j a c o b a p p e l
la TRISTESSE des HéRISSONS
Adeline insisted we both skip work the next morning. That was easy enough for her—she works at a non-profit—but both of my partners were out of town, so I had to reschedule job interviews with three prospective sous chefs and postpone the installation of chandeliers in the upstairs dining room. Instead, I accompanied my girlfriend to a highend “veterinary psychiatrist” who had been featured on the cover of New York Magazine.
Dr. Waller’s office was located only blocks from the nursing home where Adeline’s mother sat expressionless at the end of a musty corridor, periodically calling out lessons that she had memorized at Miss Porter’s, where she’d once shared a swimming locker with the future Jacqueline Kennedy.
Our visits with Adeline’s mother were short, somber, and all too frequent. Mrs. Terwilliger had not recognized us since her stroke in March, although she could still recite Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and several soliloquies from Measure for Measure. That morning, she greeted us by shouting, “All Gaul is divided into three parts!” Adeline braided her mother’s long silver hair while I sat on the window ledge with my hands in my pockets. My nostrils fought against the faint stench of urine. None of us spoke until we left, when Mrs. Terwilliger declared, “Of all three, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are farthest from civilization.” By the time we arrived for our appointment with Dr. Waller, Adeline was in tears, and I’d resolved to shoot myself preemptively at age sixty-five.
Dr. Waller turned out to be a dapper and strikingly good-looking gentleman in his fifties who sported a silk magenta ascot under his burgundy jacket; a matching handkerchief protruded from his breast pocket. The therapist looked more like a game-show host than a veterinarian, and when he shook my hand—with a firm, no-nonsense grip—I was half expecting him to ask if I wished to buy a vowel.
He steered us into a spacious yet sterile office. A leather analyst’s couch sat opposite Dr. Waller’s desk. Two upholstered chairs faced the couch, surrounded by balls of yarn and artificial dog bones and a box of parrot snacks. Along one wall hung the therapist’s diplomas: a medical degree from Yale, a veterinary degree from the University of New Hampshire, and an MBA from Duke. That was when I realized Waller treated both humans and animals in the same office—which helped explain his $400 cash-only fee for an initial consultation. Adeline completed a questionnaire while I wrote the headshrinker a check, impulsively jotting “quackery” on the memo line. Then I inked out “quackery” and wrote “relationship counseling” in the margin above. Dr. Waller pocketed the check without even glancing at it.
He perused the questionnaire for several minutes, nodding and sighing as though depressed hedgehogs were the marrow of his business. When at last he looked up, his sympathetic eyes focused entirely on Adeline. “I am so sorry Orion is having such a hard time,” he said, speaking of the animal like a beloved mutual friend. “As best as you can, dear, try to tell me when you first noticed something was amiss . . .”
Adeline related how she’d come to check on Orion before breakfast on Sunday morning and realized that he “just wasn’t himself.” She mentioned his increased appetite, changes in his sleeping habits, and his loss of interest in his exercise wheel. Dr. Waller scrawled notes on a legal pad. Once, he interrupted Adeline to ask a series of precise questions about the hedgehog’s bowel patterns, but for the most part he merely offered my girlfriend a smile of boundless sympathy. When Adeline finished her narrative, concluding with a tangent about how she’d lost a guinea pig to pneumonia in her childhood, along with a confession that she didn’t handle these tragedies well, Dr. Waller capped his pen and shifted his attention to me.
“Is there anything you’d like to add, Mr. Barrow?”
He’d caught me off guard—speculating to myself about his annual income—so I said the first thing that popped into my consciousness. “When we bring the hedgehog for his therapy,” I asked, “will you have him lie down on the couch?”
Adeline shot me a venomous look. Dr. Waller frowned.
“You will not bring the hedgehog here. Ever,” he replied earnestly. “I treat canines in this office, Mr. Barrow. Your animal is already suffering. Do you want to compound his depression with post-traumatic stress?”
I refused to meet Dr. Waller’s gaze. I found myself wishing that I was a hedgehog myself at that moment, so that I might curl into a protective ball. Eventually, I sensed that the therapist had turned his focus back toward Adeline.
“So you agree that he’s depressed?” she asked.
“That’s most likely. You should certainly take him to his regular vet to rule out organic causes—thyroid disease, paraneoplastic syndromes. But it does indeed sound like a mood phenomenon. La tristesse des hérissons, as the French say. The sadness of the hedgehogs.” He gave the diagnosis a fatal ring. “Psychosis is common in hedgehogs. Depression far less so. But we have to take our patients as we find them, I suppose.”
Dr. Waller offered Adeline a tissue to dab her eyes.
Adeline composed herself. “So what can we do?” she asked.
The therapist didn’t respond at once, but gazed thoughtfully into the ether like a magician pausing before pulling off a particularly dazzling trick.
“We don’t know much—yet—about mood phenomena in hedgehogs,” he said, “but what limited understanding we do have strongly suggests that patients improve with increased levels of comfort. So my best advice is to hold Orion on your lap, read to him daily . . . Let him grow accustomed to your scents, to the sounds of your voices .”
That was too much for me—and it even crossed my mind that I was on some newfangled version of Candid Camera.
“Let me get this straight. You want us to read to the hedgehog?”
“It’s not about what I want or don’t want,” Dr. Waller replied calmly. “It’s about what will help Orion become more relaxed in his new home.”
“And my reading him bedtime stories is going to relax him?” “It will help. I’m also going to start him on five milligrams of Prozac daily.”
Dr. Waller scribbled the prescription on his pad and handed it to Adeline. “Check in with me next week. If he’s not feeling any better by then, we can add a low dose of Wellbutrin or Abilify as an adjunctive agent.”
A man in a relationship has to choose his battles wisely, so that afternoon I made a point of reading aloud to the hedgehog. I spread a pair of bath towels over my lap and scooped up the thorny lump of a creature with a heavy oven mitt. After twenty minutes, he slowly uncoiled and began to lather saliva over his back with his tongue. Adeline poked her head into the living room periodically, probably to make sure I hadn’t decided to practice juggling with the varmint. Once she gave me a thumbs up. It struck me that if I ever wanted to have a child, few women would have as much love to offer as Adeline. But she was already thirtysix—and I was barely ready to commit to raising a house pet with an average lifespan of less than three years.
Not much has been written for or about hedgehogs, but I did manage to find a copy of Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox among my old college books. When I tired of philosophy, which occurred rather quickly, I read to Orion about the adventures of Stickly-Prickly in Kipling’s “The Beginning of the Armadillos.” Choosing hedgehog-themed works was entirely to amuse myself, I recognized. As far as my audience was concerned, I might just as well have read names from the telephone directory. Orion passed most of the day sprawled on the towels, anointing his spikes with hog-spittle, interrupted only by my trips to the restroom and his to the litter box. I was on the verge of quitting for the day when Adeline stormed into the living room.