Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Scoliosis Orca

My client has a chronic genetic condition*.  As a child, it caused so much discomfort that she spent weeks confined to her bed at home.  During this time, she developed a habit of spending hours searching the internet for interesting facts.  She read voraciously about many different subjects, and deeply about very few.

She was the kind of client who needed to chatter for the first third of the massage before she could settle into her body.  How could I blame her?  Her body had never been a comfortable place to be.  She felt safer in her mind.  Those 20 or so minutes generally consisted of a wide-ranging array of different facts and stories ranging from the bathing habits of Ancient Romans to genetically modified, drug-testing mice.

One day I will always remember, though, because she spent her entire "talk time" telling me one story.  Apparently somewhere in the wild is an orca who has scoliosis.  Scientists have been following this whale (and his related pod) for some time.  Left alone, this orca would die.  His spinal curvature keeps him from hunting effectively, and he does not swim as fast as the other whales.  Scientists noted, however, that other whales in the pod were actually helping this orca.  They would bring food to him, and if he fell behind, they would sometimes even wait for him to catch up to them.  My client had spent much of the night (she didn't sleep well) reading about this whale and watching video footage of the whole pod in action.  At first, it was the orca's mother doing all this tending, but then even after his mother died, the rest of the pod continued to take care of him.

My client went over and over this story, each time remembering little details from some video or website or other.  Eventually, as in every session, she relaxed into her body and gradually dropped off talking.  I had a nagging little sense that something was being opened to me, but I put it aside to focus on her massage.

After she left, I started thinking about the story she told me, and how much it captured her attention.  I remembered something a co-worker once said to me: "We use metaphors because they tell us something real."  Of course.  The story of the orca was a metaphor.  Here was this creature with a chronic genetic condition.  Left to his own devices, he would have been abandoned and left behind, possibly even left to die.  Instead, his fellow creatures stepped in and took care of this creature's needs, thereby keeping him connected to the whole of his world.

My client maybe thought she was telling me the story of an orca, but really, she was telling me the story of her life.  Of all the people who stepped in to help and support her when she could have easily been left behind.  She told me the story of the orca gave her hope.  I suspect it highlighted the hope she already received from those closest to her -- her own pod who kept her connected to the whole of her world.

*-- names and identifying details have been changed

Friday, November 25, 2016

Five Words

I know a couple, quite elderly.  They have been married for more years than many people get to be alive on this earth.  The gentleman has been, until quite recently, very robust for his age.  Although he required a small bit of assistance to get into and out of his favorite recliner, he was otherwise very independent.  His wife was much more frail.  She slept much of the day and rarely ever spoke.  When she was awake, she frequently looked at him and smiled, her bright blue eyes twinkling.  He would take her hand and raise it to his lips for a kiss, ever the courtly gentleman.  He called her "Mama."

Recently, though, he succumbed to various respiratory illnesses, and even though his body was vigorous, it was nearly a century old, so each illness landed him in the hospital for a longer period of time.  Each time he came back home, he was a little bit more weak.  More devices appeared around him, and the caregivers seemed closer to him for longer periods of time.  

Through it all, his wife, still quite frail, looked on him with love, affection, and a growing concern.  I knew them only like this, in their increasingly frail old age and decline.  I learned a few things about them very quickly, though.  Right away I learned that they loved each other with the kind of deep, realistic, daily-work love that is never depicted in poetry.  I learned that when they looked at each other, they each saw past their fading physical shells and into a long, shared life of which they were justifiably proud.  And I learned that Mama, at least, had gotten everything down to essentials.  

Mama rarely spoke.  And when she did, she said only “Thank you” or “I love you.”  In all the time I was near her, these were the only things I heard her say.  I have known for a long time that language is only one of many ways we have to communicate, but her limited vocabulary still struck me, especially since her husband was still so engaged in language and conversation.  

One day, however, watching her with her long-term caregiver, it dawned on me that she had things exactly right.  Her body was frail, she lacked energy to do more than what was absolutely essential.  She had distilled her actions down, and I finally realized, she had also distilled down her language.  

As I thought about it, if I could only say five words out loud for the rest of my life, could I think of a better collection than “Thank you” and “I love you”?  What other five words would serve to express my connection to the people around me?  How much more simple could it be?  Every time I visited them, and I saw her saying only “thank you” and “I love you,” I realized how much she had chosen to convey.  With her fading strength, knowing every word was an effort, she chose to say the words that kept her connected to all the people around her, and that told them how much she cared for each of them.  Could there be another five words more important?