May is my anniversary month!
I graduated five years ago from Port Townsend School of Massage, and it’s been an incredibly satisfying journey ever since. Each year at this time, I reflect on what has stood out most for me in the past year, and what I am looking forward to most in the coming year.
Most Significant Memories
I knew eventually it would happen, and this year it did. I have now been in business long enough that some of my clients have passed away. I had previously witnessed this in my volunteer work for hospice, massaging end-of-life clients. It is to be expected that hospice patients will slip away, and massage at the end of life can be a huge comfort. It was an honor to offer such comfort, and each experience touched me deeply.
But I wasn’t prepared for what it would be like when a longer-time client passed away. There is simply no way to prepare for this. And this year, it happened — twice.
I asked permission of the departed loved ones to share a bit about their stories. Names and identifying factors have been changed, but the essence and poignancy remains.
I first met Georgia through her daughter, Kathy. Kathy and her close friend Debbie had been clients for years, and when they bought a house out in the county, I started going there to give massages at their pleasant, country-style get away. To make it worth my while, Kathy and Debbie would arrange for friends and family to come over on days when I was there, such that I would usually have four massages to give. On several of these days, Georgia was a part of this group.
78-year old Georgia had been diagnosed with cancer for a year when I first met her in April of 2015. She had mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, or heart. Georgia’s had settled into her right lung. She was at the one-year mark that the doctors had given her for life expectancy, and still going strong. Her determination to prove those doctor’s wrong and live beyond the one-year mark was evident. While probably not as spry as she once was, her energy and enthusiasm for life came through in all our interactions.
As did her wisdom and perspective on what makes life meaningful and worth living as we move into older age. Especially as it relates to living with a terminal illness — she rarely talked of her cancer, but instead focused on all that was right with her life. She lived and breathed the things that mattered most to her, especially family.
I am always deeply touched by close mother/daughter relationships, and I could tell right away the love that Kathy and Georgia shared for each other. Being with them in a home environment, with three dogs and three cats (one dog Georgia’s, the rest of the animals Kathy and Debbie’s) for an all-day affair, I felt great honor to be a part of this happy gathering.
The last time I massaged Georgia was in her room at an assisted living facility. That was in March of 2016, a year after our first visit. I could tell that her health had declined, and I exercised great care in how I massaged her. I was grateful to be able to move my table into her small, cozy room and offer her some comfort there. I didn’t realize just how close the end of her life was, as she still seemed so lively. I left out the back door, instead of back through the front of the facility, and noticed that her patio was flush with flowering pots. This outside beauty complemented the warmth of her inner surroundings, and both perfectly matched her sweet and kind personality.
Sadly, Georgia passed away on May 10, 2016 — right after Mother’s Day. While I only got to massage her four or five times total, I was so thankful for each massage and the opportunity to get to know her a bit. And to see her loving interactions with Kathy and Debbie, and even her grandson on one occasion. A true matriarchal goddess if ever there was one!
Thank you, Georgia, for teaching me about love!
I first met Carl and his wife Nancy in November of 2014. I will never forget the phone call from Nancy that led to our meeting and first massage. She told me Carl had recently been diagnosed with ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Someone in a support group they’d been to or perhaps the diagnosing physician had said that massage could be very helpful through the process of living with this disease. The call simultaneously halted me and opened me wide. I had a good friend die of ALS in her mid-50’s, and I had done my pathology report for massage school in her honor, on how massage can help ALS patients. Suddenly I was potentially getting involved in the care of someone who would progress down the same path I had seen from a distance and studied in some depth — but never had hands-on interaction with.
ALS is a disease of the motor neurons — nerve cells that that control the muscle cells responsible for voluntary muscle movement. There is a loss of function as these neurons diminish and falter in their job of “nourishing” muscle fibers. This results in weakness and eventual non-functionality of voluntary muscles in the area it strikes. ALS can begin in bulbar motor neurons, affecting first speech and swallowing, or, more commonly, in an arm or leg, resulting in muscle twitching, spasticity, weakness, and atrophy of the affected limb. Limb-onset ALS usually progresses to surrounding limbs, leading to eventual non-usage when the neurons no longer fire. ALS does not affect involuntary muscles, cognitive abilities, vision, hearing, or, touch. That’s where massage therapy comes in.
