The teacher put small glasses of water on the floor and we all got on our knees and leaned in close so we could slowly reach a finger to the surface of the water, “But don’t touch it,” she instructed.
And then it happened: the water reached up to my finger. It touched me before I touched it.
Massage changed forever for me from that moment. Before that day, I had thought of the body as something solid and meaty to be pummeled, but now I think of something else, something between fluid and energy, something to feel.
During the class we partnered up and were told to only work on each other’s right forearm. We were practicing how to work on clients who had lymphedema. The teacher told us to go slowly. More slowly. And then twice as slowly as that.
When you move quickly as you massage, the entire surface of your palm is less likely to have contact with the skin of the client (or friend or wife or neighbor) than when you move slowly. When you wait for the skin to reach out to you before you touch it, and when you apply the lightest pressure as you move, you communicate with the nerves close to the surface of the skin and you activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The client is flooded with a sense of well-being. Her stomach gurgles. She sighs.
I fell in love with my partner well before the twenty minutes were over. And she fell in love with me. Truly. We talked about it, laughing, amazed. We emailed for months afterwards. We had connected on what felt like a soul level solely through touch.
It was wonderful, but it also frightened me. I am used to a certain distance. To love someone so purely felt like an invasion of my boundaries. Who am I if I can fall in love with a woman with whom I had barely spoken? Who couldn’t I fall in love with? What kind of control did I have over myself anyway?
Try it on your dog. Put your whole being into your hand and pretend your dog is the last creature in the world you will ever touch and see if he likes it. Try it on yourself. On your best friend. I don’t know what will happen, but I am curious.
The room felt like a church while we worked on each other. There was a hush. Quiet joy.
One of my favorite moments now when I work is when I hover my hands over a client’s back and wait for that pull when the energy bridge engages. It’s warm, slightly magnetic. My chiropractor once worked on the sole of my foot while I was lying down, and it was such a loving, gentle touch I didn’t say anything in fear he would stop. My whole self felt plugged in, similar to the way I’d feel during acupuncture when all the energy meridians seemed to hum. Afterwards I asked him what he had been doing, and he told me he hadn’t been touching me. He’d just been feeling the energy between us.
If I’ve had too much caffeine or if I’m not paying attention, the bridge doesn’t happen when I work on someone. I might as well be waiting in line at Target for all I feel in my hands. It’s easier to wait in line and let my brain do its monkey thing than putting all my attention in the palm of my hands. It’s work to be present, but for someone like me who has spent a lifetime being anywhere but in her body, it’s a game changer.
Last night, when I drove down 680 to Alum Rock, I had no idea what to expect. I’d done one hospice massage before—it was for a woman who had fallen asleep as I lightly held her arms and legs. It was more like working on a bird than a human. To touch a stranger when they are in the transitional space between life and death is like being allowed into a still, golden room where the air is so thin and pure you almost don’t bother breathing. Her daughter texted me two days later to tell me her mother had died and that they were grateful for the time I’d spent with her.
To get paid for something like that is so strange.
The man who answered the door didn’t tell me his name. He told me the family would be home soon. I asked if he was the caretaker. “I’m the caregiver,” he said.
I had so much to learn.
My client had eyes that were bleached pale and his black watch was huge on his thin arm. The caregiver pulled up the blanket to uncover the man’s lower legs. I’d been instructed to work just from the knees down, and so I sat on the bed’s edge by his feet, and looked him in the eye as I let my hands hover over his knees, waiting for the bridge.
There was so little energy coming from his body; his legs were cold, so I started moving my hands even though I hadn’t felt a pull. The man muttered in what might have been Spanish or a language of transition. I didn’t know what to do and so I just held his gaze and hoped he felt safe with me. I didn’t talk. Again and again he looked me more intensely in the eye and said what sounded like “Sorry”. I smiled, and I kept contact with his knees, his bony shins, his peeling feet.
He didn’t fall asleep. I didn’t know if he liked what I was doing or if “sorry” meant, “Sorry, I hate what you are doing and my skin hurts. Could you please get off my bed and go now?” of if he was apologizing to me or to his god for everything he felt he’d done wrong.
I’d been paid in advance through Paypal for an hour, so even if I wasn’t sure that what I was doing was helping, I kept going. At one point, the man picked up his hand and held it in the air, so I reached over and held it. He got a good grip on my index and middle finger and squeezed. So we were like that for a while, him holding onto my fingers with his brown, knuckled hand, and me moving one hand slowly over his cold kneecap.
