A little imp of a child walked in, his small hand snug in his mother’s grasp. His elven features lit up when he saw me. A wide grin revealed two new teeth since we last met for our therapy session. Easter vacation had interrupted our weekly meetings.
“Can I pick him up at quarter-to? I have a meeting at five,” his mother, Carol, asked while she removed his blue, yellow and red ski-jacket.
“Sure,” I said, reaching out to tousle Stephen’s hair.
“WHAT!” the little boy said, very loudly. Stephen rarely spoke in a quiet voice lately. He just blurted things out. His enthusiasm for something corresponded directly with his volume switch. I could tell today was going to be loud as he jumped up from his mother’s lap and ran tot he window shouting, “FIRETRUCK. LOOK, KEN!”
His mother smiled and just shook her head. “I’ll see you two later,” she said and slipped out the door.
“LOOK, KEN. COME SEE! HURRY!”
“What is it, Stephen? What do you see?” Mimicking his enthusiasm, I joined him at the window.
“IT’S A FIRETRUCK. IT’S RED,” he said in one enormous breath. He was learning his colors at preschool and liked to show off.
“You’re right. It is red. Do you like that color?” I knelt beside Stephen and looked at the street below. Emergency vehicles were parked outside the apartment building across the narrow street.
“YYEESS! I LIKE RED!”His shout echoed in our little alcove. “RED, RED, RED, RRREDDD!” His small hand slapped the window pane sharply. “BIRDS. FLYING. I WANT TO FLY.” He ran around the room, his arms outstretched pretending to soar in the wind. “I’D SWOOP DOWN AND SCOOP UP BAD PEOPLE AND DROP THEM IN THE OCEAN. YAY!”
I watched him with keen interest as he pantomimed. This was a new theme to his usual banter in our playroom. Perhaps somewhere behind this lay the reason for our therapy sessions. Stephen and I had been meeting every Monday for over four months now. Almost six months had passed since his father had killed himself in the family’s garage – put a bullet through his head. Stephen had been distraught and had become increasingly withdrawn. Finally, his mother felt there must be more to his nightmares and the periods of silence he spent in the corner of his room, behind his bed. Her own grief, combined with her son’s, was more than she could handle. She asked for my help. I was glad to give it.
“Stephen, who are you dropping in that ocean?” I asked, prompting him.
“BAD PEOPLE, KEN. BAD PEOPLES!” He continued his circular flights around the room.
“Do you know who they are?”
He froze, as if shocked by the static build-up in the carpeting created by the stocking-footed circles he had been running. Then he grinned, his lips tight over his teeth. His chin sunk down to rest on his chest and he looked up at me, slyly, through his dark, fringy lashes. “Shhhh, can’t say names. Can’t tell,” he whispered, softly.
“You can’t tell?” I ran my fingers through my hair, pulling it a little to help me reel in my excitement. HE HAD WHISPERED.
Suddenly Stephen jerked his head up and looked me full in the eye. His eyes were wide open, his brow pinched with intensity. He curled his lips inward, thrust out his jaw and held my eyes. And then, just as suddenly, he turned away, whipping his small frame about, and began to wander around the room. The tenseness of his posture was gone. His aimless search brought him to the cardboard box of Lego blocks.
He played quietly as children often do when left alone in a room brimming with toys but no other children with whom to interact. He seemed to distance himself from me. I felt like I was no longer part of his conscious surroundings. Not once did he look up to see what I was doing in my corner of our room. His silence gave me time to make notes of our conversation. He had whispered. My heart accelerated as I pondered what we had brought out of Stephen’s subconscious today.
I returned to observing Stephen. On the outside he looked like a perfectly ordinary five-year old. He was dressed in blue overalls and a yellow T-shirt. You could just barely see the word ‘Teenage’ and one mutant turtlehead above the bibs. His miniature Nikes were scruffy and a little mud-spattered from our recent respite from a blustery, crisp New York winter. Stephen’s hair was neatly parted to the left side, but his bangs kept falling into his hazel eyes. He would absently brush the hanging canopy away when it interfered with his Lego activities. The helicopter station I had built yesterday – my own escape from a trying day – was coming to life. The plastic helicopter was soaring and diving through the air propelled by Stephen’s graceful arm swinging up and down as he chased it around the room.
