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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.

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.

 

 

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.

close up of an envelope
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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