Carl and Nancy made the long climb up all 28 stairs to my office for his first visit. I could tell this was challenging, but, at that point, Carl was still doing well with his lower leg strength. His symptoms at that first visit were twitching and weakness of the upper appendages, especially in the right arm and hand. An avid golfer, this had sadly affected his golf game — and his ability to handle and manipulate objects, a part of his life as an art dealer. Carl was also experiencing increasing muscle fasciculations, persistent muscle twitches that occur throughout the body as a result of the ongoing disruption of motor nerves to various muscles. This was understandably disturbing for Carl, and had him in a bit of an anxious and depressed mood state. I used coconut oil for our massages, as this seemed to have a calming effect on the muscles. And I did my best to provide a massage that delivered touch and comfort to both body and mind.
I saw Carl at the office for a year and a half. When the stairs became too difficult, I’d open the back gate, and he and Nancy would come in the back way. Nancy never stayed for the massage, but she was always with him, his unfailing support system and loving, caring wife. From the get-go, I was struck by what teamwork these two used to deal with Carl’s progressive physical degeneration, as well as the psychological challenges of living with ALS day to day. Carl needed help with dressing, managing meals, and so many day to day functions most of us take for granted. The massage, I came to realize, was effective on both a physical and emotional level — a calming of the erratic muscle activity, and a necessary break from the anxiety associated with the diagnosis and all it’s ramifications.
Over time, I became a part of Carl’s process. When he could no longer come to the office, I started going to their home and doing massage there. I’d set up my table amongst the paintings and art, again feeling that sense of privilege and honor that comes with being allowed into someone’s personal space. Getting Carl on and off the table was more difficult, and Nancy and I now worked as a team. Carl was always so appreciative of the comfort massage brought. Sometimes we’d talk and he’d tell me stories of hiking in and around Whatcom County, as he knew I was an avid hiker. Once he painfully walked outside to show me a local hike up in the hills near his home, each step a challenge, although his legs still worked relatively well. But his balance was off, and he had no way to catch himself if he fell. I worried for him, but also knew it was important for him to retain some level of independence.
Eventually, Carl lost all use of his right arm, and most of the use of his left. This made so many things difficult, and lifts had to be installed to get him up and down stairs, or out the few stairs from the house. Nancy remained his primary caretaker, and she did it with such positivity and acceptance. After we’d get Carl on the table, sometimes she’d go on a quick walk herself, or sometimes escape into a book for an hour. I knew I was serving a purpose for both of them, by also giving Nancy a brief but welcome break from her round the clock care-taking.
Vacations and surgeries last summer and fall led to a pause in our house massages. I was able to go see Carl once in mid-December, 2016. By this point, he was in a hospital bed in their bedroom, extreme muscle weakness having taken over his body. His upper body muscles had atrophied to the point of non-usage. He had minimal usage of his legs, and was bed-ridden and receiving hospice care. His spirits were good, and both he and Nancy were again so appreciative of the massage. We all hoped for several more massages before the end came.
But more surgery left me immobile and unable to give massages for over a month. It was during this recovery phase that Nancy emailed me to let me know that Carl had passed away, peacefully, on January 15, 2017.
Sadness at this news hit hard. I knew it would happen, but my feelings went deep. Mostly, I felt enormous compassion for Nancy at her loss, as the two had been so close. And also such gratitude for being involved in Carl’s care, to make a difference, even in the small way I was able. This sense of sharing in the very personal journey that these two went through was and still is what comes up for me most when I think of this experience. Words fall short in expressing what it feels like to be a part of someone’s life — and death– in that way.
Thank you, Carl, for teaching me about coping gracefully with adversity. And thank you, Nancy, for teaching me about unconditional love, acceptance, and compassion for another.
Living life to the fullest…
The best way I have found to balance out loss is to immerse myself in life. We are ALL aging, and I am certain Georgia and Carl are not the last clients I will have the honor to massage as they pass from life into death. Both did this so gracefully, and lived lives that were as full and complete as possible up to the end.
And that’s what it’s really all about. The lasting impression I am left with from both experiences is an extreme appreciation of giving life its best shot. I have several aging clients who are doing just that, and each of these is such an inspiration to me! My oldest client is 84, and he still golfs three or four times a week. I have clients in their 60’s and 70’s who do not look or act their age, exercising daily with great enthusiasm and vigor, doing building and remodeling projects, and still working as if they were in their 50’s. It’s those clients who I turn to for motivation when I feel overwhelmed by what it’s like to watch clients and loved one’s be struck by illness and even pass from this life.
One never knows when it’s coming. But I honestly believe that focusing on living the best, most engaged, most honest, and caring-for-self-and -other’s type of life as possible, is what we can do to make the most of our days here. We all have a limited number. Let’s do what we can to maximize and enjoy them.
Thank you to all clients who have let me be a part of your life through the exchange of therapeutic massage. It’s always an honor, and I am grateful to each of you.
Here’s to the next five years!
With deep appreciation,