S. Nadja Zajdman
© Copyright 2020 by S. Nadja Zajdman
He was born in Joliet, Quebec, early in 1926. He had an unremarkable childhood, and came of age listening to Rene Levesque’s Radio-Canada broadcasts from a newly liberated Europe. With a marked distaste for organized religion in a province dominated by the Catholic Church, his options were few. He chose to become a doctor.
It would be as a young general practitioner dispensing tranquilizers to burdened housewives compelled to bear too many children, that he discovered his gift for healing wounded souls. By the simple act of listening to his patients and receiving what they had to say, the G.P. noticed that they began feeling better even before they filled his prescriptions. Fascinated by this phenomenon, he decided to further explore it. At the age of 28, handicapped by a severely limited knowledge of English, he applied as a mature student to Harvard’s medical school in the department of psychiatry.
The G.P. from Joliet was accepted.
On his first night at Harvard, he went to take a shower in the communal washroom, inadvertently walking in on a nude female student. Though limited, Liard’s English was still better than the Harvard administration’s French, and he guessed what led to the mix-up. He had been billeted in the women’s dormitory. The English translation of his name was John. In French, it was spelled JEAN. He remembered the documents in his room, which would prove his identity. In an attempt to communicate with the distraught young woman, Jean from Joliet carefully and haltingly iterated, “Come to my room. I want to show you something.” The terrified female was hysterical now. Jean retreated to his room without a shower. The next morning he contacted the administration, and was quickly transferred to the men’s dorm.
After completing his course of studies, Dr. Jean Liard returned to Quebec fluently bilingual, with a degree in psychiatry, and an American bride. He took up residency at The Montreal General Hospital, and twenty years later he would confess to me that he had been compelled to witness, though he never actively participated in administering electric shock treatments. He was repelled by the procedure, and embarrassed that he had even a peripheral part in them.
As Dr. Liard’s medical career progressed, he was invited to sit on advisory boards where colleagues would pontificate, “Neurotics are too difficult to treat. Its best to break them down and make them schizophrenic so we can prescribe Librium.” Dr. Liard didn’t last long in these settings. An iconoclast ahead of his time he would, over time, withdraw, walk out, and resign in disgust. He opened his own practice under Quebec’s newly established Medicare plan, and that is how I met him in August of 1976.
I was sent to Dr. Liard after a suicide attempt, precipitated by a therapist’s repeated sexual abuse. Eating disordered and in an emotionally fragile state, I had been taken to this fashionable therapist, who began molesting me under the guise of treatment. As my parents paid his bill, he would report to them that I was frigid.
Visiting the country cottage of family friends with my parents the summer when I was four, I knew enough to run and scream at the top of my lungs, “Eric tried to pull my panties down!” I also knew to run for protection to the men, not to the women. By the time I was 20, I had been civilized and subdued into a paralytic silence.
After I cut my wrists, the offending therapist tossed me to Dr. Liard. After the assessment, Dr. Liard decided that I was to come in for sessions three times a week. He half-reassured and half-reprimanded my frightened parents, “That girl is saner than 99 per cent of the shrinks I know. She’s just very confused—and I don’t blame her!” Much later he would tell me, “When you first walked in you were distraught, but I could see that the eye of the storm is calm.”
Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, Dr. Liard’s leading questions were meant to ferret out a sense of self-loathing I believed no one had ever suffered, except me. After the first week in treatment I told my mother what had taken place in the therapist’s office. I felt Dr. Liard needed to know—as if he hadn’t guessed—but I was unable to bring myself to tell him directly, so I sent my parents instead.
At the appointment I avoided, my parents asked Dr. Liard if they should instigate legal proceedings against my molester. He advised against it. “Your daughter isn’t strong enough to withstand a court case. The law is slanted in favour of the perpetrator. A legal proceeding would destroy her. I’ll fix that bastard in my own way. She’s more important than he is. My mission is to save her life.”
Liard kept his word. When the therapist’s lease in the medical building came up for renewal, Liard organized a posse of neighbouring doctors and let the landlord know that they would relocate en masse if the therapist’s lease was renewed. The therapist left; the doctors stayed.
When I returned for the next appointment, Liard’s sole reference to the revelations I had transmitted through my parents was oblique. “If someone throws dirt on you, it isn’t your dirt. You can always take a shower and become clean.”
