Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

Death and Other Benefits

As I’ve written before, I knew from the start of my massage career that I wanted to work with people in extremis — whether through age, illness, life stresses, or other factors.  I am not a mechanical fix-’em-up therapist.  I am a keeper of respite.

In my last quarter of school, I got in touch with a Donna, a hospice massage therapist who had attended the same school.  Donna generously agreed to let me shadow her for part of one day and talk to me in detail about her work with dying people.  With her, I went to the hospice inpatient facility.  Donna checked in with the nurses and got a list of people who might be open to receiving massage.  The nurses directed her first to one woman in particular.

“She’s struggling,” the nurse said, “Maybe you could ease her a little.”

Donna and I walked into the woman’s room.  I stayed close to the door as Donna approached the bed and gently touched the woman’s hand.  The woman was taking short, gasping breaths.  Her neck twisted with each breath and she shifted constantly in the bed.  Donna spoke very quietly to her and got permission to give her a gentle massage.  I watched Donna with my still-learning eyes, trying to parse exactly which techniques she used and how she crafted a coherent session in this unusual location.

person massaging man while lying on bed
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And then I forgot all of that and just watched.  Donna placed her hands on the woman’s ribcage, she stroked her hair and lovingly pressed her hands.  The woman gradually stopped shifting her position.  She still took short breaths, but they seemed more comfortable now.  After about fifteen minutes, Donna thanked the woman and we left the room without a sound.  The nurse walked into the room after we left.

Donna stood at the sink washing her hands, and I stood with her trying to form an intelligent question.  I could only manage “Thank you” and “What? . . . .” As I struggled with my words, the nurse came up, grinning.  She patted Donna on the back.

“Donna,” she said, “I think you just massaged that woman to death.”

They smiled at each other and hugged.  At the start of the day, the patient was in distress, struggling to breath, or to stop breathing.  After the massage, she appeared to be in much less distress and slipping into an easeful death.  I hope that is what happened.  To be honest, I have no idea.

What I do know, however, is that I am much more suited for the kind of work Donna does than almost anything else.  To facilitate ease in the face of distress.  To work with another human and help reduce the struggle of their transition — whether it is the transition to health after a long illness, the transition to a different lifestyle, or the transition from life into death.

Oncology Massage

Goodbye Senator, Goodbye Victor

On August 25, Senator John McCain died at age 81 of glioblastoma.  Before his diagnosis, many of us were fortunate enough to have no idea what glioblastoma even was.  Maybe our only exposure to terminal brain cancer was through stories about Brittany Maynard.

Now we’ve heard of glioblastoma because someone we know — someone famous — had it.  I first learned of McCain’s death through a news update from Cure Magazine, a cancer resource publication.  This strikes me as yet another reminder that cancer touches all of us, no matter where we come from or what we do for a living.

And it reminds me of another thing that touches all of us — death.  At some point in his treatment, McCain stopped receiving treatment.  I have no idea of the conversations and thought and emotion that went into his particular decision.  I have been around clients and family members who made those decisions, though.  In particular, I am thinking of my own Grandfather.

My Grandfather had breast cancer (about 1 in 10,000 men get breast cancer) which went into remission after first rounds of treatment.  After a number of years, doctors discovered metastasis in his liver.  Already in his 80s, my Grandfather opted out of further treatment and instead, he and my Grandmother called hospice.

I lived in a different city at the time, newly independent and settling in to a big city job.  When I heard about his prognosis, I decided I needed to call him.  So, one morning, I did.  My Grandmother answered the phone.  I told her why I was calling.  She conferred for a minute with my Grandfather, then she got back on the line.  In her loving, sweet and gentle way she said, “He doesn’t want to get on the phone.  It’s just too hard.”

candlelight candles
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In that moment I understood, because I knew him, that he was offering me a final act of love.  I suspect he knew we would never see each other again, and maybe he wanted me to remember him as he had always been, controlled and in control.

This is not the place to debate over whether he chose wisely or not in that moment.  The point is, he chose.  And his choice came from a place of love and care for me and for himself.  I believe this is true.

Senator McCain used some of his last days to express a great love — his love for this country.  Whether or not we agree with his final votes in the Senate, the point is that he made them.  Out of love for democracy, and love for the people he served as Senator.

Like my Grandfather, Senator McCain’s expressions of love may seem strange or ill-chosen.  Today I am reflecting on the fact that we don’t get to choose or direct how another human being expresses love.  We can, however, keep our hearts open to it and acknowledge its truth.