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Emily

My first job in senior care was on the memory care floor of a nursing home.  All the residents were in the later stages of some kind of cognitive decline.  Most of them spoke very little, some not at all.  One of these was Emily.

Emily smiled quietly from her chair whenever anyone said her name.  Her posture was perfect.  She folded her hands beautifully in her lap until something — anything — was placed on the table in front of her.  Then she would gently pick up the object and examine it with her hands, gently, with divine attention.

Emily had striking deep brown, almost black, eyes.  Her eyebrows were still a deep black, while the rest of her hair was gray.  Emily rarely noticed anything outside the reach of her hands.  When it was time for her to move from one room to another, she stood slowly and took the arm of whoever walked with her.  She took short, shuffling steps, like many of the other people on the floor.

Every day, just after lunch, Emily’s husband came to visit with her.  He greeted her in the dining room.  Every day, her serene countenance grew into a wide open smile as soon as she saw him.  Her eyes sparkled and her pale cheeks flushed pink.  They walked down the hall, arm-in-arm, and went to Emily’s room where they would sit next to each other and hold hands.  Sometimes, her husband would brush her hair, or show her pictures of the grandchildren.  After an hour or two, around the time Emily started to fall asleep in her chair, her husband kissed her on the forehead and said goodbye until the next day.

selective focus photography of left hand on top of right hand on white pants
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I had the privilege of witnessing so many love stories like this one in that job.  Emily and her husband hold a special place in my heart because their tenderness was unshakeable.  On rare days, Emily would get anxious and almost angry.  She couldn’t sit still and would not hold her husband’s hand.  He still looked at her with the same unshiftable tenderness.  On these days he would try to stroke her hair or sing to her.  If nothing worked, he would simply sit and love her.

The absolute simplicity of his presence, every single day, reminds me how much we all have to offer each other.  If we will only just show up, and be present with another human with no judgement.

massage education, Thoughts on the profession

Job Description

The question that often follows “How long have you been doing this?” is: “How do you like this work?”  The answer is pretty easy.  I love it.

I’ve tried several other careers and even done well in a few, yet none of them held my heart and my interest like massage therapy.  This particular work is, for me, a fantastic blend of several different jobs.  I am a massage therapist, which means I am:

A Scientist

It started in school where I did a deep dive into the anatomy of the muscular system, and started on the path to learn more about Anatomy, Physiology, and Pathology.  It continues now as I try to connect everything I do with some understanding of the working of the human body, and with information from the latest research I have been reading.  It is my job to be curious, to ask questions and to continue learning and discovering.

A Tradesperson

I learned a skill that I perform with my hands.  After my period of learning and apprenticeship (at the student clinic) I started practicing this skill and I work every day to further perfect and advance my skills.  I have apprentices (students) of my own now, and as I am guiding them through how to work with their hands, I am finding better ways to work with my own.

An Educator

Given the chance and the interest, I will talk to every client about what I notice and what that could mean for their particular body.  I will also take the time to talk through what massage might be able to address and what might need a different kind of support.

A Student

As I said to a client this week, I may be the “expert” in the room on muscles and soft tissue, but each client is the expert on their body.  I am here to learn from them.

An Artist
person with body painting
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Every human, every human body, is unique.  Every day and space that body moves in is unique, so every time a person walks into my office it is the time to create something that never existed before.  Massage does not, for me, happen by formula.  It happens by being completely present in the moment so I can make something new that will never happen the same way again.

I have the opportunity to be all of these things, and sometimes more besides.  This week some asked me, “Have you always been a massage therapist?”  I’ve had lots of occupations, and this is the one that lasts because it pulls in all of those jobs.  It asks the most of myself and give the greatest rewards.

Massage Tales

The Look of Love

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.

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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.

monochrome photo of couple holding hands
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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

 

massage education, Thoughts on the profession

There’s a Week for That

Did you know there’s a thing called Teacher Appreciation Week?  I had no idea until a little into my second year of teaching at a massage school in Chicago.  When I discovered it, I also discovered what my students really thought about me.  It was surprising, eye-opening, unforgettable.

When I arrived for my evening classes, many students stood clustered around a long table in the hallway of the school.  Some bent over, awkwardly cradling books, bags and papers in one arm while they wrote on something with the other arm.  I made a minimal-detour beeline for my classroom, as I typically did, and figured there was some kind of group interview or job fair coming up.  And here is where I admit that I am that guy — I check email selectively, particularly email that is very specific to one of my jobs.  If the subject line or the preview does not seem to be directly related to my job (in this case, to my students or the classes I was teaching), then I delete it right away.  I am that guy who asks stupid questions, like, “What’s with all the birthday cakes in the lounge?” or, “Why are there a bunch of students clustered around a long table in the hallway?”

It was, as a colleague told me, Teacher Appreciation Week.  On top of that table were cards, one for each instructor.  Students got to write whatever they wished to whomever they wished, and at the end of the week, the cards appeared in our mailboxes, complete with messages.  I picked mine up at the end of a day and read it on the train home. I was shocked.

I teach because I love it, and because, some days, I’m pretty good at it.  I’ve written about it here, and I hope it comes through that I feel a pretty strong responsibility to the students who end up in my class.  I try to start each new class with two assumptions:  we are adults, and we are able to learn.  My job is to create the right circumstances for learning and discovery to happen.  Some days are better then others.  Some groups are easier than others.

pexels-photo-887353.jpegRight there, though, on the card in front of me, was the written proof that somehow these students learned lasting and special lessons that maybe had nothing to do with myelin or the pathologies of the cardiovascular system.  Their messages ranged from the simple “Thank you,” to heartfelt words about some specific thing I had forgotten that I did or said to them.  One class, small in number but strong in personality, took a whole extra sheet of paper to illustrate and label one of their favorite (?) in-class activities.  (I laugh-snorted at that one, and other people on the train gave me lots of room.)  I had no idea that so many things were sinking in, coming through, and being remembered.  Of course it touched and moved me just as any true sign of appreciation and gratitude touches and moves any human.

I still have that card.  I pull it out on days when I am not sure if I have this whole life thing down yet.  And that is my enduring gratitude back to everyone who wrote on that card, even if it was a quick, perfunctory “Thank you.”  To all of those former students — I thank you.  You held me up in ways that you don’t even know.

And if you are thinking of someone, feeling grateful for any little thing, wondering if it would be weird to send a quick message of thanks, let me know:  it’s not weird.  It’s beautiful.  Do it.

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