For Michael

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In 2002 when I lived on Mountain Road on the Troy-Marlborough line, I felt all stone and no rosa rugosa. Broken and displaced, riddled with shame and disappointment, mostly in myself, I sought solace in massage but I was two hours away from the wonderful massage therapist, Ray, I’d been to for fifteen years in the seacoast. Ray possessed gentleness and strength in equal measure and I couldn’t imagine finding anyone else with whom I’d feel that comfortable. But the striations of stress sent me to the yellow pages where I found Michael. Both he and his wife Kathie were listed but I always preferred a male practitioner so I asked to speak to him and he just sounded so kind. Turned out he lived a half mile away. And for that rocky year, I let myself sink into the safety of his table to experience a momentary crevasse of relief from the sorrow. A year later, in Canada, where I moved for work, I tried five massage therapists and none of them offered anything close to Ray or Michael. I always appreciated what they did, the fluidity and grace of their movement across my terrain, but four years without a satisfactory massage made me all the more appreciative.

When I returned to Troy in 2007, I called Michael and began regular visits. The ease deepened as we chatted through the massage, getting acquainted with the rhythms and characters of each other’s life. Michael charged less than anyone else and he never worked to the clock. He just listened with his hands.

In September 2008, when that shattered tibia of mine hurt something awful, he came over several mornings right from his night job at the post office, and tread so gently with his hands, granting the only relief from the pain. A kindly relative sent me five-hundred dollars and I offered it to Michael but he refused any payment, saying, “Don’t even think about me until all your medical bills are paid.” Finally, after I had paid the six thousand out of pocket for everything else, I counted up his thirteen house calls and took him check when I could finally drive again. He just stood in his doorway shaking his head no. He smiled. “I only came four times.”

“No you didn’t. I kept track.”

“I can’t take that check,” he insisted.

Finally, he let me write a new one for $250 dollars. That is just the kind of man he is. Only now, as I write this, Michael is traveling toward was. The last massage I got was a housewarming gift to make me feel at home in my new space in Jaffrey. One more time he schlepped his table and set it up in my living room with the sunlight streaming in. A couple of months later, I phoned to make an appointment for another massage. Kathie answered and something in her tone as she said, “I’ll let you speak to Michael” bode poorly. He told me he’d just been diagnosed with lung cancer.

That was three months ago. Lucky for me, I got to visit with him a few times in the last week and a half. Kathie called yesterday to say he’d probably die over the weekend. I stopped by to see him last night on the way home. I got to greet him, say “I love you,” and put my hand on his forehead before he fell asleep. I am so grateful for our conversations across the years and  the last several days. The intimacy of massage is unmistakable but for me, a person who spent so much of my life feeling disconnected from my body, massage let me come home, crawl back in my skin and purr. So being with Michael as he lay there under the sheet, listening to him reckon with dying, has given me an even greater gift.

I am not so broken anymore. I set down the shame that hobbled me. The shattered leg healed leaving the slightest limp—a fair trade for all the blessing. The candle I lit for Michael tonight is really for me. It’s just a way to make visible his light, shimmering across my skin.

Traveling mercies, my friend, and thank you.