Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Transcendent Moments of Massage.

I have the good fortune to be in the middle of seven straight days of classes.  We having been learning about and discussing some pretty hard and heavy things — childhood cancers, extended hospital stays, the dying process.  All of us are here because for our own reasons, we are drawn to this kind of work.  

I am noticing again, though, a story we tell ourselves that I find unsettling.  It is the story of the Sainted Massage Therapist.  The one professional who floats in on waves of compassion and caring and leaves behind a moment of comfort and peace in an otherwise cruel world.  We say things like, “I could provide that moment of comfort . . .”  or “I gave her that connection . . .”  or “This is beautiful work.” 

Here’s the thing — we are not necessarily wrong to say these things.  Those tiny moments of comfort in the midst of suffering make the work worth doing.  And it is beautiful.  Sometimes unbearably so, because it puts our hearts on such clear display.  

Where I get unsettled, though, is when we start to believe our own mythology.  We can start to tell these stories a way to keep ourselves ultimately separate from our clients.  It turns into a protective barrier, emphasis on barrier.  When we make ourselves into Saints or Superheroes, we isolate ourselves.  (Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Batman — their lives were all solitary.)  We need to find a way to stay in the human realm.  

One of my favorite massage moments illustrates this perfectly:

I was doing my clinic rounds for a Geriatric Massage class.  We were working on the dementia floor of a Skilled Nursing facility. My client was confined to her bed, and clearly had been for a long while.  She had limited verbal communication, and was about 80 pounds.  I brought a chair over to her and held her hand.  She turned her face towards me and started humming — no specific tune, just a gentle humming of different notes.  It felt like I should join in, so I started humming along.  Somehow we matched each other’s pitch and tone and made a little music together while we held hands.  The class instructor stopped in the doorway to watch and called some of the staff over to see this beautiful, transcendent moment.  

After about 5 minutes, the woman stopped humming and turned even more towards me.  She reached her other arm over and held my hand in both of hers.  I could see she had something to say so I leaned in close to her.  She took a deep breath and said, “It’s poop.”  

And I took a breath in and knew that it was.  

I plan to remember these messy human moments, right next to the transcendent ones. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Letter to a Client, Long Passed

I am regularly asked things like "How can you handle that work?", or "What do you do when someone dies?"  This letter to one of my former clients is yet another attempt to answer those questions.


This is how I knew that you had died:  your husband called me.  He used your phone, so I knew to answer the call.  I was not surprised to hear his voice instead of yours, since you had missed our last few appointments because you were too fatigued.   He told me that you had passed away, just the night before.  He seemed collected until I thanked him for calling me, then he started to sob so much that he just hung up the phone.

Just the week before your husband had called me on your phone to see if I would come to the house to give you a massage.   You were too weak to call yourself, he said, and you had family visiting for a while.  He felt sure, though, that after they left you would want a massage.

There were many things about you that brought me joy, but one of them was not even you -- it was your husband.  The way he looked at you.  Even when you were half-asleep in a lounge chair, connected to an IV line with your bald head covered by a crooked felt cloche, he looked at you with the purest love and admiration I have ever seen.  

There is a story about you that I tell to every class I teach.  You came to my office for a massage, and you had been having a rough week.  We did a very gentle, slow massage without much movement and lots of attention to being present and breathing.  After the massage you asked me what kind of energy work I was doing because you felt something come in and strengthen you.  I told you that I don't do energy work; that I am not trained in that kind of work so I couldn't claim to be doing it.  You grinned at me and said, "Bullshit!"  You were right.  What you felt was true, even though I had no explanation for it.  

I met you first by reading your chart at the cancer treatment center.  Your chart was dismal, to be honest.  An advanced stage of a notoriously difficult-to-treat cancer, inoperable tumor, one of the nastiest chemo combinations I knew of.  But then I met you in person.  You were so thrilled by the idea of getting a massage that you grinned through the whole thing.  You told me hysterical stories about your family.  You knew exactly what you were in for, but still managed to say "I feel like crap today" in a way that sounded like optimism.  