At the end of the session, he idled in the doorway of his office. I would come to recognize it as his signature stance. “By the way,” Liard remarked, too casually. Then his bulbous blue eyes, like searchlights, bored into mine. He cocked an eyebrow, and a hint of a grin played across his moustache-framed mouth. “Did I pass?”
In response, I lowered my gaze and gave him a shy and grudging smile.
After my first year in treatment, my father mused, “I used to think psychiatrists were for crazy people. Now I see that they’re really for sensitive people—to learn how to deal with crazy people!”
Quebec Medicare covered only one year of psychiatric treatment. In the summer of 1977 my parents asked Dr. Liard how they could continue paying him. “Don’t worry,” he grinned at my mother, with his customary twinkle. “I’ll use your card for a year, then I’ll take your husband’s card, and then I’ll use your son’s card. I’ll make you all sick!”
Jean Liard was short, for a man. I remember him standing five feet six inches. He had a thick mass of wavy hair, originally dark, which looked like a chef had been too liberal with a salt shaker. A moustache in the same salt and pepper tones framed a mouth that appeared constantly poised to break into a grin. He smoked cigarettes and made singular fashion statements. In spring he sported tan-coloured slacks and a loud plaid jacket.
In summer he donned white sneakers and a scarlet-red suit with a matching red tie that looked like a flashing exclamation mark.
Not surprisingly, Liard’s role models were comedians. He made a point of letting me know, “The people I remember with the greatest affection are the people who have made me laugh. People who make us laugh are worthy of memory.”
He held Bob Hope in high esteem because, for decades, Hope sacrificed a comfortable Christmas at home with family in order to entertain the young and scared and lonely stationed overseas. He made a study of the late-night television talk show host Johnny Carson. He countered my derisive reaction with, “Do you think it’s easy to invite in strangers, seat them on a couch, and then make them feel so comfortable that they’ll reveal their secrets to you? Think about it. Carson makes it look easy, but it’s not as easy as it looks.”
I thought about it. Then I went home and thought about it. Again.
My jaunty doctor sparkled when he spoke and glowed when he moved. His smile was sly, his laugh was a shout of delight, and there appeared always to be a hint of mischief in his pale, bulbous eyes.
This shining diamond seemed to have cultivated a persona akin to Peter Falk’ s television detective Colombo, a character at the height of its popularity during that period. Liard knew, before you did, where the bodies were buried and who had murdered the victims, but with his light-hearted, almost absent-minded air, he would coax the hidden culprits into consciousness.
During the first year in treatment, I began to write. This time, I wasn’t writing to please my English teachers. I was writing because, if I didn’t write, I was going to eat and eat and eat. I was writing in order to safely express my rage and my anguish, instead of stuffing them down. I was writing to pacify my ravaged spirit. I was writing to save my sanity.
As I wrote, often in the middle of a sleepless night, I gave myself one proviso. Whatever I wrote, I would then destroy. This decision won me the freedom to write without self-censorship.
After months of intense literary outpouring I discovered that I was beginning to write coherently, even eloquently. I then gave myself permission to save these passages in a notebook. I had inadvertently and organically begun a journal.
In the autumn of 1977, I went overseas for the first time. From London, I wrote Liard a long letter. Upon my return, he raved about it. “I showed it to my wife! I showed it to my children! I told them, ‘You must read this! Its from a patient who is simply describing what she sees, and its as if we’re right there with her, seeing it too!’” Liard dubbed me “the 20th century de Sevigny” in reference to the 17th century French aristocrat whose letters were celebrated for their vividness and wit.
At the end of the session, at the door, I stopped, hesitated, and shyly asked, “Would you like to see some of the other stuff I wrote?”
Liard hooted in triumph. His bulbous eyes appeared to bug out of his head. “Well what do you think I’ve been hinting at all morning!”
A morning appointment was atypical. Most of my appointments were set at the end of the day in order to accommodate my father, who drove me to them at the end of his workday. Dr. Liard never prescribed medication. He used his prescription pad only to note down appointment times. He disregarded the hour limit set by Quebec Medicare, and gave his patients all the time they needed. I always had a book with me, while waiting my turn, and I never minded the wait. My father would sit and wait with me, and then he would sit and wait for me. When I emerged, sometimes after a three-hour session, we would go out for a leisurely dinner, in order to give me time to decompress. I cherished the private time these circumstances afforded with my father as much as I valued my sessions with Liard. I would never again love, nor be loved, by such sterling men.
