In Zen funerals, we talk directly to the departed.
Oh, Linda. You were supposed to outlive all of us.
The last time that we really saw you was the summer of 2021. We went out to dinner, all of us, you and Jim, Dee and Morri and I, and then the next day you made a wonderful picnic lunch and we spent the day on Millstone Island at the camp that you loved so much. That was our last real time together and my last time on the island. I would have made more mental pictures. I would have gotten into the lake.
Of course, we did see you again this summer, just barely, just for a few minutes. You were already weak, awaiting the heart surgery, fearful of getting COVID or anything that might delay the surgery. You sat on the back porch and Dee, Morri and I all stood a safe distance away on the lawn, all of us wearing masks. You said optimistic things, but I left with the feeling that you knew that the end was near. You hadn’t yet gotten the cancer diagnosis.
Even after, I was feeling that you would regain your strength for a while, living with the pacemaker, that we would get to the island together this coming summer. Certainly, that we would somehow manage one final New Year’s Eve Party at your house, the big social event of my year from the time that I met you when Jim began working at Brookdale and you were living in Flatbush through the years on Staten Island. Last year, you had been talking about getting the old gang together, those of us who were left. Somehow, we would gather again in Maine.
You have left me with so many memories.
You were my most extraordinary supervisor. You were then a Deputy Director at South Beach, and I reported to you as Chief of the Mapleton Service. I would meet with you every other week and tell you the troubles I was having with various departments in the hospital, challenges in getting the resources that I needed. You would take notes; and when I met with you two weeks later, you would begin the meeting by telling me what you had been able to do to address the problems that I had been having.
Pretty soon after I became chief, when a major hurricane was scheduled to hit South Beach, we learned that we would have to evacuate the next day. You told me to come to your house early in the morning. If I left my car parked in the hospital parking lot, it would be destroyed by flooding. I don’t know how we got from your house to the hospital, but we evacuated to Willowbrook, which had only recently been closed down. The storm ended up making land fall far out on Long Island and by late afternoon we had all the patients back on their units and we were back at your house, sitting at your kitchen table drinking Scotch.
Your generosity was extraordinary. After I became Chief of the Children and Youth Service, -- by that time you were an Associate Commissioner, -- part of my job was to attend the statewide children and youth conferences. Most of the people in attendance were directors of the Children’s hospitals and the mucky-mucks from Albany. I was the top kid person at South Beach, so I had to go. I was a fish out of water. I didn’t know anyone. Except, fortunately, you. And at the cocktail parties, you would take me under your wing and introduce me to everyone. Everyone was so glad to see you. You would tell everyone that we owned the camp in Maine together. I felt special.
I love to tell people about how I got the Children and Youth job, how you called me one night to say that you and Lucy (the South Beach director) had been discussing the Children and Youth vacancy and decided that I was the perfect person to take that on. I told you it was the craziest idea I had ever heard. After all, we had built Mapleton into the premier geographic service at South Beach and Children and Youth was in trouble. It would be a lateral move for me. Why should I do that?
Later that night I thought better of how I handled it. I should not have told you, the commissioner, that your idea was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. I called you back. “I am really very flattered that you thought of me for this. I’d love to hear more about it.” I ended up making the lateral move. It turned out to be life changing in multiple ways. I met Dee while working at Children and Youth. I gained much of the experience which enabled us to build the network of charter schools on Staten Island which has welcomed and integrated students living with emotional challenges, students who were lost in the regular public schools but who didn’t need the level of care which we provided in psychiatric day hospitals and inpatient units.
I loved your stories. I retold many of them. Perhaps my favorite occurred that first summer after you moved to Maine to become the Superintendent of the Augusta state psychiatric hospital. These were the days before cell phones. Beepers were the thing. You were living that summer on the Island, where there was, of course, no phone service (or indoor plumbing, no electricity). You were pretty new on the job. Late one night, you’re all deep asleep. You get beeped. What can you do? You get up. You get dressed. You get into the boat, and putt-putt-putt across the lake to the landing where we could park our cars. You get into your car and drive a mile up the road to the motel where there was a pay phone in the parking lot. You call the hospital.
“Sorry,” they say. “It was an accidental beep.”
What could you do? You get back in the car, get back in the boat, chug back to the island, tie up the boat, get back in your pajamas and go back to sleep.
I loved to tell this story to colleagues who were complaining about the phone call they’d gotten over the weekend. “You know, it could have been worse.”
Perhaps the most extraordinary lesson I learned from watching you, was how fearless you were in accepting challenges. I couldn’t it believe when you agreed to lead the OMH Shelter Project. Why would you do that? Deinstitutionalization had dumped hundreds, thousands of psychiatric patients out of the wards of the gigantic State hospitals in the city and on Long Island and onto the streets of New York. You agreed to lead a team which would help get these people off the streets, to get them the services which they desperately needed, without reinstitutionalizing them. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to be going into shelters looking for homeless mental patients. That was years before I met Bernie and was introduced to his passion for helping the homeless, years before I began going on Street Retreats with Bernie, and began to face the Shadow which I was so quick to turn away from, which you were so willing to face.
For sure, it turned out to be a great career move. It brought you the recognition that led to the commissionership and to your dream job in Maine. The amazing thing to me was that you were just doing the right thing. And the Universe responded.
There are so many stories. Too many to tell all at once. I know I will miss you, Linda, but I have my stories.