Okay, confession time.  First:  as soon as I met you, I was preparing myself for the idea that you would die soon.  There are fantastic, unexplained, miraculous things in the world.  I wanted and hoped for this for you -- but I also knew the statistics of your kind of cancer.  As one of my favorite books says, "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst."

Second:  I kept your number in my phone for a long time.  Occasionally, as I scrolled through on a data-clearing mission, I would think about deleting it.  Most of the numbers I delete are from people I don't know (or care to know) anymore, so deleting your number felt wrong. 

And finally:  I don't remember your name.  I remember your face, your laugh, some of the exact details of your treatment and disease progression.  I remember that the last time I saw you, you were wearing new jeans and you had trouble getting into your pocket to get the check you had for me.  But your name is gone.  

I am left, lucky me, with all the joy I got from your spirit, and all the learning I got from your heart.  

Thank you.

Love Always,

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Synonyms for Pain

There are moments in this work that bring home the absolutely clear distillation that only comes from great pain.  Today I saw a child reach out for his loving mother as the only response available to significant pain.  Never mind that the child was a nearly 40-year-old man*, and the mother, for all her loving kindness, could not begin to touch the pain arising from his multiple abdominal tumors.

He was short with her, sarcastic in a way you expect from teenage boys who don't want to clean their rooms.  She hovered over him, carefully avoiding mentioning certain procedures so as not to upset him.  It was an entire boy's childhood enacted in a 30-second vignette.  And draped over it all was the presence of his physical pain.

The hospitalist came while I was there, so I stepped out to give them some privacy.  When I came back in the son was looking at his mother, clearly needing someone else to help him decide.  "Should I take something, then?" he said.  She nodded, "I think it would be a good idea."  He called the nurse, who gave him a small dose of a large painkiller.  He settled into a comfortable position, ready to receive gentle, soothing touch.  I held his feet, head and hands with a warm, weightless hold, visualizing a space clearing in the center of his pain -- one small, comfortable space where he could sit for a little while.

After his massage, I walked down the hall with his mother, who held my hand the whole way.  "What are you doing to take care of yourself?" I said.  She stopped and turned to face me.  "I don't know," she said, "that's a good question."

She walked back to her son's room without an answer.  Her hands worked at her sides and her shoulders slumped, trying to balance the weight of her own, significant, excruciating pain.

*--names and identifying details have been changed

Friday, October 9, 2015

Your Attention Please

As part of the preparation for a continuing education class, I am reading a book called The Grace in Dying by Kathleen Dowling Singh  It is a brilliant, deep and thoughtful exploration of the transformation that happens in what the author calls the "nearing death" experience.  I have started keeping a notebook next to me as I read because there are phrases in the book that I want to capture for later --  little snapshots I am collecting for my own personal album.

Remember snapshots and film?  When we used to take pictures without knowing what they would look like until we got the pictures back from the developer?  Remember the surprise moment of seeing again those things you experienced?  As I am going back to my notebook for these phrases, I am having these delicious surprise moments.  When I write down a phrase,  I often don't know why it sent a hook into my attention, I just know I want to capture it.  When I see it again, my eyes are new.

Here is one (where the author discusses the Surat Shabd tradition):
" . . . . attention itself, in its directed coherence, is none other than that which we call the soul."

I wrote that down in a rush, hurrying to continue a particularly engrossing part of the book.  I looked back on it this morning, and thought, "Yes!"  That thing we sing songs to, go on retreats to cultivate and share only with our most intimate of friends -- the soul -- can be understood as focused, direct attention.  This makes perfect sense to me, because I know I feel most connected when I am using my attention.  When I listen intently to a friend, when I stop to examine the exact shade of red on a newly-changed leaf, when I massage.  It is these moments when I am less of a lone individual walking this earth, and more of a connected, integral part of the deeper rhythms all around -- what Singh calls "the ground of being."

I am taking this idea into my work, trying to create a space where in addition to stepping out of the mad rush of life for a while, my clients can step into a connection with something beyond themselves, in whatever way makes sense to them.  You have my attention.