“NNEEERROOOOOOM,” and the helicopter dove toward the floor, shattering into thirty-seven pieces, literally. “KABOOM!” Stephen shouted when it impacted. The Lego plastic blocks scattered about the room. He sat then, quietly rebuilding the helicopter. He continued to ignore until his mother picked him up.
The phone rang. It was eight-thirty and I had just settled back with a Miller Genuine Draft and a movie I had grabbed on the way home from the office. Carol’s voice came through the phone. She sounded anxious.
“Hi, Ken. I’m sure I’m interrupting you, but… Did anything, anything unusual, happen today with Stephen?”
“I haven’t decided what to make of today’s session yet, Carol. Is he all right?” What I said did nothing to calm her worried voice.
No, Ken. I would have to say he’s not all right. He’s sitting behind his bed again.”
“Is he just sitting there? Not doing anything?” I asked quickly, wondering again about Stephen’s ‘bad people’.
“Well… He’s drawing pictures – ”
I interrupted her. “Carol, I’ll be right over.” I hung up the phone and ran out the door.
She was waiting outside when I arrived at her house. Her face, illuminated by the dim porch light, was a mixture of excitement and concern. The anxiousness she felt was clearly expressed by her wrinkled brow and the slow, tense wringing of her hands. Nervously she patted away a few stray strands of hair which had escaped the barrette at the nape of her neck.
“Ken, what do you think this means?” she asked, hardly waiting for me to reach the steps.
“Let’s see if we can find out.” I followed her through the screen door. It banged shut behind me.
Leaning on the doorframe, I peered into Stephen’s room. His jungle bedspread matched the curtains hanging beside his bed. Brown stuffed bears, a tawny lion, and a sleeping donkey sat on top of his dresser. The lamp beside them shone down on Stephen’s silky, brown head. He looked asleep, on the floor leaning back against the walls of the corner he had back into.
I sat down quietly on the bed, watching him a moment. I could see a clutter of paper surrounding his inert form. Watching to see if he would wake up, I slowly reached down to lift the closest picture.
“May I look, Stephen?” I asked softly, holding the paper but not yet looking at it.
“Yes. NO!” Suddenly confused, he hid his face in his arms on top of his bony knees. And then he said, “Yes.” Quietly rocking himself, he slumped and seemed to give up, not caring at all about his drawings.
“Stephen? Stephen, you draw well.” I gathered up some more of the his pictures. “Do you want to talk about these?”
No response. I began to fear he was withdrawing again, curling up inside himself. Escaping, from something.
I swung around and sat down beside him on the floor. I nudged the bed a little further from the wall and began sorting the drawings out in front of me. Trying to figure out the pattern. Hoping there was a pattern.
“Stephen? Stephen, which one comes first? Did you draw this one first?” I pointed to a picture of a boy.
He slowly raised his head, only high enough to see his drawings spread on the floor in front of him. Cautiously, shakily, he reached out and touched one. It was a picture of a man. He hastily withdrew his hand.
“Okay. And which one’s next?” I asked.
We continued with this slow deliberate ordering of the drawings. Gradually, I began to see a pattern. But I needed to get Stephen to talk about his pictures.
“Stephen, can you tell me about this picture? Is this someone you know?” I looked down into his tear-streaked face. It had cost him a lot of his physical and emotional strength to make these drawings. He was drained, his body sagged against me. I could feel him shaking his head from side to side. “Okay, we can talk about them later. You tired?”
He nodded, his eyes closed heavily. I carefully picked him up and placed him on his bed, gently resting his head on the pillow.
“I can tuck him in,” Carol said from the door. I didn’t know how long she had been standing there. “There’s some fresh coffee in the kitchen, if you’d like some,” she whispered.
“Yeah. Thanks.” I stood looking down at Stephen a moment longer. “He’s really wiped out.”
I had taken the drawings with me into the kitchen. Carol always did make good coffee, and it helped me unwind. The hell she was going through – her husband’s suicide, the trauma her son was going through – I didn’t know how she held herself together.
“He’s sound asleep.” Carol came to sit across the table from me.
We sat in silence, sipping from our mugs. It was a silence we had shared before. The house was quiet as usual. The humming from the refrigerator echoed the whirl of thoughts in my head.
