Archive for August, 2009

Cancer In Death Valley

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

david-1 The Painted Desert Gallery opens with a post humous exhibition of the photography of David Nutter taken at a moment in his life, a trip to Death Valley. During this trip he was ill with the cancer that was to end in his death less than a year later, but he did not know, at the time that he had cancer. He kept a journal through his illness which he came to call “Cancer in Death Valley”. The exhibit pairs photographs with lines from the travel journal he kept. This pairing accentuates the sense of his presence. Maybe this is because two of the people behind the exhibit are Dave’s son AJ and his close friend Carol. Many of us know the feeling of that encounter with one we love after they have died- where something of them is so tangible that they come back to us all at once; the look of them,the sound of their voice, their scent. It seems that there is nothing, so much as the loss of the beloved, that makes us know, not in the head, but in the gut, that something of ourselves, our lives, lives outside of time and space as we know it.
I , along with all Dave’s colleagues at the Samaritan Counseling dedicated the newsletter following his death to our experience of him. I am including here what I wrote at the time following his death.

When I first came to the Samaritan Counseling Center, Dave was here. He was here every Thursday afternoon, and for years in the same exact spot on the same exact couch. It was great having Dave around. Here was a man with lots of experience dealing with people at times of great pain, or great stress, or great mental illness, who could support us in our psychotherapy; He could give us something that we needed to do our work and not make us feel less for needing it.

Let’s say I was discussing the progress, or lack there of, of my work in helping a client. Anxious to have his ear, I would give him the story too fast, and worried about my competence, I would reveal my mistakes, like a kid coming clean. He would listen. Never perturbed, never shocked. When I had exhausted my say, then he might begin to speak, closing his eyes. It was as if you could actually see him thinking; as if he was literally reaching up into this great store of knowledge and wisdom. It was like he was an older brother, rummaging through a crowded closet, because he knew that there was something in there that you would need. He would hand it to you, matter-of –factly. Even if it were priceless, he would hand it over without fanfare, as if it were an out-of-date tennis racket that he had found to be good, and sturdy and useful.

I remember one such gift. He gave it to me during a discussion regarding a client of great inner beauty and inner turmoil. This man’s personality would tend to fall apart from time to time, related to a great emotional injury that had been dealt to him in childhood. He was very sick, and yet he was very well: his strength and beauty would flicker at even his darkest and most shameful times. Sometimes he would act on his most desperate impulses to hurt himself and destroy his own progress. He was hoping, I suspect, to get someone to see this outward manifestation of his inner pain. Maybe this would provide for the temporary relief of his alienation and numbness: to suck another, such as me his therapist, into his pain and craziness, would give some respite from his loneliness.

Dave counseled me to focus on this client’s health; to see his wholeness despite the fact that it was only potential wholeness or only an imagined wholeness at that time. Despite my fears and impulses to focus my attention on an illness so intense it could have sunk me as well as the client, I was counseled and supported in drawing my attention to the smallest and most fragile steps towards health. Despite back stepping that could equal or exceed steps forward, I was counseled to focus on the forward steps nonetheless.

I did experience , eventually, this client moving toward the health. I saw him claim the health that I learned to imagine with a physician guiding me toward seeing something important that I may not have otherwise seen. The tragedy of Dave’s death is in losing someone who helped me and others to see and act with less fear. His legacy is that he was a good teacher. I hope, for him, for me , but mostly for the clients who come to me, that I was a good student.