by JoeAnn Hart
When Ruthie Clarke had a last minute
cancellation in her schedule, she collapsed on
the sofa with her iPad. The hell with catching
up on billing—she needed a mental health hour
of her own. Her years as a therapist had taught
her the best medicine she could give those in
crisis was her presence. Her unwavering
presence. But what did that even mean these
days? How much presence could be had
through a computer screen? And yet the
demand was never greater—current patients,
former clients, new referrals—everyone was a
hot pandemic mess. She’d switched out the
guestroom for an office, creating a backdrop of
diplomas and books, but something was
missing. She made a masked dash back to her
old office for a print she’d had for years,
All In This Together
. Now her motto was the
world’s, plastered on billboards up and down
the empty highways.

She scrolled through the day’s news, avoiding
catastrophes of all sorts—viral, political, or
climate related, sifting out almost everything,
and before she knew it she was reading the
obituaries. It used to be a single page. Now it
was a section. She did not swipe through
these. The dead deserved respect, so many
having had to die alone, leaving her and her
colleagues to deal with the family wreckage of
shock and unresolved grief. She scanned the
names, noting age, gender, occupation, and
the death itself, her eyes hunting for the words
“pneumonia,” or simply “lost to coronavirus.”
She began to drift in the stream of universal
human sorrow, where she’d led so many
grieving patients, helping them carry the love
they felt for the dead, and through that love
help them discover the strength to carry on

Enough. She could not start the next session all
tear-stained. But just as she was about to
power down she saw a familiar face. Gizela! A
former patient. Ruthie closed her eyes and
prayed it was not suicide, a solution that had
always been on the table. Gizela was born in
Czechoslovakia, and was five years old when
her mom hanged herself in the family orchard.
Apparently, with such deaths it was customary
to chop the tree down with the body, and the
father said: Did she have to hang herself from
our best one? An aunt swept Gizela up and
took her to America, leaving the father behind
with his ragged stump.

Like many immigrants Gizela was encouraged
to put her past behind her. She received an
education in the arts, got married, and had a
baby, Hanna. But the past will only stay put for
so long. Gizela began sleeping around, trying
to fill the empty space inside where her mother
used to be, resulting in a painful divorce. The
father successfully sued for custody, claiming
she was a slut. Gizela wished him dead, and
within a year he was, crumpled like bloody
tissue in a car crash. Hanna was with him.
Gizela believed she killed her daughter with her
promiscuity, in the same way—as so many
children of suicides believed—she thought she’d
done something that sent her mother into the

Gizela spent years in a very dark place, but
when she began to have fantasies of killing
someone, anyone, to relieve the pressure, she
finally sought help. Ruthie hardly knew where
to start. She did not think Gizela was a real
threat to herself or others, but irrational beliefs
could be nearly indestructible. Gizela refused
both hospitalization and drugs, and so they
talked. And talked. How to live with crippling
psychic pain? How to separate violent thoughts
from reality? It was heavy lifting, but Gizela
was curious about herself and the mind, taking
copious notes. Ruthie liked that in a patient.
Together, they created a new narrative for her
life which blamed bad luck, not herself, for the
deaths. They discussed how great loss could be
transformed into a life of meaning. Gizela
began volunteering with immigrant children at
a detention center, doing simple collage
projects. It led her to a passion for mosaics,
creating something whole from broken pieces.
Art can’t bring the dead back to life but it can
sometimes heal wounds. Beyond that, she
came to see that not all wounds needed healing
and not all scars were ugly.

Two years into their work, Gizela announced
she was ready to go it alone, and that was that.

Ruthie opened her eyes and read the obit. Not
a suicide, but the coronavirus. A relief of sorts.
Suicide would have felt like a failure on Ruthie’s
part, but it was so sad Gizela died as she was
starting anew. But wait. She left behind a
loving husband of forty years? Two living adult
children, not one dead one? Born in
Czechoslovakia, yes. Photo, yes, it was
definitely her. Ruthie wondered if some
stranger had written the obituary, someone
who hadn’t known Gizela at all. It was chaotic
times in the funeral biz after all. She went to
the memorial site to find out more, and there
was a personal message posted by Hanna, the
daughter she’d been told had died. “As many of
you know, right before my wonderful mom got
Covid-19, she signed a contract for her first
book, a psychological thriller. It meant the
world to her. The heavily-researched plot
follows a therapist who can’t see that her
patient is a sociopathic murderer. Mom even
went into therapy herself to learn about the
process. In lieu of flowers for a funeral we can’t
have anyway, we ask that when it’s released in
a few months you purchase a copy of
We’re All
In This Together
in her memory.”

JoeAnn Hart is the author of Stamford ’76: A True Story of
Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s (University
of Iowa Press, 2019), a true crime memoir. Her novels are Float
(Ashland Creek Press, 2013), a dark comedy about plastics in
the ocean, and Addled (Little, Brown, 2007), a social satire that
intertwines animal rights with the politics of food. Her short
fiction and essays have been published in a wide range of
literary magazines and anthologies, including Prairie Schooner,
Solstice, The Sonora Review, The Woven Tale, and Black Lives
Have Always Mattered. Her work, which also includes articles,
essays, and drama, often explores the relationship between
humans and their environments.
$25 Award