Touch: The Journal of Healing



Reciprocal Healing

    by Janet Buttenwieser

Twenty-four hours ago, I stood in my kitchen in Seattle, one of my children clinging to my leg, the other driving his bumble bee scooter in circles around us.  I fed Helen oatmeal and made a sandwich for Caleb to eat at preschool.  Matt drove me to the airport and kissed me goodbye.  And now I am in the middle of the Sonoran Desert with Jason, my massage therapist for the hour.  I’m getting a Thai massage, a combination of yoga, acupressure, and reflexology.  I am fully clothed, lying on a mat on my back while Jason compliments my toenail polish, his own foot pressed into my thigh.  Ice cubes melt in my glass of lemon-flavored water as it sits on the counter behind us.  Flute music plays innocuously in the background.

It wasn’t Beth’s style to retreat to a fancy resort with four of her close friends or to order a colorful cocktail and marvel at the crisp white sheets and the shower which could hold all five of us at once.  Still, she would’ve liked it here.  Today it’s seventy degrees and sunny.  I was sweaty on our hike this morning, climbing past clusters of saguaro and yucca to granite cliffs standing guard at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains.  Geckos skittered past us on the trail.  We looked down the slope at the resort, a series of tan faux-adobe structures hunched atop the sun-scorched earth.  The spa where I now lie sits in the middle of the property, its exterior a bright white to emanate purity, cleanliness, simplicity.

We aren’t saying much, Jason and I, because, after all, it is a massage.  I’m supposed to lie here quietly with my eyes closed and take deep cleansing breaths.  The room is dim, the walls unadorned, and there is nothing to distract the mind.  Jason tells me I should be like a rag doll, my limbs loose and pliable.  He is tall, with a long-distance runner’s build.  He has short black hair and a kind smile.  He talks quietly, calmly.

I try to relax, but it is difficult.  A sheen of sadness coats everything lately, because even though it’s been eight months since Beth died, it’s only been two weeks since I sat in her house packing her things.  It has been sixteen days since I encased her plaster handprint, made at age three, in bubble wrap and twelve days since I hung her coats in the storage room and placed her half-used toiletries in a cardboard box.  Ten days have passed since I packed her jewelry boxes, her vibrantly colored tapestries, and her large assortment of hats.  I cradled it all in my hands, smoothing her wrinkled blouses and marking old photographs with fingerprints before sealing them away in cardboard boxes.  All the while, she sat in her own white pine box, perched on the shelf above me while I sorted.

There is nothing new to say about Beth’s death, but still, I talk about it constantly.  It is a relief to lie quietly for once, to let someone seek out my sore places and try to heal them.  And there are plenty.  "There, midway down my calf - from running," I tell Jason.  He says it is a common pain spot.  Three mile point, they call it.  When runners hit “the wall,” he tells me, they can push on that point and run three more miles.  “Here is another common tender spot,” he says, pressing on the arch of my foot.  I wince involuntarily.  He lets up for a split second then presses deeper.  “Tender for you.”  I can hear his smile, sympathetic, though my eyes are closed.

I ask him what that point represents, and he begins to tell me about meridians, lines of energy which radiate out from our organs.  “This is part of your liver meridian.  It’s where you store anger.”  He talks more about the different meridians.  Stomach.  Kidneys.  Heart.  And even though I wasn’t going to bring Beth up, I find myself asking if the liver meridian would be where I held pain from the death of a loved one.  “Yes.  Especially if you are angry about it.”

“That sounds about right,” I say.  He continues massaging.  I am bracing myself for a stream of platitudes to come out of his mouth, a distant sympathy as he tries not to picture himself in my situation. 

“I take it you lost someone,” he says, not prying.  I tell him about her cancer, her death.  “Do you dream about her?”  he asks.  I am surprised by his question.

“Yes.”  We talk about dreaming of dead friends.  He has a close friend, Mike, who died six years ago.  Mike is a part of him, he tells me.  He gives Jason advice.  “Beth does too.  She was very wise.”  I am smiling.  It is a rare thing these days, to invoke her without needing to fight back tears. 

“She was your age?” he asks. 

“That’s where the anger comes from,” I tell him.  Dead from cancer at thirty-eight.

He makes a noise, an exhale of breath, that indicates an understanding.  I am aware of my own breath as well.  With each inhale I can feel the cotton mat beneath me in contact with the concrete floor and the earth beneath. I want to know the story of Mike’s death, but it feels wrong to ask, a violation of the unspoken contract we seem to have agreed to.  But then he tells me. 

Mike and Jason were best friends since the age of eight.  They did everything together, traveled together.  I picture a backpacking trip through South America.  If they were ten years older, they might have met Beth at Macchu Picchu.  Mike’s mother died of breast cancer when he was twenty-two, and a year later he had an onset of schizophrenia.  He tried admitting himself to a psychiatric hospital, but they couldn’t help him. 

“One day he called me,” Jason says, “and asked if he could come and visit me in Tucson.  ‘Of course,’ I told him.  He was living in Kansas City, where we grew up.  He was driving down here to see me.  Then I got a call from the Tribal Police on the Navajo Reservation in Northern Arizona.  He’d killed himself.”  He does not stop the massage.  I do not open my eyes.  The flute music continues in the background.

“I had to call his family.”

“How did the police know to call you?”

“They found my phone number in a notebook in his car.” 

I open my eyes now to watch him.  His eyes are focused on the massage as he continues talking.  He looks sad, but mostly I see love.  He is emanating it: an electric charge coming out of his fingertips, love for his friend, love for the special insight the experience has given him, and love for the work he is doing even as he tells this story, healing with his words and the touch of his hands.

“The night Mike died, I felt crazy.” 

At Jason’s instruction, I am holding onto his wrist while he, on his knees, pulls me up off the mat, stretching me in a twist, my back arched, my head dangling behind me.  The bracelet Beth gave me slides down my forearm.

“I kind of passed out, and I dreamt about him.  In the dream he said ‘It’s okay.  I’m alright now.  I’m better.’”

My hand begins to slip off of his wrist.  “I’m losing my grip,” I say, not intending the irony.

“It’s okay,” Jason says.  “I’ve got you.”  I think of the words I say to Caleb when he awakens from a nightmare, sobbing into my shoulder.  It’s okay.  I’m right here.

Before long the massage is over.  Jason tells me to sit up slowly and offers me water.  I can almost feel my blood flowing through my veins.  I sit cross-legged in the middle of the mat and wonder at what just happened.  He tells me about the reciprocal healing of Thai massage, that the person giving it gets almost as much out of it as the person receiving it.  It’s about moving energy through the body.

“Movement equals change,” he says.  “Non-movement equals pain.”  We walk out of the room together and say goodbye at the end of the corridor. I keep walking, keep moving.

© 2011 Janet Buttenwieser

Janet Buttenwieser is an MFA Candidate at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, a low-residency MFA program in Washington State. She lives with her husband and two young children in Seattle, Washington.

Copyright © 2011

Touch: The Journal of Healing

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