Categories
on the mind

Anne

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.

Categories
on the mind on the road

Perspectives

We get up each morning, pull on sandy swimsuits and stained shirts, grab our makeshift toys — comprised largely of old yogurt containers, straws, and plastic fast-food utensils — and run out to the beach. We can’t remember the last time we bathed in something other than the ocean, and that’s just fine.

The beaches are relatively empty; the unseasonably cold 70-degree summer that is far too chilly for the native Californians is downright balmy for we Washingtonians. Last week, we had Disneyland all to ourselves for a few hours: A late afternoon downpour drove the less rusty away, so we ran around the saturated park, splashed in lakes/puddles, and rode The Pirates of the Caribbean at least 7,397 times.

On our way home to Washington, we stopped at this dank little motel in one of my mother’s childhood hometowns, Laguna Beach. An overnight stay has turned into much longer, maybe a month, with my mother rarely coming out of the tiny bedroom at the back. When she does, she is bleary-eyed and somewhat removed from us, as if she’s in a parallel universe, contending with other children, other husbands, other families, and she doesn’t have the ability to be in both places at the same time. Her interactions with my father are strained, her refusals to leave visibly frustrating him.

But for me and my brothers, our new beach life is amazing! These aren’t the rocky, jagged beaches that we’re used to, over which we must always tread gingerly so as to avoid the wrath of a billion barnacles. No, these are soft, sugary beaches, made for running, wrestling, and sculpting sandcastles. My brothers and I spend all day on them, occasionally heeding my father’s calls for us to come and eat whichever fast-food fare he’s procured. Our days are filled with scrapes and surf and sun, and this is our life now. We are beach children.

Until we’re not. One day, we wake up, find that our father has packed up everything, our mother shoos us into the Toyota van, which we’ve nicknamed the MoonBuggy, and we begin the long trek back to chillier, rockier shores.


My mother and I are having one of our extended weekends together; it’s rainy, of course, and she’s come over to Seattle to visit me. We’re holed up in my townhouse, the light filtering from the upstairs loft barely making a dent in the rainshadows, the old electric heater firing up like an incontinent jet engine every now and again. We sip wine as she recounts tales of her rather complicated childhood. 

“So the only house we lived in for more than, oh, six months was this one in Laguna Beach–”

“I love Laguna Beach!” I cut her off with a joyful squeal. “Remember when we were there when I was a kid, and we ended up staying for a whole month?”

“Yes, I remember. But it was only a week, Katherine.”

“Well, whatever. It was such a great summer, with Disneyland and swimming every day, I loved it.”

“Yeah, well … I remember it differently.” She takes a sip of her wine. “You know, that was the summer that I told your father that we might have to divorce.”

My parents have been divorced for decades and had lived somewhat separate lives before that, so the revelation of divorce wasn’t surprising; but her telling me that she had been thinking about it since that summer, so long ago, was.

“Really? All the way back then? Wow.”

“Well, I didn’t know what to do. You know, I was the Relief Society president and I was just really burned out. I couldn’t face going back to Washington, going back to the church. I hated it; it wasn’t me anymore. It was so different in California than here. You know, when I joined the church, it was all hippies and the seventies and so a lot of the Mormon stuff was what hippies were doing — making their own clothes, growing their own food, canning everything, you know, all that back to the Earth stuff. But in Washington, it was just old farmers and they were really conservative so, after several years of it, I couldn’t stand it.”

“So that’s why we stopped going?”

“Kind of. Well, I told your father that I couldn’t go back to it, that if he needed me to be the Good Mormon Wife that I couldn’t do it anymore and maybe we should get divorced. But he agreed that we could go back and that maybe I could do less. He didn’t agree to us not going at all, though.”

“Yeah, because I thought that happened a few years later. But I always thought it was because of the sock thing!”

She laughed. “No, not just the sock thing.”


There is no cable television on the reservation; there are only six channels: The ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS affiliates and two unaffiliated local channels that play reruns of sitcoms from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. When the weather gets bad, the antenna goes out and so then we have only static.

In our rural community, most of what we learn about American culture comes to us from the television; and in 1986, “culture” means Miami Vice. It had come out a couple of years before and its impact on style has finally reached our little backwater — specifically, the “cool” boys are walking around in shoes with no socks and wearing comically oversized blazers on top of t-shirts.