When Dr. Liard read my journal entries he said, “Your writing is mature, but you are not. You’ll have to grow into your talent.” Dr. Liard became convinced that I would become a writer. He bore witness to my return to classes, my first job, and my foray into professional theatre. All the while he burbled and believed, “I have the best of both worlds here in my office, because I get to enjoy your physical expressiveness, the sound of your voice, and I am an audience to your ideas. It would be a gift to the public if you would combine these things. Perhaps, one day, you’ll merge your acting with your writing talent. Perhaps, one day, you’ll be performing your own words.”
These days, when I find myself at a podium, on a stage, on the verge of giving a literary reading, I see my Colombo-of-the-soul shifting in his swivel chair. “Is this what you meant?” I address my blithe spirit, now resident in a parallel universe. “Is this what you saw for me?”
I was three years into treatment when Liard transferred his practice to a small room with a separate entrance in the basement of his new home. In this space serving as an office, a long and wide picture window looked out onto a body of water. The water was ringed by virgin wilderness. Liard called the water a river, but it may have been a lake. Two identical swivel chairs furnished the space. Liard claimed the chair close to the window, and patients were relegated to the chair that I came to call The Hot Seat.
The house seemed to have leapt off the cover of Home Beautiful Magazine. It was located on a secluded island across the bridge from Dollard des Ormeaux. Ile Bizard, or Buzzard’s Isle, as Liard loved to call it, was still a well-kept secret enjoyed by the privileged few. Liard seemed to need to explain to me how a doctor working under the financial constraints of socialized medicine was able to acquire such a find. My psychiatrist confided to me that years earlier, he had a patient who epitomized a modern-day Job. He was a businessman who had gone bankrupt. His wife left him, taking their children with her. The man was despondent. He became suicidal.
Dr. Liard offered the patient a sum of money to restart his business on condition that he accept it as a gift, and not as a loan. “Once the funds are transferred, they become yours. You are not allowed to pay me back.” The patient accepted Liard’s gift, and restarted his business. The new business boomed. The patient became a multi-millionaire. He remarried, and started a new family.
When he was fully on his feet, the grateful patient turned the tables on Dr. Liard. He offered to make him a gift of a luxury home, and to set up a trust fund for his children. Liard knew not only how to give, but he knew to do what is harder, which is to receive. Dr. Liard and his family were secure for life.
I was amazed. I was also mystified. “Just like that? You gave him the money and everything turned around for him? Why did you insist on giving him the money? Why didn’t you just give him a loan?”
Patiently, Liard explained. “By its nature, a loan creates stress. As soon as a person accepts a loan he is under pressure to pay it back. The man had lost everything. He couldn’t handle more stress. What he needed was someone to believe in him. Making a gift of the money gave him the confidence to believe in himself.”
What was it that Dr. Liard saw in me? I was on the cusp of womanhood. He would keep me for hours after the official end of our sessions, filling me with stories of his life and experiences. Why did he pour so much of himself into me? It seemed as if, like my father, he subconsciously felt a sense of urgency in preparing me for a future he wasn’t going to see.
Leaning back in his swivel chair to admire the wild beauty of the body of water flowing virtually at his feet, Liard revelled in his self-created role as an eccentric psychiatrist ensconced on “Buzzard’s Isle.” Approaching his mid-fifties, Liard had it made. His marriage was happy and his children were well adjusted. His work was meaningful, and the good he had done was rewarding him tenfold. Indeed, the doctor had everything. He had everything except time.
During the third year of treatment I had a stunningly vivid dream. I was standing in a darkened room, dressed in black. People dressed in white surrounded me. They milled around the room, conversing with each other, but I stood still and alone, as if enveloped in a placenta. I stood staring at a long and wide object. It was a coffin, and Dr. Liard was in it.
