Achilles' Heel (Revised)

I reach down and rub my heel, but the itch doesn’t ease. The movement doesn’t escape Dr. Lucas’ notice, either, even though he never looks up from the letter he’s reading.

“What are you thinking?” he asks.

“Nothing,” I answer, knowing he’ll see right through the lie.

“Okay, then.” He drops the letter on the armrest of his chair and sits back. “What are you feeling?”

Damn. Right into the trap. I adjust my tie. I cross my legs. I uncross and recross them. I lean forward. I lean back. The leather sofa squeals as I move. I consider excusing myself to the john.

Dr. Lucas remains still and silent.

“Uncomfortable,” I finally answer. “I feel uncomfortable.”

“Why? What’s making you uncomfortable?”

Like he doesn’t know. I nod in the direction of his armrest. “That letter. What else?”

“What about the letter?” he asks, adjusting his glasses.

“Everything.” I tick off the reasons on my fingers. “It’s from the doctor at the psychiatric hospital. She wants me to visit my mother.  I haven’t seen my mother since I was sixteen.”

Dr. Lucas raises his eyebrow. “And?”

“And what?” I shift deeper into the sofa. More squeals.

“It seems you’re leaving out the most important part.”

“Really? I thought that went without saying.” My voice comes out much angrier than I’d intended, but I don’t apologize. Dr. Lucas has been teaching me to own my feelings, including—or maybe especially—my anger over my mother.

My goddamn mother.

Who thought she was the Greek nymph Thetis and I, her son Achilles.

Who decided the fountain at Oak Hills Mall was the River Styx.

Who spent my childhood in and out of sanity and institutions.

Who almost drowned me when I was nine months old. 

Who was now dying and wanted me to come see her.

Like that would make anything better.



I blink and make eye contact.

“You drifted away for a moment,” Dr. Lucas says. “Want to tell me what you were thinking?”

I raise my eyebrows and tilt my head.

He turns his hand palm up. “Out loud, please.”

“I don’t see the point of visiting. There is nothing she can say or do that will make up for the damage—”

“Maybe she wants to apologize.”

“Apologize?” I jam my fingers into my shoe and scratch. “What could an ‘I’m sorry’ do after all this time?”

Dr. Lucas looks directly at my scratching fingers. I yank my hand back to my lap. “…calm your anger,” he’s saying. “Soothe your hurt.”

I freeze for a moment. Did I hear correctly? “I thought you said there was no such thing as magic words.”

“Magic words, no. Healing words, yes, sometimes.” He holds up his pen. “If the listener is ready and willing to hear them.”

 I open my mouth to speak but change my mind. Maybe Dr. Lucas’ statement was really a question. Am I ready? Willing? How would I know? Damn it, I didn’t start this therapy thing to become “ready” for anything. I just wanted to know I hadn’t inherited my mother’s crazy. Milestone birthdays can have that effect.

 “What was that?” Dr. Lucas asks.

God, I hate that question.

“I saw something on your face just now,” he continues. “A pretty strong reaction, from the looks of it. Tell me about it.”

I take a deep breath and then let it rip. “Don’t you have tests for this stuff, like a real doctor would? Take a little blood, pop it into a machine, and bing, bang, boom, a diagnosis. This therapy...stuff has far too many gray areas, requires far too much thinking. If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have started at all. Then I coulda thrown out that damn letter without ever opening the envelope or feeling a twinge of anything.”

Dr. Lucas raises an eyebrow.

“Look.” I lean forward, elbows on my knees, ignoring the creak in the sofa, and lower my tone. “I get that this is my decision. But it would help me make my decision if I knew where you stood. All I want is a straight answer. Is that too much to ask?”

The good doctor shifts in his seat and taps his upper lip with his pen. I lean back and settle into my corner of the squeaky couch. I start to cross my arms, but force myself to rest them on the armrest and back of the sofa instead. I bite my cheek, resisting the overwhelming pull of my bothersome heel.

The silence lasts forever.

When Dr. Lucas clips his pen to the folder on the side table, I know I’ve won.

“No, it’s not,” he says in his let-me-talk-you-off-that-ledge voice. Is he being honest or humoring me?

I’ve got a good three inches and fifty pounds on him. I would never take advantage of that, but maybe he’s not so sure, given my uncharacteristic outburst. I want him to know he’s safe so I say, “Thank you, doc.”

He nods and tents his fingers. In his normal therapy voice he says, “You want to know if I think you should see your mother.”

I nod back. The man has a gift for stating the obvious.