My two older brothers are no exception, but Mormons aren’t known for their reverence to current fashion — at least, not the Mormons that I grew up with. Every Sunday, my older brothers don their best Don Johnson stylings, saturate their hair with gel, and go to church. Now, they started out with socks on; we know this because they were wearing these getups for a few weeks without issue. Then, one day, there is.

After Sunday School is over, my younger brother and I convene at the MoonBuggy, alone. We begin playing on the grass next to the parking lot, and only after we notice that many of the cars have already left the church do we begin to get a little bit worried. Where are our parents, our brothers? Another few minutes pass and then the four of them come out of the church: My two older brothers have their heads hung low, my mother is looking irritated, my father resigned. They reach the MoonBuggy and, before we can say anything, we’re ordered to get in and we leave. As the youngest members of the family, we’re often not included in Important Things, and neither my parents or older brothers are interested in sharing with us what had happened. So we promptly forget about it.

The next Sunday, there are muffled shouts coming from my parents’ bedroom as we are getting ready for church. I can’t really make out what they’re saying, but since they fight often, I also don’t really care. I instead try to focus on the game of pretend that I’ve fully launched myself into, hoping to shut out the yelling. My parents finally open the door, my father stomping to the other side of the house and shouting something at my older brothers. My younger brother and I are still in the dark as to what’s going on, but again — we don’t really care. We’re just happy that we’re not the ones in trouble for once, and we climb into the MoonBuggy with an air of benevolent self-satisfaction. It feels good to be the Good Ones!

After a ride to church in total silence, we give ourselves over to the order of the day: A two-hour-long testimony meeting, then two hours of Sunday School. Again, my younger brother and I convene at the MoonBuggy alone. But, this time, we don’t have to wait long, because our mother comes storming out of the church, my brothers following sheepishly behind her, our father walking along much more slowly, looking particularly pained.

When they reach the car, my brothers climb in and sit quietly in the back; my younger brother and I are looking around confusedly, asking what’s going on. We’re told to just get into the van and that we were going home. The ride home is again in silence, and now my younger brother and I do really care. When we reach our house, I send my younger brother out on a mission of reconnaissance; he returns with eyes gleaming.

“They weren’t wearing any socks!” He exclaims triumphantly.

“What do you mean? They had socks on this morning I thought.”

“They told them that if they came to church again without socks on, they couldn’t come back. So today they went there and they took their socks off in the bathroom and so they got into trouble. And mom and dad had to talk to the bishop and they told them we couldn’t come back until the boys were wearing socks.”

“So are we going back?”

“I dunno.”


We didn’t go back. It seemed so serious then, but now, in my shaded apartment decades later, we laugh about it.

“So that’s what I always thought, that we stopped going because the boys wouldn’t wear socks! I didn’t know you had been having issues with it for years.”

“Yeah.”

“Why did you even become a Mormon? It’s not like you were born into it, so what happened?”

“I just wanted things to be normal, you know? And my friends who were Mormon seemed to have the most normal lives I had seen. Their parents were around, they ate dinner together every night, they had clean clothes. There wasn’t the kind of chaos that I had at my house, the drinking and the fighting and the abuse.” She laughs to herself a bit. “I guess trying to be normal was my teenage rebellion.”

There isn’t much of a sunset to be seen tonight, but what little light has been able to filter through the clouds has dimmed a bit more. We each take another sip of wine as we stare out the window, caught in our own individual reveries of perspectives past.

Categories
on the mind

Purple Parachute Pants

You know the spellbinding glow that mysteriously emanates from the briefcase each time it’s opened in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction? When I envision the Purple Parachute Pants that I wore religiously when I was eight years old, they are saturated in a similarly magical halo.

Now, I don’t use the word “religiously” lightly; I was, in fact, rather obsessed with these pants and I wore them every single day. As I was a precocious tomboy, I spent most of my days tramping through the forest, catching snakes and frogs in the swamp, building precarious tree forts positioned as high as I could climb, rolling down hills of snake grass, and cutting mazes through vast fields of Scotch Broom. None of these activities lent themselves to cleanliness and so, much to my mother’s chagrin, the Purple Parachute Pants were in a constant state of disarray. 

I also don’t use the word “magical” lightly; to my eight-year-old mind, the Purple Parachute Pants were the best thing that had ever happened to me, clothes-wise, since, well, actually having to wear clothes. They possessed three of the most important attributes essential to unencumbered exploration: functionality, ease of movement, and material so slippery, it seemed impenetrable by the likes of dirt, mud, and tree sap. (Incidentally, these are all qualities that I still look for while selecting clothes.)Their utility, in everything from carrying tools and toys to scaling creosote-drenched playground structures to withstanding all matter of foodstuff “accidentally” dropped during dinner, ultimately rendered them the only essential component of my defacto uniform. In short: They were perfection.