I was deeply disturbed by this dream. I wasn’t sure I would divulge it to Liard. Ultimately I did, and my premonition was dismissed. “It doesn’t mean anything. You’re just afraid of losing me.” This was true, as far as it went. In the same year, Liard quit smoking cold turkey. He made the effort too late.
Life seemed to accelerate during that last good year. My mother asked to be taken on by Dr. Liard. When I made the request, he hooted, “Ho ho! Mother AND daughter, eh? Well, if you can handle it, I can!”
My laconic younger brother, who kept his own counsel and went his own way, startled us all when he announced that he was considering becoming a psychiatrist, and would Dr. Liard see him for a consultation on the matter? Introducing my brother to the psychiatrist I watched, with amusement, as his confidence turned to discomfort when he realized that he was about to enter The Hot Seat. Liard darted a barely perceptible glance at me, and I knew to remove myself to the waiting room.
No matter what progress I made, Liard would not consider his work complete until he saw me, literally, in the driver’s seat. I had always been afraid of learning to drive. During the fourth year of treatment, I learned. Still, I was afraid to drive as far as Ile Bizard. In the summer of 1980, I drove to Ile Bizard.
It was the first week of August. People were on vacation and traffic was light. The night before my appointment I took my father’s car and drove along the 2 and 20 highway, across the West Island and over the bridge that spans Rivieres des Prairies. I timed the drive, and then gave myself extra time the following day.
The afternoon of my appointment was picture perfect. Soft cottony clouds scudded across a block of solid blue sky. The mid-summer sun blazed, and the grass on Liard’s lawn shimmered like emerald threads.
Liard came into the waiting room to greet me, costumed in his merry red suit. Atypically, he was on time. No one else emerged from his office, and we were alone in the waiting room. I appeared to be the only patient he was seeing that day.
Mischievously, he looked around. He even looked under the cushions of the chairs. I stifled a guffaw.
“Your father’s not here.”
I was prepared to play. “No, he’s not.”
“Your brother’s not here?”
“No. Just me.” My grin grew wider. So did Liard’s.
“How did you get here—by helicopter?”
I pointed towards the entrance. My father’s car was parked outside. Liard’s grin grew as wide as the grin on Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. “Good. Good.” He tilted his head towards the open door of his office. “Come in.”
At the end of the session we stood at a small table situated in the corner away from the window. It held little more than pens and a prescription pad on which to note appointment reminders. Liard told me he was going to take a break for the rest of the summer, and gave me an appointment for after Labour Day. He had never taken off so much time before, but I thought nothing of it. Standing at the desk with my appointment reminder in hand, I repeated a question I had asked in many ways, many times before. “Why does it work between us?”
We were standing side by side. Without facing me, Liard responded quietly, “It's because we love each other.”
After the session Liard did something he had never done with me. He came outside to see me off. I believe he did it in order to witness what was, for him, the culmination of a four-year investment of heart and soul and raw psychic energy. Liard beamed with satisfaction as I approached my father’s car, opened the door on the driver’s side and entered, alone. As I started the engine and pulled away, Liard remained on the sidewalk and waved. Through the rear view mirror I watched Liard watching me. In his silly red suit he looked like a jolly summer Santa. His receding figure kept waving until both he and I were out of each other’s sight. I had no way of knowing, though he may have suspected, that we would never see each other again.
A week before my next appointment, in early September, we received a call from Mrs. Liard. Dr. Liard was cancelling and would be suspending all appointments until further notice. No explanation was given.
The call was unsettling. I had assumed that when he deemed me ready Liard would lift his wing, nudge me out of his nest, and I would fly into the sweet promise of a good and happy life.
It was a Saturday afternoon, close to October. The fields of tall beige grasses that waved outside my window had been razed and replaced by a commercial complex. It was one of the first indoor shopping malls, and from all over the city people were flocking to my suburban neighbourhood to experience this new concept in all-weather shopping.
I was restless. Liard was constantly on my mind. I bolted the apartment and headed to the mall. There was nowhere else to go.
At the entrance of the shopping center, a petite blonde woman and her dark-haired daughter confronted me. It was Mrs. Liard and her daughter Monique. The encounter was a shock for all of us, but not surprising to me. I felt as if the force of my thoughts had summoned them.
Mrs. Liard was caught off guard, and blurted information she had been instructed not to reveal. Dr. Liard had lung cancer.