“Short answer? Yes, I do.”


“I take it that wasn’t the answer you were hoping for?”

“That obvious, huh?” I hold up a hand. “No, don’t answer that. I know—my face is an open book.”

Dr. Lucas gives me a small smile. “Something like that.” The smile disappears when he says, “Are you ready for the long answer?”

“I’m not sure.” I stare at the painting of a sailboat on the wall behind him. I take a couple of measured breaths. “Tell me anyway.”

“Seeing your mother won’t be easy, but I think it’s necessary. You’ve demonized her. You need to see that she’s human and most importantly, that she no longer has power over you. Or rather, she only has whatever power you give her. I think seeing her will help you let her go.”

I sigh. “But what do I say to her?”

“You don’t have to say anything, but I would suggest at least offering hello and goodbye to be polite.”

Did he just make a joke?

“Mostly you should listen. Do what we’ve talked about before—observe and describe.”

Observe and describe. So much easier said than done. “And if I can’t? If I get upset? Can I storm out?”

“Of course you can leave, but I would hope that would be a last resort.”

In my rational mind, I know he’s right, but every cell in my body feels tense. When it comes to my mother, my fight-or-flight reflex has always been flight. Then a switch flips and I’m nine years old again. “Will you come with me?” I hear myself ask.

He shakes his head. “No, you need to do this on your own.” He leans forward. “You can do this on your own.” He grabs the phone off his side table. Handing it to me with the letter, he says, “Let’s start now. Call the hospital and make an appointment for your visit.”

I press the numbers and listen. When an efficient-sounding voice answers, I feel my shoulders sag. I speed through the rigmarole of introducing myself and explaining my situation, just to get it over with.

“One moment, sir,” the officious voice says. “I’ll transfer you to the ward.”

It’s only when I exhale that I realize I’d been holding my breath. I look at Dr. Lucas, who nods. The gesture is as close as I’m going to get to the hand-holding my inner nine-year-old craves.

“Mr. Summers?” This woman sounds as efficient as the first one but friendlier. “I’m so glad you called. Your mother has taken a turn for the worse and doesn’t have much time left. I suggest you get here as soon as you can.”

I know it’s a cliché, but I swear my jaw drops. I’m still getting used to the idea of seeing my mother. I’m not ready to actually do it. “Uh…one moment,” I stammer. I can’t find a MUTE button on the doc’s phone so I cover it with my hand while I relay the situation. I interpret his shrug as “Do whatever you want.”

Before my brain can order my thoughts, I hear myself say into the phone, “I’m afraid that’s not possible. Could I speak with her now?”

“Of course,” the woman assures me. “Let me transfer you to her room.”

My heart races. Do I call her Mom? Mother? As a teen, I’d repudiated her maternal connection and called her by her given name, Joanne. Do I that now, too?  I claw at my heel. What do I say after that? What if she can’t speak and I have to do all of the talking? What if—

“Mr. Summers? I’m putting the phone next to your mother.”

Dr. Lucas said to at least offer hello and goodbye. I look directly at him as I speak into the phone. “Hello?” He gives me that nod again.

“Who…is this?” The voice is weak, but familiar, and it unexpectedly draws a lump to my throat.

 “It’s Alan.” I swallow. “Your son.”

 “Alan.” I can tell by her voice she’s struggling to breathe. “So glad…to hear…your…voice.”

I answer in slow measured tones. “Yours, too. How are you?”

“Medicated. Very well medicated.”

I smile at her joke, though I suspect it contains more truth than humor. “I’m glad.” I pause before asking, “Your doctor said you wanted to see me. Why?”

She wheezes. I imagine her trying to take a deep breath. “I had to know,” she says, “that I didn’t… that my…that you’re okay.”

Are those Dr. Lucas’ “healing words”? If they are, why don’t I feel healed? But I know what words she needs to hear, so I give them. “I am. I’m okay. I’m fine.”

Her sigh tells me they worked. I hear the murmur of the friendly nurse in the background. Then my mother says, wheezingly, “Rose says I have to go, but I’m so glad you called. Thank you, Alan. Thank you so much.”  

“Goodbye.” I swallow the lump in my throat. “Mom.” I wait to hear the disconnecting click before pushing END CALL.

 Dr. Lucas offers a tissue from the box on his side table, and I take it. Dammit, crying is the last thing I want to do. It’s not until later, when I’m halfway home, that I realize my heel doesn’t itch anymore.


Click here to read the story behind this revised version of "Achilles' Heel."