“Carol, I think Stephen should come in tomorrow. I think we’re getting somewhere. Finally.”
She was looking at Stephen’s drawings, hesitantly, like she didn’t really want to see them. Their meaning was clear to both of us. The real question was whether Stephen understood what it was he had drawn.
“Tomorrow?” Carol asked absently.
“Yes, the sooner we can get him to talk about these, the sooner I think he’ll recover. He needs to tell his story, to get it out. He can’t keep this bottled up any longer. Lord knows, how long he has.”
Carol seemed to wilt. Resting her forehead in her palm, she said, “You’re right. Tomorrow. What time?”
“I’ll be in by nine. We can do it then…” Seeing tears silently sliding down her cheek, I walked over to her and put my arms around her shoulders, my cheek resting on her hair. “We’re almost through this, Carol. Hang in there.”
“I hope you’re right, Ken. God, I hope you’re right. I want my son whole again.” A heavy sigh escaped her, and she leaned back into my embrace. She needed me to stay. But I knew, I couldn’t. Not yet. I couldn’t escape the darkness in her eyes, the shadows that Stephen was fighting, or the darkness in my heart for the man who had done this to them. I left her there, in the kitchen with her son’s drawings.
The sun streamed in the windows of the playroom. Stephen was sitting quietly in the alcove, absently twirling a Cookie Monster by one arm. While he sat there, preoccupied, I arranged his drawings which Carol had brought. At first, I placed them in the order Stephen and I had worked out the night before, but then I moved a couple out of order and put one upside-down. He was watching me. He curled his lips in against his teeth and brushed his bangs out of his eyes. He was waiting. The first move was to be mine, I guessed.
“Are you ready, Stephen?” I sat down at the table facing him.
Nodding slowly, he jumped down from the window seat. He approached the table and studied the pictures. Silently, he rearranged them into the proper sequence again.
I pointed to the first one. “Who is this, Stephen?” I kept my voice low, trying to sound reassuring.
He looked up at me then, his eyebrows drawn together. “DADDY,” he said distinctly. “MY DADDY,” with a nod of his head.
“And who’s this?” I pointed to the next one.
“You drew a picture of you and your Dad?” I asked.
“I drew DADDY, AND THEN me,” he said, emphasizing some of the words.
“Is this one a picture of your room at home,” I asked.
YES.” He stared at the drawing. “THAT’S WHERE – “ He stopped abruptly. He walked around to the other side of the table. He leaned across it, resting his elbows and hands on the surface. “I didn’t… Didn’t want…” His breath started coming quickly, panting almost, and then he whispered, “I told him, no more… I don’t want to, Daddy.” With a choked sob, he ran to the corner of our playroom, away from the table and his drawings. He circled the room, trailing the fingers of his right hand against the wall as he went around. He stopped and leaned unsteadily against the wall. “Ken?”
“What is it, Stephen?” I had walked over and knelt beside him. “What happened? What did he want you to do?” I was afraid to touch him. He looked brittle, about to shatter in pieces like the Lego Helicopter. He was vulnerable, close to the edge.
The tears streamed down his reddened face, red with shame. He collapsed in a heap. “He touched my -” he began. “He put… Hurt me.”
“It’s going to be okay, Stephen. You can tell me about this. You can tell me anything.” I had to reach him. He was pulling away from me, taking himself somewhere, somewhere safe. Safer than our playroom had just become. It was no longer a haven of toys. The real world had just entered. And Stephen didn’t want it there.
He looked up at me, a pained and haunted look in his eyes. He began pulling his bangs down over his eyes, running his thumb down the bridge of his nose and across his small mouth, repeatedly. His eyes were trying to say what he couldn’t put into words. The words were bad. The words had killed his father. He couldn’t say those words again. He couldn’t tell his father to stop, ever again. Telling him to stop had killed him.
Stephen crawled over to the corner behind the table. For a while he sat with his legs crossed, rocking back and forth, back and forth.
“I don’t want to talk anymore,” he whispered faintly, slowly pausing over each word, as if he had rehearsed them. He didn’t look at me. He sat there with his arms wrapped tightly around his ankles, his cheek pressed tight against his knees, rocking himself to some hidden tempo. He remained in the corner, locked within himself.