While my brothers and I are relatively close in age, they were always rather annoyed by me and preferred to go off on their own adventures with each other. A consequence/benefit of this is that I developed an incredibly rich interior life, often spending hours, days, and weeks immersed in a fantastical world populated primarily with creatures of my own imagination. I also pressed our family pets into service, requiring them to play parts in my complicated storylines–a role that our eager German Shepherd was only too happy to play, while our cranky calico cat occasionally emitted a disgruntled mrowr or two, particularly when required to wear some type of costume.

At school, I continued much of my fantastical feats on the playground, sometimes including my classmates but not really concerning myself if they weren’t interested. The Purple Parachute Pants were perfectly suited to the elementary school playgrounds of the 1980s, specifically those on the rural indigenous reservations in Washington State, as they were constructed mostly of old railroad ties, partially rusted metal, and pea gravel. Accordingly, the Purple Parachute Pants were required school attire each and every day.

This state of affairs irritated my mother to no end; she had been raised in a particularly sterile household and, to this day, finds the act of any type of cleaning to be one of relaxation. While I’m sure she must have stolen the Purple Parachute Pants on occasion to wash them while I was sleeping so that they couldn’t actually stand up on their own, any time she attempted to squirrel them away, tell me they weren’t washed and that I had to wear something else, or try to put her foot down and forcefully dress me in different clothes, a magnificent battle would ensue. My meltdowns were prolific and never-ending, my attachment to the Purple Parachute Pants so deep that I was simply unable to function without them. The one concession that I made, albeit begrudgingly, was that when we went to church, I would slip a dress on over the Purple Parachute Pants.

But the fact that her only daughter was going out into the world wearing these disgusting pants was a point of shame for my mother. While other mothers had well-coiffed daughters who sported crisp and clean clothing, I was unkempt and stained, rarely remembering to perform basic body care tasks without consistent prodding. I often forgot that I even had a body, my devotion to my imagination was so complete. Introverted and always observing, it was–and still sometimes is–quite surprising to me when someone noticed that I was there.

Years later, my mother told me that, at her wit’s end, she had consulted my third-grade teacher, Mr. Byers, about what to do about the Purple Parachute Pants. She confessed that she had told him how ashamed and embarrassed she was by them, and that she thought the school or other parents would think I was being neglected because I always looked dirty. He told her not to worry about it, that she should let me wear them and not wash them and that, eventually, the natural cruelty of children would do their work for them and I would be shamed by my peers into not wearing them anymore. This was a revelation to me, however, because I have absolutely no negative memories of the Purple Parachute Pants ever causing me a lick of trouble from anyone but my mother. In fact, as referenced at the beginning of this tale, they held only glorious memories of unencumbered joy. 

Now, whether or not my classmates derided me may never be known; since I was generally in my own little world, they may very well have, and I may have not even absorbed what they were doing. So instead of succumbing to the peer pressure proposed by Mr. Byers, the Purple Parachute Pants had a rather mundane demise. One afternoon, I had identified a tree with a Y structure that would be perfect for a perch. I filled my pockets with nails and a hammer, then slowly scaled the tree while balancing a board suitable enough for a reading platform. Upon reaching the Y, I carefully nailed the board into place, then climbed higher and lowered myself down. It was perfect! I could spy everything from high up in the treetops, and no one would bother me–in fact, it would be difficult for anyone to even know I was up there. Now, all I needed was a book. I began climbing down when the unthinkable happened: The Purple Parachute Pants were caught briefly on a small, sharp branch and ripped open, emitting a sharp noise that, because of the nylon material, sounded like a coat being forcefully unzipped.

I was devastated. The Purple Parachute Pants were torn from my mid-thigh to my upper knee, the internal layer of nylon preventing the branch from scratching my skin. Even in their final moments, they had protected me! I ran home sobbing, begging my mother to fix them. She claimed they were beyond repair and threw them away rather unceremoniously. I moped for days. Then, as children do, I eventually moved on to something else, the magical glory of the Purple Parachute Pants continuing to live on as a legend in my own mind–so much so, that I’m writing about them now, 36 years later.

And they’re still the best pair of pants I’ve ever owned.