July 2022

The Gift

Time may be endless but the piece of it a life is given, like the gift of a cherished old photograph, dims and dulls as the seasons race forward in an indifferent perpetuity.  Having reached the age of 85, I have trouble remembering names, and the images of my experiences, once sharp and clear and full of color, are grey and cloudy and require hours of effort to pry them out of the disarray of detail that has now become my memory. And so, it was not surprising that I could not recognize the name, Stephan Jacobson when my caller identified himself.

It all began two weeks ago when Ellie, my young secretary, entered my study as I rested in my easy chair and handed me an envelope. “This is one,” she said in her slow, soft voice, “I think you’d best open yourself.”

The envelope was small and nondescript. It contained no return address, just my name and location written in a tiny but artful scrawl. I opened the envelope and found an index card upon which was typed, “I have a gift for you. May I visit. If yes, call 212-951-6223 and leave a message.” 

I was unsure how to consider this. Was this some kind of unique advertisement? So many of them arrive in the mail, and I usually just toss them into the trash. I discover some of the clever ploys only after being fooled to open them, but they have only delayed their trashcan destiny. Was this one of those? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t think so. The envelope had been written in ink, and there was something about the penmanship. I decided to make the call.

I dialed the number, and an answering machine asked that I leave a message, but as I was about to hang up, I heard a beep and then, “If this is Dr. Aimes, I would like very much for you to confirm your address for I would like to visit and I have a gift for you.”

It felt as if I was caught up in some mysterious adventure. I found that I was feeling excited about all this, perhaps even dangerous. I have never been all that brave, but the danger seems far less threatening at my age. And the personalization presented made me suspect that whatever was happening was sincere and not contrived. And so, I confirmed my address and included my home phone number adding “I hope to hear from you soon.”

For the next few days, I experienced a sense of anticipation which slowly receded as there was no contact made by the individual I had called. Perhaps, there had been some error, but then I remembered he had, on his answer machine, referred to me by name. Still, there continued to be no contact. Then eight days later, Ellie once again entered my study. “A gentleman by the name of Stephan Jacobson has called. He said that you were expecting him to visit and that if tonight at seven was acceptable, you should call a number he left with me so he would know it would be all right to drop by.”

“Call the number he left,” I instructed, “and confirm that tonight will be fine.” As Ellie turned, closed the door behind her, and set off to perform her assignment, I felt myself developing a feeling that exceeded excitement. For the first time in many years, I found myself feeling exhilarated. I now knew my visitor’s name, but I could not connect that name, “Stephan Jacobson,” to any memory for the life of me.

I was not surprised that the name did not connect to any recollection, for I have lived too long and have been involved in too many things to pinpoint the specific pieces of parts, such as a name. However, I kept repeating “Stephan Jacobson”, hoping that some bit of recognition might be stimulated. What was promoted were sensations of my history in the form of scenes of sections of occurrences: I was standing on the stage of the Speakeasy Coffee House in Greenwich Village, nervously beginning the singing of one of my new songs. I read a paper I had prepared as part of a symposium of fellow psychologists at the American Psychological Association convention in Chicago. I was enjoying the interactions of my young doctoral students as they struggled with solving a complicated case study problem box I had presented to them, their intensity revealed by their concentrated facial expressions and by the certainty and uncertainty of their differing vocal words. These sensations seemed more evident than usual, and I wondered why. I was now recalling one of my struggling young adults as she let free her anguish over the uncertainty of her future. And then, a small, thin, adolescent boy that I sensed more than imagined came and went so rapidly that I wasn’t even sure I had experienced him.

I awoke to a knocking. I had fallen asleep in my easy chair, not an unusual happening these days, and Ellie was attempting to rouse me. Ellie was working late, which was the custom when my wife, Angie, was away on one of her trips to New York. For seven years my junior, Angie was still spry and active and frequently traveled to various locations to visit family members and old friends, the few of our old friends remaining. I found traveling challenging, so I stayed at home, and Ellie worked late on these occasions. Ellie had once been one of my students at USD, although I can’t remember in which course. I remember that she was a highly organized and competent student and so, some years later, when she was one of the applicants for the job as my secretary, I hired her immediately. Ellie was a quiet woman, now in her early thirties, who had worked her way through school and had escaped from a troubled family she never would discuss.

“One moment, Ellie,” I called out. “Been napping again and need a few minutes.” A glance at the wall clock revealed the time to be 7:05. I presumed my visitor had arrived. I walked into the bathroom adjacent to my study, watered my face, and combed back the little white hair remaining. It doesn’t take much time for me to be ready for anything these days. I walked back into the study and opened the door for Ellie.

“I presume my visitor has arrived,” I asked declaratively.

