance the night away, enjoying more alcohol and food as we did. It was our first cruise and our first full vacation in years. Although we typically enjoyed holidays with each other and family, we rarely traveled, something we each wished to do more of, but neither of us created the time to do so.
As the last song came to an end, we lingered atop the deck until we finally had to make our way to our cabin. Tomorrow would be our final day at sea; when we awoke the following morning, we would be back in Florida, ready to make the hike home to California. I was sad to see this ending, but looking forward to getting home and settled back into a routine.
That night as I drifted off to sleep in Jack’s arms, thoughts of the memories that wove our lives together filled my mind. I remembered the first time we met. I was working at my aunt’s florist shop and had a little bet with another female co-worker about who could score the next available man. It was a silly game we often joked about since most men who frequented our shop were purchasing for their females. Most popular were the anniversary bouquets, seconded with a tie for birthday, and then the general category we called ‘oops, sorry’. Almost all men who shopped there were taken and we knew we would likely never date a male customer. Then along came Jack. He was purchasing a funeral arrangement and I don’t know why I was so bold, but I flirted, more than usual and much more than was appropriate given the reason behind his purchase. But he flirted back and before I knew it, I was head over heels in love. And I was quite certain he was as well.
Thinking of our start, I smiled. Jack was sleeping soundly and I should have been as well, but my mind continued to peruse memories I hadn’t thought of in a long time. I thought of our first date and the night he proposed, only months after we met. He was so restless back then and I liked the idea of dating an actor – who wouldn’t? We travelled when I could get away from my responsibilities. Regardless of our fun endeavors, he maintained a serious side to his acting career, which, thanks to Frank’s help, was doing well. We decided to relocate and settle down in California, selecting Woodside as the location that would best suit both our careers. I wanted to start my own florist shop and ended up taking over one that was going out of business. We built a house a little off the beaten path and settled into an easy lifestyle and routine.
It sometimes surprised me how well we got along and how easy a start we seemed to have had. Jack mellowed out and lost some of his wild flare, but I knew it was still there, even if domesticated life had pushed it into submission. He was always a passionate man with strong beliefs, especially his sense of right and wrong. On a few occasions, I had seen the anger in him flare, but he really tried to keep that side of him out of my view. I always got the loving Jack, the passionate one, the one with which I would happily spend the rest of my life. Thoughts of us swirled in my mind and I finally felt my consciousness leaving my mind. I smiled as I drifted to sleep.
Dr. Ellen Foster
“July seventeenth, twenty fourteen. Patient Jonathon Daniel Arden, male, thirty-three years of age. He goes by the nickname of Jack and is known as such to friends and family.” Dr. Foster had finally finished a very long day treating patients and was completing her summaries orally. She was way too behind to type them yet – that would have to wait for another day. She continued with the details of his address and phone number, mentioning his successful acting career and his marital status. Pausing the cassette a moment, she gazed out the window. She was tired, but wanted to get the information saved while the day was still fresh in her mind. She looked over her notes and clicked the recorder to continue.
“Patient sought professional assistance per recommendation of his family to assist him dealing with the death of his wife. His selection of myself as a therapist seems somewhat researched, but none the less random. Patient completed basic informational forms and submitted them online and arrived promptly for his appointment.
Upon entering the office, patient seemed at ease and spoke comfortably with me. Appearance was neat and well groomed and he was orientated, times three. Patient revealed his purpose in seeking therapy was due to the death of his wife. Patient expressed he wasn’t sure what his new normal would be without her.”
She continued drafting formal notes from her scratches of writing she kept while they spoke. She had finished their session pleased with how much he revealed and his honesty. He was not in crisis and seemed to be doing about as well as most would in his place. She provided him with two books, asking him to at least read the one and they scheduled a return visit the following week. He was going to do just fine, he simply needed some guidance on how to proceed with such a significant change to his life.
“July twenty-fourth, twenty fourteen. Second session for Jack Arden. Patient arrived on time and appeared in much better spirits than our first session. Patient began our conversation by letting me know the man responsible for his wife’s death was arrested. Patient seemed very pleased with this and was relieved the justice system was moving forward. I cautioned him against relying on a guilty verdict to provide the closure he is seeking.”