The TV was loud in the room, a Mexican game show, and I wondered if that was the sound he was going to die to—excited screaming interrupted by commercials. When his mumbling got louder, the caregiver came back in the room and leaned in close. “English,” the caregiver said. “Tell me in English.” The man mumbled more. “Water?” the caregiver said. The man mumbled and the caregiver picked up a water bottle and put the straw into the man’s mouth. “Sip,” the caregiver said. The man looked at him. “Sip harder,” the caregiver said, gently. He had to say it a couple of times before the man drank and then choked a rattly cough.
I finally started saying, “It’s okay,” when the man would say, “Sorry,” and he looked either relieved or disappointed when I said it. One time I reached to hold his hand but he didn’t hold my fingers. One time he held his hand up and he held my fingers again. I had no idea what I was doing. I wished he would fall asleep because then I would know I had offered relief, but all I had was hope.
Ten hours later I was on a plane to Boston. I’ll never see that man again. I am a better person because he allowed me to touch him.
After my session with the man, I had a phone interview with Haley Radke for her podcast Adoptees On. She asked about the part of my book where I said for almost thirty years I’d been told the same thing by various writing teachers: I had good dialogue but that I stayed on the surface. Haley asked how then I had managed to be so honest in You Don’t Look Adopted. I told her that I’d finally slowed down enough to actually hear what my clearest, truest voice was saying, and the better I listened, the more it had to say. Slowing down to listen to what I actually had to say felt like one of the most subversive acts in my life. I’d thought that was the voice I was supposed to hide. I thought that was the voice that would make me unlovable. It was so needy. So raw, but it was the only voice I had left. All the other ones had finally worn out and quit. And so I listened.
There is so much I didn’t tell you in the story about the man. I didn’t tell you that at one point I waited until the caregiver was out of sight so I could get up to get my cell phone out of my jacket pocket. I wanted to see what time is was, and I’d been surprised and relieved to see I only had eight minutes left. I felt I was wearing out my welcome with the man and I wanted to go. It’s so hard when you can’t communicate with words, when you can’t say, “Does this feel okay?” It’s so hard when you are living and someone else is dying and all you can think to do is smile and say, “It’s okay.”
I didn’t tell you that he kept reaching up to scratch his head. He moved his hand as if he was drunk and his hand weighed a hundred pounds. It was a lot of work to get to the itchy spot, a scaly area on his temple. When he would scratch it, his head would tilt at an awkward angle into the pillow. Once I stood and put my hands on either side of his skull and tried to straighten him up, but the breathing tubes were in the way and his heavy head was lost in the sink of pillow. Every time after that he moved to scratch his head, I tried to help him, tried to rub the affected area, but his hand would be close to mine, wanting to do the job itself.
The hospice had hired me over text. All I knew was this man’s first name and that he had cancer. I didn’t know if it was in his bones or his mouth or if the rattling sound coming from his body meant he might die while I was with him.
His eyes were unfocused and gentle.
He kept saying “Sorry”. At one point it occurred to me that the caregiver’s name might be Sonny and the man might be calling him, but being in that house was like swimming in a fish tank and everything but looking the man in the eye and keeping my hands warm on his legs and feet felt seemed pointless.
In the past year I’d been thinking so much about what it was like for infants and children to be relinquished by their birth mothers, so much about the birth process and loss. We as a creature feel so good when we are part of a community of people who are like us, but, it is true, being born and dying, ultimately, is solitary. Even when we are wet with the fluids of our mother and are held in her arms, nursing at her breast, we are still ourselves, and the pain of life is often dealing with the solitary nature of “I”.
Death frightens me because it means my chance at being myself is over.
Was this man saying “Sorry” or “Sonny”?
What did he want?
I also didn’t tell you that as I stood up to go, I lightly stroked the space between his eyes as you might to a cat, and I said, “Gracias. Adios.” I didn’t tell you that his eyes teared up and I turned to go.
And this is why I used to stay on the surface when I wrote: I was afraid of feeling. For when I finally looked at my thoughts and emotions about adoption and claimed them as my own, I felt a despair I’d spent most of my life running around trying to avoid.
But I also felt a searing joy, for while it was true I was alone, it was also true that I lived in a world where even strangers who didn’t speak my language would hold my hand and try to communicate.
Here’s the final thing I didn’t tell you. There was a pull when I first held my hands over the man’s legs. His skin was thin and the surface fluttered as if his pulse had left his arteries and had spread to his whole self. I felt his cold knees and my hands both get warmer before I finally touched him and we connected. I don’t know what to do with that fact, with the fact that he may already be dead, and so I pretend it didn’t happen. I pretend there was no real warmth.