Ellie smiled and nodded as we began to walk through the corridor that led to the living room.

A very well-dressed gentleman, short but trim, with black hair now beginning to grey, stood as we entered and smiled broadly.

“What a pleasure to see you again,” he said.

Ellie pointed to the window, her usual signal for requesting permission to leave for home.  

“Thank you, Ellie,” I said. “Have a good evening. See you tomorrow.”

Ellie smiled at me, smiled at my visitor, and left us “softly,” which is the only way I can describe her manner of doing everything.

“Well,” my visitor said, “apparently you have aged some,”

“I imagine we both have,” I laughed. “Truth is I can’t place your name, and I can’t remember who you are.”

“I’m not at all surprised you don’t remember me. I was just one of many, but perhaps this will assist your recognition,” and he pulled a small box out of his jacket pocket.

I recognized it at once and found myself imaging my old office in Brooklyn, just off Ocean Parkway, where I had set up my first clinical practice and had worked as a therapist for over fifteen years specializing in assessing and counseling, especially teens and young adults.

“We called you “the dean of teen,” my visitor told me in his raspy tenor voice as he handed me the box, “but in truth, you were a kind of savior.”

“Well,” I responded, “it’s becoming clear when I knew you. I take it you were one of the Kings Highway crowd I worked with?” and slid open the box.

“In a way, I was, but I was too poor to be in any teen groups. I was one of your frequent free visitors.”

There was something about his facial gestures and the darting movements of his eyes that began to seem somewhat familiar. If he had been one of my frequent free visitors, he had come to “open house” on Thursday afternoons when the teens whose parents paid me could invite their friends or any kid they thought might be having trouble discussing whatever was on their mind. Of course, I had clarified that the open house was just discussion and not therapy, primarily to protect myself.

“So, you would come to Open House?” I asked.

“All the time,” Stephan replied. “I had so many problems it felt as if I was doomed to stare into the eyes of a million Medusas each morning.”

I noted the apt metaphor and smiled. Then I lifted the box cover, peaked in, saw the pills, and returned the box to Stephan.

“I suspect you don’t need these anymore?” I humorously inquired.

“Oh, but I do,” he insisted, “not the pills, the box,”

My eyes widened in surprise as Stephan nodded and explained.

“You provided more assistance than you could ever realize. I need the box because of what it represents. When you would hand out these sugar pills that look like ecstasy or Adderall, it helped us when we were teens to earn acceptance into the in-groups that were always holding those wild parties. If we didn’t appear to be taking drugs, we would never be invited again, and, at that time, it felt crucial not to be excluded.”

“Well, I knew that,” I said. “That is why Fred, my friend, the pharmacist, and I created the sugar pills to resemble ecstasy and the others so that you could all be safe. There was no way of stopping you from getting to those parties.”

“Not then, but as we grow older, we realize what things mean. This box now represents for me that, no matter how difficult a problem seems, calm study and creative innovation can always make things much better. I always keep this box in my top desk drawer, and I take it out and squeeze it when I need to.”

“I’m delighted to hear this. I never imagined that our boxes of sugar pills would still be pertinent.” As I said this, I suddenly realized that the fleeting image of that small, thin adolescent boy had to have been a vague recollection of Stephan Jacobson. And now, I could see him, frightened, struggling, uncombed coal-black hair, but, although he never could realize it then, exceptionally intelligent.

“Stephan,” I said, looking at him warmly, “I now recognize you and remember you.”

Stephan smiled broadly, his eyes slightly tearing. “What is your life like now,” he asked.

“Well, I’m doing most of what I’ve always done, just a lot less. I’m still writing articles in psychology and putting out poems and stories. I still work as a therapist, but I have done this mostly via zoom ever since that pandemic, although all my clients are required to see me once a month in person at the old office my son uses now.   And, I teach one graduate course, also by zoom, for UCSD, a seminar in “Issues,” which means discussing whatever is on the minds of doctoral students beginning their work in the field.”

“Never considered retirement?” Stephan asked.

“Not sure I could feel who I am if I weren’t working, but, as I said, I’m not doing all that much. Can’t. I don’t have the strength. But, please, tell me about you?”

“Well, the Stephan Jacobson you knew had the nickname “Sulky,” which when I was 16 was an apt moniker. I was an only child, living with an old grandmother because my mother was mentally ill, and my father, an angry alcoholic, had picked up and left for Texas. I was small, thin, and very frightened about practically everything. I felt I was a failure as a boy, as unmacho as one could bullied, unathletic. I hated myself. I lost myself in books. Too distracted to do well in school.

“Yes, I remember now. I remember “Sulky.”

