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.