The purpose of this BLOG is to introduce you, the reader, to some of the most resilient, loving, generous women and men, who, in spite of all odds, are making their lives 'works of art!’.
All have been TOUCHED by the hearts and hands of CTI’s Care Through Touch practitioners. “It’s the love you all put into the massage that makes it different from any other kind of massage I’ve ever received” said one faithful recipient. It’s not only what Care Through Touch has given these women and men, but even more, what they have given to CTI; and now through their stories to you the reader, and the world. As the saying goes, “I may be down, but I’m not out.” Here you will feel the truth of these words.
We begin this blog by introducing you to Jackie Zusman, a 67 year old woman we met through our Comfort, Care & Companioning Program. Today she is the ‘protector’ of this newly birthed program. In journeying with her over a few precious months, five to be exact, she showed us what a ‘warriors’ spirit is truly made of.
Jackie had bone marrow cancer that metastasized throughout her body. Every movement was etched in agonizing pain. But she craved the tenderness and intimacy of soothing touch.
“Mentally and physically it takes me to a place I never thought existed. It carries me out of this present state of pain to a state of euphoria, to a place where you feel as if your body separates itself – mental from physical, physical from mental. Truly, it's a place you would never ever think existed. But it does!”
“Simple touch makes all the difference in the world when you are terminally ill like I am. There is a line that is so scary and so anxiety producing that the fear is overwhelming. It’s not because of what you know, but it’s because of what you don't know about what to expect – how much more pain will be involved; how long do my doctors think I will live? From the very beginning of this last diagnosis though I told the oncologist that I didn’t want to know because I want to get up every day and enjoy it as if I didn’t know I had this disease! I try to make everyday as if it were my birthday, my Christmas, every day. Every day is like the start of a new year for me now! And now with Care Through Touch, it’s like every day you bring a new friend into my life, a life that before you came, was so lonely.”
Jackie was a magnet. Everyone who came into her presence was TOUCHED by her openness to life at that very moment, be it her satisfaction with a cigarette, a cup of coffee, the sound of her parrot, the footsteps of a friend coming down the corridor, the in-home-health women who chatted and loved her up, her long-time beloved friend, Oscar! To be honest, I believe we were all hoping we could push the inevitable march of her illness back behind the borders it was racing towards. But the time came when we were all powerless in the face of this monster disease, including Jackie herself. The pain was excruciating. No amount of morphine could silence it. “It’s time to go’ said the hospice nurse. And on the morning of February 28, she moved from the Empress Hotel in the Tenderloin to Coming Home Hospice a few miles away.
The following afternoon I went to visit Jackie, and she gave me the greatest gift of my life yet in Care Through Touch – she died peacefully with me by her side.
As I approached the door of her room, a nurse who was fixing her bed pillows, noticed a sudden change in her breathing. "I think she's making the transition,” she said to me as she left the room. That quickly! I was stunned! From that moment on, GRACE took over. I stood beside her bed and called her name, she opened her eyes wide reached for my hands and pulled me to her. I was both surprised and a bit scared by her strength. She attempted to say something, but it was impossible to understand. The nurse sedated her again, but her anxiousness continued a few moments longer.
At some point, I instinctively knew I needed to get out of the way of what was happening with her, and so I stepped back just a tiny bit to the side of her vision - enough for her to know I was there, but also enough to give her space. Instead of touching her, I held my hands just slightly off her body. And then this little miracle happened: I heard myself humming this sweet Bengali lullaby I learned in India and would sing to the dying people in Calcutta while I massaged or bathed or rocked them. (To tell you the truth, I think I've only sung it once since returning almost 15 years ago!) But there it was, just humming itself, so to speak. Jackie calmed down almost immediately. She opened her eyes and stared off into the distance; her eyes were clear and steady and I had the feeling she was meeting someone. (I'm so happy I remained out of the way). A few seconds later, she closed her eyes and her breathing slowed to a rhythm I've never witnessed before. I was fascinated by the slow coming and going of that breathing until there was no more...just the sound of my humming in a silence, finally without struggle! (The English translation of the Bengali lullaby is: "I love you, my dear baby”)
One of my mentors, Roshi Joan Halifax has written a book entitled Being With Dying: Cultivating Fearlessness in the Presence of Death. Her book is the foundation of a training program in Buddhist Chaplaincy. In it she speaks about the three requirements necessary in BEING with (note: not WORKING with) dying people: resting in not knowing, bearing witness, and loving action. As I reflect back over my experience that afternoon, I can see elements of all three. The most important lesson for me was: to get out of the way! "Let go, and let God!"
What a sacred journey this has been. We have dedicated our Comfort, Care and Companioning Program to Jackie!