In the ensuing year I soldiered on, my days dulled by depression and my nights haunted by hallucinatory dreams. Within that year my father convinced my mother to allow me to leave home and live on my own. Then he helped me to do so.
Dr. Liard had no back-up and made no provisions for his vulnerable patients. We were shut out of his dying and cut loose to find our own way. He proved human, after all.
On Remembrance Day of 1981, my parents were in a lawyer’s office, when my mother suddenly blanched. My frightened father clasped her hands. “What’s wrong, my darling, what is it?!”
“He’s calling!” He’s calling!” My mother managed to gasp.
“I don’t understand!” My father was alarmed. “What are you trying to say?”
“He’s trying to reach us! He’s calling! He’s calling!”
Later, when she was able, my mother explained. “As Daddy was speaking, his voice seemed to change. His voice changed into Liard’s voice. Liard’s voice was coming out of Daddy’s mouth. It got louder and louder and I knew what he was trying to say.” Liard’s departed spirit used my parents as a channel for the message he had to convey. The next morning my mother checked the newspaper for confirmation, and found it in the obituary section. The day before she heard his voice, Dr. Liard had died.
There was no funeral. Liard had specified that his body be cremated. Before the cremation, a three-day wake was held in a West Island funeral parlour. The morning of November 12 heralded the last day of the wake. I was granted just enough time to say good-bye. My dad drove me to my final appointment with Dr. Liard.
It wasn’t late, but it was so very dark. At the end of a dimly lit room stood Liard’s closed coffin. A black and white studio photograph of him perched on its lid. My father held back, hat in hand, a supportive shadow hovering between the entrance and the hall. I entered the hall and approached the coffin. I wore a long-sleeved, black woollen sheath. The other mourners wore light-coloured clothing. I stood alone and trembling, in the manifestation of my worst nightmare, up until that time. Then I found a stool in a corner and crumpled onto it, isolated in a bubble of heartache.
Dr. Liard’s son Andre approached. He was taller than his father and his hair was dark, but he had the same luminous, lamp-like eyes. He knelt next to me and offered, “My father thought a lot of you. He believed in your potential.” Andre Liard had just lost his father, he was younger than I was, and he was comforting me.
“Did you resent the extra time he spent with me?” I felt miserable and guilty.
“Well, sometimes it got a bit much.” Andre was trying to be kind, but he couldn’t deny it. “After you would leave he’d come in for supper. We tried to hold supper for him, but usually it had grown cold. Dad was drained. It was an effort for him to eat. It was an effort for him to speak. We’d look at him and shake our heads. Then he’d defend himself, “Well, I can’t help it! The more she talks, the better she gets!” At this reminiscence, we were able to smile.
My dad and I stayed at the wake as long as Liard’s family did. We walked together behind his coffin.
On the ride home my dad gripped the steering wheel, battling against tears that threatened to blind him.
“That man wasn’t meant for a family.” I sat mute in my sorrow. “That man was meant for the world.”
In our mutual, quiet grief, it was my father who fathomed the depth of my pain. Always gentle and patient, in the aftermath of Liard’s death he watched over me the way he had when I was a child. He instructed his secretary, “Whenever my daughter calls, you come and get me. Wherever I am, no matter what I’m doing, I’m never too busy for my daughter.”
Eighteen months after Liard’s passing my father, too, was dead. I was 27 years old, and I had lost them both.
Today, Liard’s beloved Buzzard’s Isle is a wealthy enclave serving as home and playground to provincial politicians and local sports celebrities. Their yachts cruise the lake in summer. Their mansions are too closely spaced. There is one street name that feels familiar, and I ride down its road, which leads to the lake. If Liard’s home is still standing, I am unable to identify it.
On the far side of the marina and its traffic there is a nature park. It is a vast expanse of enchantment winding its way through glades of maples and cedars and pines. I visit all year round. In winter, I ski there. I pick mushrooms in autumn, and wildflowers in spring. As I hike through its trails I hear the light-hearted tone of Liard’s tenor, long-stilled. “I am like a guide in the woods. I walk ahead, forging a trail and clearing the brambles, so that you can come straight on through.”
It is in nature that the eye of the storm reclaims its calm. It is in the woods of Ile Bizard where I find consolation and peace.