Our Time is Up

Our Time is Up

by Roberta Satow
Share a deeply intimate relationship between patient and therapist in this excerpt from Roberta Satow’s newest book, “Our Time is Up.”
Filed Under: Psychodynamic
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When I arrived at Joan’s, there was construction going on. The elevator I had usually taken was being worked on, so I had to take the service elevator. I asked the doorman what was happening and he said they were making the elevator self-service and doing some redecorating.

“What will John [the elevator operator] do then?” I asked naively.

“He’s retiring. He was over 70.”

Sad I had not said goodbye to him, I frowned. I had seen him three times a week for years and had just taken him for granted. I guess I thought he would always be there.

When I rang Joan’s bell, she startled me by opening the door herself rather than ringing me in. Her face was ashen, as if all the color had been siphoned out and her eyes had small dark pouches under them. I had a feeling of foreboding; I could hear my heart pounding.

“Hi, Rose,” she said with as much of a smile as she could muster.

She opened the door to her office for me to go in and when she walked over to her chair she was limping. I didn’t notice it before because she was sitting in her chair the last couple of times I arrived for my sessions. I wondered what that could be about. Maybe she hurt her leg or needed a hip replacement.

She said, “Instead of lying down today, why don’t you sit up?”

Then I knew this wasn’t about her leg or her hip. Propping up the pillow against the wall under the Georgia O’Keeffe poster, I tried not to breathe, as if that would delay the bad news. I noticed the philodendrons by the window were brown around the edges; she must have forgotten to water them.

“I thought I hurt myself exercising at the gym when I first felt a pain in my side.” Her tone was calm and accepting; I could feel myself exhale. Her gray roots were showing, and her hair was flat on one side as if she had slept on that side and not taken a shower and washed her hair that morning.

then he called me to tell me it wasn’t a hairline fracture — the cancer has returned
“When it didn’t get any better in a few weeks, I went to the doctor, and he said it was probably a hairline fracture. He took an X-ray. Then he called me to tell me it wasn’t a hairline fracture — the cancer has returned. It’s metastasized and it’s cracked my bones in the hip and pelvis.”

I let out a gasp. “Oh, fuck!” My lower back tightened.

She went on unruffled. “I’m going to need a partial hip replacement and they’re going to put a pin in my hip. I won’t be able to walk for several weeks.”

“Will you come back after that?” I asked hopefully, like a child asking her mother if she will come home after she goes away for a trip.

She looked down for a moment as if she were avoiding my eyes. Still not looking at me, she said hesitantly, “No . . . I won’t be coming back. It’s terminal.” Then she looked at me and her eyes were wet with tears. Her shoulders were hunched as if she had given up on trying to sit up straight.

I struggled for breath as a waterfall of tears careened off my face. “How will I go on without you?”

I got off the couch and kneeled in front of her chair, putting my head on her lap and my arms around her. I was quiet; I just wanted to hold onto her.

She stroked my hair and whispered, “You will be fine. You’ve come such a long way; you’re such a good analyst and you have Stephen. You’ll be okay.”

“Joan, I love you true and blue and like glue. I hope you know that.”

“Of course, I do.”

I noticed a run in her stocking and suddenly realized I might be hurting her by leaning on her that way, so I got up and walked over to sit on the couch.

I wondered if Joan felt guilty leaving me in the middle. The problem is you never know what’s the middle.

I pondered the question out loud to Joan. “Maybe that’s why sessions are purposely set up to end at an arbitrary moment — to end in the middle.”

“What do you mean?” The lines around Joan’s eyes had deepened considerably from the last time I’d looked at her face closely.

“Well, they always end after 45 minutes no matter what’s going on in the session. I used to get so angry at you for that. It felt so heartless. It felt like you didn’t care about me.”

Joan laughed and said, “Yes, I remember.” Then she added, more seriously: “There are things you can’t control. We have to live with that.” Her arms were crossed as if she were hugging herself.

“But you seem so calm. You don’t sound angry. Why?”

my mother died of breast cancer when I was 16,” she said, knitting her brows. “I think I’ve always known this was going to happen
“Well, you know . . . Of course, you don’t know, but my mother died of breast cancer when I was 16,” she said, knitting her brows. “I think I’ve always known this was going to happen. It’s been a time bomb ticking my whole life. It isn’t a surprise.”  

