Monday, December 9, 2013

Occupational Hazard

I received a call recently from the husband of one of my regular clients.  I hadn't seen her in a while, and since I knew she was battling an aggressive cancer, I suspected the worst.  When I saw her name come up on my caller ID, I had a momentary flutter of hope.  Cured! Or at least stronger! This one would beat the odds!

Then I heard her husband's voice, high-pitched, sing-songy, clearly desperate to keep it together.  He told me that his wife had "taken a turn," and that she was pretty much bed bound.  I couldn't picture it.  This lively, funny woman who used her entire body to punctuate her sentences lying still? No way.

Her husband remembered that I had offered to come to their house and give her a massage.  He wondered if I could still do this.  I answered before he finished his sentence.  Yes.  For her, yes.  Always.  Tell me when and I will be there.  I don't care that it's snowing and you live about an hour's drive away.  The answer is yes.

He thanked me, told me he would have to check and see when the parade of visitors would let up so she could relax into her massage.  He tried to massage her legs himself, he said, but she said he was just too rough.  And here his voice broke.  He sobbed into the phone, still maintaining a normal conversation.  He talked to me about dates and times and when he could call me back, all through heaving sobs that I could almost feel in my own body.

I checked my urge to say "it's okay," because it wasn't.  I just said, "I'm sorry," and "I will come to see her.  I want to come to see her," and "Thank you for calling me." He recovered just enough to end the conversation with grace and all those polite expressions we use when saying goodbye to someone we don't know very well.

I thought I had gotten better at this, after three of my former clients died in the space of a week last month.  I thought, as I calmly went back to my book after the phone call, I have found my balance of professional and compassionate.  Then I cried into my hands for twenty minutes, thinking of the grief of a husband watching his adored wife waste away before his eyes.  This is my occupational hazard.

Friday, December 6, 2013

In Waves

My client is an artist.  She regularly shows and sells her work at galleries in the nearby suburb.  She also has Parkinson's, so I'm not sure if she is creating new work.  She tells me she used to receive massage every week when she was younger, but that she hasn't had a massage in over 12 years.  She has forgotten that I massaged her once a month for a time last year, but I let that go.  

She speaks clearly and with deep intelligence, but her cadence is stilted.  Her speech pattern resembles a particularly adept computer voice simulation.  Unconsciously, unnecessarily, I slow down my own speech.

She climbs onto the table, and I hold her in my arms like a child to help her gently lie down.  Once we have pillows in place and she is comfortable, she closes her small, piercing blue eyes and goes right to sleep.  I give her a gentle massage, slow and still with respect to her thinning skin.  I am struck by her arms.  Her upper arms are soft, fleshy.  Her forearms, however, are wiry and dense.  I can feel in her muscles the years of holding a paintbrush, moving canvases and mixing colors. 

She falls deeply asleep during the 30-minute session.  She is my last client of the night, so when I wake her to tell her the session is over, I tell her she can lie there until she feels ready to sit up.  She is grateful, and asks for a few minutes.  I sit in a chair in the corner of the room, while she rests on the table.  While I sit quietly, watching to make sure she is in no distress, I start to catch and match the pattern of her breath -- or maybe she catches mine.  I feel a warm surge traveling around the room.  A wave.  A cotton sheet in a summer breeze.  The first touch of brush on canvas.  In the few minutes after the massage is done and before she is ready to get up, I find utter stillness.  I reconnect to my purpose.  

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Swim, Dammit.

A couple of the teachers have started affectionately referring to this class as "our girls."  It is a very small class, all young women.  They lost a pretty high percentage of their classmates in the first couple of terms, so the remaining "girls" have grown pretty close.  When they set up to do hands-on work, there are only 3 tables, maximum.  No matter what the size of the room, they set up their tables so close together that they are guaranteed to bump into one another at some point.  I teased them about this one day, running the length of the empty classroom with my arms outstretched, saying "Look at all this room for awesome body mechanics!"  They laughed, and one of them said, "But we've lost so many people.  We have separation anxiety."  She smiled when she said it, but I saw real loss and fear in her eyes.

A group this small, this closely knit, can be beautiful for teachers to work with.  At the end of last term, they all gave presentations about their challenges and experiences with self care.  Every one of them had a meaningful insight, more impressive than I ever hoped for.  Every one of them said something about being positive, being optimistic, being overwhelmed but excited about their future careers.  Our girls were an inspiration, a shining light to look forward to.

Then came this term.  My colleague and I had a throw-up-your-hands moment in the faculty lounge.  Our girls were missing so many classes.  Our girls were not turning in their work, they were failing tests that should have been easy for them.  Our girls were expressing doubt about continuing in the program, with only 15 weeks to go before they graduate.

Tomorrow, I have our girls for class.  All my preparation for this class has been about getting them back to that optimistic group of students who could handle anything.  I see them sinking.  There are so few of them, I feel like I should be able to gather them all in my arms and pull them up.  I could be that strong.  But then I remember this: lifeguards are taught to try every possible method of rescuing a drowning person before they go in the water themselves.  This is because a drowning person could push a lifeguard under in their struggle for air.

So I have to think, have I tried every possible method?  Is it really time to cast myself into the water in an attempt to save them?  I don't know.  I just know, looking at my grade book and attendance sheets, our girls are in trouble.  I know, looking at their faces, our girls are overwhelmed, and they have lost the excitement.  Somehow, between now and tomorrow, I have to find enough excitement, and enough life preservers for all of us.