He recognized me before I recognized him. We were in Yerushalayim on different sides of the street. He was six foot two waving and yelling my name. “Noach, Noach, Noach Schwartz, the social worker! It’s me Yechiel Klein! Don’t you remember me?” He was wearing a hat, white shirt and suit and looked like a regular bochur from the Mir or Brisk. He did not look like the Yechiel I had met ten years earlier at a clinic in Boro Park.
I was the new clinician, right out of school, at my first job. I had so much to learn, no experience and no time. It was on the job training. I was still trying to make heads and tails out of goals and objectives when my supervisor explained that my goal was not to get fired and my objective was to finish my notes daily in order not to get fired.
On a cold January afternoon, an angry couple in their late fifties came in for an intake. They had with them a 15-year-old teenage boy who looked like he was nine. He looked bored with this whole thing. They told me that they were here because Yechiel’s yeshiva was threatening him with expulsion. They painted a picture of a defiant teenager who missed classes often, and was caught smoking, stealing and hanging out with the wrong crowd. His father, a rabbi, told me that until six months before Yechiel was at the top of his class both in Limudai Kodesh and Limudai Chol. He told me he gave up on him and it was now my job to find out what was bothering his son and to fix it. Thank you.
I prepared for my first session with Yechiel and thought I had a good plan. I would tell the kid that I too had been a troublemaker in high school and had also been threatened many times with suspension and look at me now. I figured that Yechiel would relate to me, and change immediately – because I told him to. He would become an A student. His parents would send me a big mishloach manos, the yeshiva would write a letter to my boss, I would not have to write notes and Schwartz would be the greatest psychotherapist since Freud.
I awoke from my dreams pretty quickly. Yechiel did not talk. Our sessions were forty-five minutes of silence. It was brutal. At first I talked, but even people like me get tired of hearing themselves talk. By week five our sessions were limited to games of gin rummy. It was extremely difficult writing notes on silent sessions. However, the kid was a good gin player. I could not win a single round. One day, out of desperation, I told him he should play gin rummy with his mom, and beat her too.
He then told me his mom was dead. He began to talk. He said the lady that came with his dad for the intake was his father’s new wife. He told me she slept in his mom’s bed. Gin!
Yechiel told me his mom died of cancer. She came to his bar mitzvah and then passed away. Slowly, he told me the story of her life and her death. He told me that he had six older siblings – all married. He told me that his mom loved him, because she told him so three days before the levaya. He told me that his mom was dead for eleven months when his father remarried. Gin!
He told me he did well in school through out his mom’s illness and even after the aveilus. He told me he davened for the amud daily in yeshiva and never missed a kadish. Gin!
Yechiel said his father’s second marriage was more devastating to him than his mom’s death. The pain of his mother being gone, and his father having a new roommate was just too much for him to handle. He told me he was trying alcohol and drugs and skipping school. He said he had a morbid joy witnessing the pain of his father and stepmother. He said he had a fantasy that his father would divorce his wife in order to prevent Yechiel from going completely off the derech. Gin!
He told me his siblings and their spouses spent hours trying to talk sense into him and all he told them was that his stepmom was the problem. Gin!
He told me he hated the family gatherings when his sisters and brothers came with their spouses and talked about his mother, He expressed his anger at the chutzpa of these people who have spouses and families and were mourning his mother, while Yechiel was the only one who truly felt her death. Gin!
He said the only real yosem was he. Yechiel was the only one truly capable of feeling mommy’s loss because he was lost. Mommy died alone and he was alone. Gin!
One day during our card game, Yechiel told me he dreaded going to the cemetery with the family for the yahrzeit the next month. He said that once again his siblings would cry their eyes out that mommy was not here, while standing next to their spouses. He said he would feel invisible.
I was aware that Yechiel spent his days cutting class, riding his bike, smoking cigarettes, while trying not to get expelled from yeshiva. I asked him, “Where do you bike to”? He said, “No where in particular.” I asked him what cemetery his mom was buried in. We Googled it and found out that the cemetery was only 8 miles from his house. He called the office and they told him they could show him his mother’s grave.
The following week he came and told me he spent time with his mom. He said he rode down Ocean Parkway through Prospect Park onto Eastern Parkway into Bushwick, found the cemetery, and his mom’s grave. He told me he had a long conversation with her and told her how lonely he was and how much he missed her. He told her that he knew that Tatty could not deal with the loneliness and needed a wife. However, the new wife was not a replacement for her. He told her that he realized now how much chesed she did and how smart, funny and frum she was. He told her how angry he got when Tatty’s wife told him to go to sleep. She was not his mother! He told her he missed her desperately and could not get over the pain. He cried at the grave. He told me he cried, but he was not alone. He told me he felt his mother was crying as well. He told me he was biking daily to the cemetery and talking to his mom. He told me it was good to be with his mom. He was not alone. He also said that he was ready to share his mom with the rest of the family at the upcoming yahrzeit.
In June, Yechiel reported that he was accepted to an out of town yeshiva high school. In July, Yechiel said good-bye to me and went to camp. I wrote the notes, and the discharge summary, and got busy with other patients. I hoped and prayed that all would be well with Yechiel. I figured I would never see him again and forgot him.
However, we met in Yerushalayim. Yechiel told me that he had done well in high school and Bais Medrash and was living and learning in Israel with a wife and daughter. He thanked me for being there for him through his teen-age crisis.
He looked me straight in the eyes and thanked me again. This time I cried. Gin!
This session never got in to the notes.
About the Author: Noach Schwartz LCSW, CASAC, CSAT-C, is a clinical social worker with a private practice in Boro Park. Noach is trained in Motivational Interviewing, CBT, DBT, and the 12 Steps. Noach specializes in behavior addictions and sees individuals, (incuding children), groups, and their spouses in Boro Park as well as Manhattan. He can be reached at 718-974-4391 or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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