Dr. Foster continued with her notes. She was more concerned for Jack’s mental well being than she was during their first visit. He was open to ideas their first session. Now, with the trial looming in the distance, he was using it as a focus point, a time period to get to for his life to change, but she knew it wouldn’t. She had strongly spoken to him against using whatever happened in court as his resolution. Upon conclusion of their session, he had scheduled another appointment the following week. She hoped they would make better progress then, when the news wasn’t so fresh.
“July thirty first, twenty fourteen. Third, and likely final session with Jack Arden.” Disappointment and concern carried through her voice, despite her attempts to remain objective. “Jack began this session by informing me it would likely be his last. He expressed he feels better and is settling into a new routine, one he’s comfortable in and wouldn’t be returning. I called him out, asking what his plan was. He’s back to work, having dinner with Allie’s family this weekend. Long term, he has no solid plans. When asked about the possibility of his wife’s killer walking away free, he expressed he is okay with this. He is moving on with his life.”
She paused the recorder and glanced at the page of notes on her table. She had stopped writing at this point. His next statement dug a little deep for her and she wasn’t sure she was putting his reference into her notes. It was one thing to keep such detailed accounts of her patients, but Jack had brought her personal life into his therapy session and that wasn’t something she felt like speaking about or typing up later. She skipped ahead and instead drafted her suggestions for Jack, which she knew damn good and well he wouldn’t follow. He left promising to call if he needed her. She knew he would, it was simply a matter of when.
It was a brisk morning as Dr. Foster made her way into the office. She hated being away from her family during the holidays, but she also knew that this was a tough time for many of her patients. That meant a slight increase in phone calls and appointments. She attempted to quickly assess them, to determine their threat to themselves or others and prioritized based on her observations and intuition.
Walking into the office, she shuddered as the chill from outside finally got to her. She began her daily routine, which meant listening to voicemails while checking emails. She was just about to pick up the phone when a call came through. The number read ‘private’ but she decided to answer it anyway, as she needed to get them off the line so she could get to her messages. She was quite surprised when Jack’s voice was on the other end. He was struggling a bit, not only missing Allie but with the family’s behaviors in regards to her absence. They made an appointment and she smiled to herself. Her prediction was correct and maybe now, Jack would be ready to complete the grieving process and move on. She was happy he called and scheduled him in for that Friday.
“November twenty-eighth, twenty fourteen. Patient Jack Arden contacted me to return to counseling, as predicted.” She shouldn’t have said that last part and likely wouldn’t type it when she completed her note taking from verbal to paper. She smiled as she continued.
“Jack seemed comfortable in coming to the session today, taking the initiative to schedule it. He started with details from having Thanksgiving dinner with Allie’s family. I asked whether he had brought a date. This question caught him off guard. From his physical reaction, he hasn’t contemplated dating yet, despite the significant time since his wife’s death.
Jack expressed concern that her family is moving on with their lives as though Allie didn’t exist. We discussed where he left off the last time he was in counseling with me. He was in the grieving process, but chose to stop sessions. Jack said he was in a good place then. I probed my intuition and asked about the trial. Jack changed physically – he flushed and tensed. This was a sore topic for him and he struggled expressing himself. His wife’s killer was found innocent.
Jack finally asked the right question – how does he move on when he doesn’t want to? I explained he must make that choice. We discussed some options and I provided another book for him to read. I also gave him a schedule for a group of male widows who meet regularly. He didn’t seem open to that idea, but agreed to read the book.”
Dr. Foster thought about the day’s session with Jack. “He seems open now to moving on with his life. I believe he was relying on a guilty verdict for closure. Now that he realizes he has not moved forward this past year, I think he’s ready. I’m confident in his progression and feel he will do well over the next few months, providing he continues with therapy.”
She meant what she spoke. Jack finally seemed to get it. She could only hope he followed through with his treatment.
“December third, twenty fourteen. The appointment for December fifth for Jack Arden was cancelled by the patient. He expressed he found a support group meeting on Tuesdays and he wishes to attend this group for a few sessions before returning to counseling.”
Dr. Foster clicked off the recorder. What she stated was fact – Jack had called and cancelled their next appointment, citing a group meeting on Tuesday as the reason. Only the group she recommended didn’t meet on Tuesdays. She tried to convince herself he likely found another group, maybe one closer to his home town in Woodside. She crossed off his name from her calendar, her gut telling her otherwise. Jack was up to something. She had nothing substantial to pursue anything legally. Her stomach wrenched as she slid his file in the drawer with closed cases.
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