I was torn between the pleasure at her telling me about herself and my compassion for her having spent her whole life waiting to die.

“How were you able to stand my anger at my mother when you lost yours at such a young age?” I asked.

She tilted her head as if she was considering the question, but then her face grimaced in pain when she tried shifting her body in her chair. “My mother never talked to me about her illness or about dying. My father died when I was 10 and there was never any discussion about it. My mother would say, ‘He’s dead, what’s there to talk about?’ And when she was dying, she never tried to help me, and my brother worked through the loss of her. She didn’t want to talk about it. So, I understood your anger at your mother.”

“So, you were angry at your mother too,” I said with raised eyebrows.

“Yes. Maybe that’s why your analysis has worked so well. I’ve always identified with you. Even rooted for you. My mother used to say, ‘You’ll break your arm patting yourself on the back.’ So, it’s been a struggle for me to feel pleasure at my accomplishments, but it’s been a delight to see yours. I feel so proud of you.”   

She smiled at me again, but her eyes looked sad. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to stop now.”

An old part of me erupted for a moment — I bawled. “You mean stop forever?”


The eruption was over in a moment. I didn’t want to cause her any more pain than she was already suffering from.

“Can I visit you?” I pleaded.

“I don’t know yet. We’ll have to see. Do you think you can bear that?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to.”

“Why don’t you wait a month so I can see how I am doing after the surgery and when I start the chemo. Then I’ll know better.”

“Okay.” I got up from the couch and looked into her sad blue eyes and said in a choking voice, “Goodbye. Please remember I love you true and blue.” Then I turned and walked out the door of the office.


weeping turned into bawling by the time I got to Broadway
I contained myself until I reached the street. Weeping turned into bawling by the time I got to Broadway. People turned to look, but kept their distance, walking past me quickly as if they would catch whatever I had. I thought about what I said to her. By then I knew I didn’t need to see Joan in order to ward off my sense of isolation and exile. I had Stephen and a growing practice, and I was feeling full and capable of nurturing. Joan and I had been talking about terminating my treatment soon anyway. I wanted to see her because I cared about her; I wanted to give her my love, but I had stopped feeling desperate for her.

I thought about Frume Minkowitz and my guilt when I had to leave her in the middle of the semester. One day I walked out of my classroom at Brooklyn College and a young woman was standing in the hall with a baby in a snuggly on her chest and two toddlers holding her hands. She was wearing a sheitel and a long-sleeved blouse although it was a warm spring day. She looked familiar, but I didn’t know who she was.  

“Rose?” Her large brown eyes looked intensely into mine, “I’m Frume.”

She had come to tell me she had not only survived the aftermath of my leaving her, but she had thrived. Her smile was radiant as she introduced her three children.

She said, “I’d like you to meet my children. This is Avram, he’s 3.” She raised her right hand to indicate the little boy with peyos was Avram. Then she raised her left hand to indicate the four- or five-year-old with the long pink dress and matching tights and said, “And this is Shoshanna.” She looked down at the sleeping baby in the snuggly and said, “And last but not least, this is Joshua.”

“Oh, my god,” I gasped and immediately felt embarrassed at the inappropriateness of using G-d’s name in response to her.

“I wanted you to know,” she said with a knowing smile, “that you changed my life, and I never forgot you. I had a rough patch for a while but now I have Shmule and our children and I’m very happy. I wanted you to know that.” A tear ran down her left cheek.

This excerpt is taken from "Our Time is Up" by Roberta Satow (2024) and published here with explicit permission of IPBooks.  

© 2024, Psychotherapy.net
Roberta Satow Roberta Satow, PhD is a New York based psychoanalyst, speaker and author of Doing the Right Thing: Taking Care of Your Elderly Parents Even if They Didn’t Take Care of You, Gender and Social Life and the novel: Two Sisters of Coyoacán. Professor emerita of the department of sociology at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York, Dr. Satow speaks and writes about issues of aging, gender, and mental health.