There were two different programs offered at Brenneke School of Massage: A standard, 600-hour course that met the requirements of state licensing, and an extended 1300-hour course that delved more deeply into technique and science, as well as incorporating a weekly externship during the second half of the program. I selected the latter, primarily because I wanted to have a deeper understanding of the human body, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to get some real-world experience as a massage therapist under my belt, either.

During the first half of the program, we spent our days exploring kinesiology, anatomy, physiology, and a wide array of different massage techniques, grounded in everything from Swedish to Shiatsu. We had to do 10 hours of practice massages each week, and while I excelled in the theory and understanding of the human body, translating that into my hands was a bit of a challenge. My instructors would tell me that I had potential, but that I was in my head too much, that I needed to figure out a way to ground myself in my body. 

The effects of my apparent groundlessness were showing up in my elbows, wrists, hands, and thumbs as I was far too reliant on arm pressure versus using my bodyweight to support my movements. When I was giving a massage, I couldn’t help but get caught up in visualizing the actual structures in question — the direction of the muscle fibers in the gastrocnemius, how to access pec minor, the best way to sink my fingers into the sternocleidomastoid. I would get so caught up, in fact, that I would sometimes forget that there was a person in the body beneath my fingertips, and my early practice reviews were often peppered with comments of too much or not enough pressure, of not being particularly effective in my work, of a feeling of exploratory aimlessness instead of a flowing, choreographed massage.

As we progressed through the year, we began working in the school clinic; my technique was improving in the classroom, but now that we were working with paying customers, I was incredibly nervous. Would I know how to treat their issue? Would I be able to stay focused throughout the massage? Every session was a study in anxiety, and I overcompensated by burying my nose in our pathology textbooks and learning every possible malady for which massage could be a remedy.

When it came time for our first externship, we were provided with a list of different locations and establishments with which the school had a partnership. There was a treatment center for women who were pregnant and struggling with addiction, a surgical wing of a local hospital, a community elder care center, a chiropractor’s office, and a hospice. We were asked to rank our top three choices and we’d learn our assignment the following week; after considering all of the options, I decided to choose the one that terrified me the most: Hospice. While the idea of working with the dying scared me, it seemed preferable to focus on overcoming this fear than addressing the challenge of fully inhabiting my own body.

On the first day of our externship, I learned that only one other member of our cohort (a rather sunny fellow from Sri Lanka) had chosen the hospice assignment; the rest of our compatriots were begrudging and irritated. Some had wanted the “easy” gig of massaging the elderly while they played bingo, while others wanted the “practical” experience of working in a medical setting. Except for our Sri Lankan friend, no one really wanted to be at the hospice at the beginning; we went through the training from the director, got our ID badges, and received our assignments.

“Kat, you’ve got Anne,” our advisor, Jeff, barked at me. “Cancer.” He handed me her file with a stern look and then turned to another student.

As I walked away, I reviewed Anne’s file, which had a large bright pink post-it on it that said simply “DAYS.” After passing colorless room after colorless room, each filled with a variety of beeping machines and the scent of disinfectant, I reached Anne’s. It was mid-way down the hall and, unlike many of the other rooms, her door was shut. I knocked softly and, when I didn’t hear anything, I opened the door slowly and peeked in.

Instantly, “DAYS” meant something to me: Anne was essentially a skeleton, with just days to live. She was lying on her side, the white sheet jutting awkwardly in places that should have been softer. She was heavily medicated, barely lucid, raising her head just a bit off the pillow as I stood at the end of her bed.

“Anne? I’m Kat, the massage therapist.”

“Good ………. back.” She whispered hoarsely, a deep, labored breath in between each word, waving her hand a bit toward the other side of the room. “Do my back.”

Those words had taken almost all of her energy and she sank back into the pillow. I pulled the sheet back to reveal thin, papery skin stretched over angular bones; where were the muscles? What could I massage? My head reeled as I ran through my knowledge of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, pathology–whatever ology I could come up with that would tell me what to do. I was at a loss.

To give myself some time, I squirted the massage oil in my hands and rubbed them together quickly; I thought that, if anything, the warmth would feel good to her. I tentatively touched the small of her back, stroking her vertebra and hip bones. Slowly, slowly. I wasn’t sure I was really doing anything, though, until I heard a deep sigh come from Anne.

At that moment, I was in my hands for the very first time. Suddenly, everything clicked into place and I realized that all of the knowledge, the books, the flashcards, the studying — all the focus that I had put on learning the mechanics of the situation really meant nothing. They were an armor, a barrier, a crutch; an intellectual way of dehumanizing the very humans that I wanted to help heal. And so none of that really mattered — in the end, it was only me, my touch, my presence, my bearing witness to this person’s body. All that mattered was being there.

As I gently massaged her back, neck, and hips, Anne’s breathing turned from somewhat ragged to syncopated, and I felt this deeply intimate connection with her. It was just she and I in that moment, in that room, breathing together in the final days of her life. She didn’t care that I could release her iliopsoas or relax her traps, she just cared that my hands were warm and that I was there, nurturing her, comforting her. A sense of timelessness permeated the moment, it could have been five minutes or five hours, I didn’t notice.

And Anne did only have a few days left to live; she passed away a couple of days later. When I returned the following Friday, eager to see her again, I was given the bittersweet news: Bitter because I would never have the opportunity to share that space with Anne again, but sweet because, in the final moments of her life, Anne had changed mine.

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