But, I did have one friend, a girl named Adelle, who kind of adopted me and treated me more like a pet than a person. She was kind, but she used me and even had me pose naked so she could practice her drawing, but we both knew practicing drawing was not the real reason. But, at that time, I was desperate for any kind of connection. You worked with Adelle. She was in one of your teen therapy groups. She was the one who brought me to Open House.

“Can’t remember, Adelle. Do remember “Sulky.”

“Anyway, although I never talked during Open House, just listened, you saw something in me that I didn’t and would spend time talking with me when everyone had left. I think we began talking about the books I was always reading.”

“You were a gifted kid who didn’t know it.”

“Well, you helped me realize that I had mental power. You would even give me assignments like puzzles or philosophical paragraphs to interpret. You can’t know how much I looked forward to that half-hour after Open House.

“Stephan, you should know that, now that I remember it all, I looked forward to that half-hour after Open House as much as you did.”

“Well, over time, I felt better about myself and felt a little less scared of everything. I even started to do better in school. Adelle noticed. I think she decided I could serve as an adequate boyfriend. She was the one who needed to go to those parties. But, we were both fearful of the drugs.”

“And so, you heard about and requested the sugar pills.” 

“Right. I hated those parties, but I liked seeing Adelle happy. Also, it felt good to handle the experience successfully.”

I nodded in understanding and asked, “So who are you now? What have you become?”

“There was a time, when I was a teen, that I considered ending my life. Fortunately, I considered this seriously but was too afraid to do it. My life began to change when I first met Adelle and then met you. But you helped me see I had both power and worth. I started doing well in high school, found I had an aptitude for mathematics, went on to Brooklyn College, and eventually wound up as a CPA who works for many of the largest corporations in New York, keeping their business records and developing primarily tax strategies to maximize their profits. I have become rather wealthy and successful.”

“May I inquire about your private life?”

“I don’t know if I can ever feel truly happy. My early life rocked me so that I suspect I have incurable anxiety about almost everything. However, I can handle it, and, like you, my work does much to sustain me. I am married to a wonderful woman who is, like me, the quiet type. She is a professor of literature at New York University.   We have no children and don’t plan on having any. We live in a rather luxurious Manhattan condo and enjoy theater, concerts, and the wonderful cultural entertainment Manhattan provides.”

“I am very happy for you, Stephan. You have come a long way.”

“Yes, indeed I have. I am surely no longer “Sulky.” But I don’t think you understand that I am just one of many who have been lifted by “the dean of teen.” I have contact with a number of those you assisted, including Adelle, and they all recount and appreciate the many different important ways you assisted them.”

“Helping people, especially young people, has always been for me both great joy and a reason for living. As a child, I grew up in New York in the era of the Nazi gas chambers, and, being Jewish, I also felt pessimistic and afraid of life. But then, I found that I delighted in interacting with children and teens and became first a teacher and then a psychologist, which lifted me into comfort and happiness, for which I am grateful. In other words, I may have received much more than I have given.”

“Stephan nodded and smiled broadly. “I am happy to learn that our interaction might have been a two-way street. I have always hated the “Sulky” I was, but, perhaps, Sulky’s existence did contribute to something of value.”

“Sulky and all of you have enabled me to enjoy and appreciate my existence.”

“Well, then,” Stephan announced, rising from his chair. “I think it is time for the gift.”

I had forgotten about the gift, having become so absorbed in our conversation and the images and feelings it rescued from my memory.

“It’s in the car. I’ll be right back,” and Stephan rose, walked to the door, and left, returning immediately with a small package. “I suspect it’s time to leave. I flew out to see you and have an early plane to catch back to New York. I cannot tell you how wonderful it has been to see you again.”

“I feel as happy about this visit as you do, Stephan,” I replied, and I stood, walked toward him, and accepted the package.  

We both had been deeply affected. We hugged one another rather firmly, and Stephan departed.

Now, alone, I wondered about the gift. I began to open the package, finding it to contain a computer disc. I went to my study, set the disc into the computer, and turned it on.

The screen revealed a two-story building, beautiful and very modern. As you were taken inside, you saw teenagers, boys, and girls sitting in a circle, talking. One could not decipher what they were saying, but they were animated and multi-racial. They were in a large space, but behind them were three smaller rooms whose doors opened into the larger area where the teens were gathered. A stairwell to the second floor was in the center of one long wall. The camera took you to all of the rooms one by one. The rooms contained chairs and some small tables and were all-purpose. Finally, you were born outside the front where the camera lifted to an attractive sign that read “The Michael Aimes Open House for Teens” and lower in smaller script “in appreciation of the dean of teen.”

Richard A. Schere, Ph.D. is a fellow of SDPA and in 2013 was presented with the SDPA Distinguished Contribution to Psychology Award. He continues to practice psychology in La Jolla. He works primarily with children and adolescents.