This is his last massage.* I know it, and I feel privileged to be part of it. I start by holding his feet. Here in this warm room, his feet chill my hands. I gently squeeze them and wait for my hands to warm again. he watches me, mouth slightly open, breathing raspy and audible. After a moment he closes his eyes and turns his head. He opens his eyes again, and he watches her.
On the other side of the room, his wife sits with a box in her lap. She pulls papers and colorful greeting cards from the box and methodically separates them into a couple of piles. When I glance over, I can see the pictures and swirling lines on some of the cards. I notice the words “For My Husband,” “I Love You,” and “My Beloved” on some of them. Her attention is focused on the box, on each letter and card, and on making careful piles based on some internal system we will never know. His attention is focused on her.
I gently move to hold his calves. I can feel the outline of the bones of his lower legs. The disease he has struggled with for so long, the one that brought him to this place of his last massage, has gradually atrophied his body. I can both see and feel the shape and outline of his joints. Looking at his face, I see the outline of his cheekbones and the hollowed edges of his eye sockets. His body is falling away.
And yet, in the turn of his head and the soft intensity of his gaze, I see that some things have not been diminished by his illness. The look in his eyes as he watches his wife is distilled down to essentials. It is love. Pure love, and in his weakened state it is what he has to give to her. He gives it freely. It is everything.
As the massage continues, his body relaxes deeper into his bed. His stiffened joints unclench and sink into the soft mattress. His hands uncurl and rest at his sides. His head still turned to face his wife, gradually his eyes close and his breathing slows. His head sinks into the pillow, still turned in her direction.
In my office, I would gently try to persuade my client to put their neck into a more neutral position. I would think of overworked muscles and strains that develop from long moments in one rotated position. Here, though, in his own house, during his last massage, sharing the room with his wife, I let it go. There are so many things more important than muscle strain, and most of them are alive in that room.
As I finish the massage, he is deeply asleep. I step away from the bed and pick up my bag. His wife catches my eye. We say “thank you” to each other. She looks at him and smiles, still holding a card in her hand (“Happy Birthday to my Husband”). “He’s asleep now, isn’t he?” she says. I nod and smile as I soundlessly walk out of the house.
I have witnessed a sacrament, and by that I have been blessed. I walk in gratitude for the rest of the day.
*–identifying details have been changed