Earlier today, I ran into the son of an old woman I used to work with who recently died.
We were in the US Bank at the local grocery store. When he saw me, he rose slowly from his chair, interrupting what seemed to be an important conversation he was having with the bank guy. His eyes were teary. I put down the ziplock freezer bags I had in one hand and the clearance Norfolk Pine I had in the other. We hugged.
It was the first time I saw him since his mom died, early last month. She was almost 90, had fallen and broken her hip a few weeks before Christmas. She made it for one more painful week before she passed away.
The son said that extra week gave all her kids (she had five of them) time to get to her.
“I want to thank you for all you did for my mom in her last years,” he said. “She loved her massages so much.”
“Yes, she did.” We both laughed. She was one of the few clients who commented on oh how good it felt throughout each and every session. Twenty minutes a week, for nearly three years.
“How do you do it?” He asked me. “Isn’t it hard when your clients die?”
Sure. It was.
But I give massage to the elderly and dying—that’s my job. So, accepting their death is a necessary part of the work. It also—and I mean this—feels like a privilege to be able to offer them something that has the potential to bring a great deal of peace during their last weeks and months on earth. So often, touch is limited to clinical or nursing care for elders, even in the best of circumstances.
‘Massage’ is simply a term, what gets me there. Then, after some time and consistency, I do my best to learn what would be most nurturing for that individual. Some just like to be held in their chairs, much like a child. Some like Comfort Touch, which is a very gentle application of massage, taught by Hospice. Some, not many and usually the men, like a good old-fashioned therapeutic massage. Whatever the specific method of touch, it becomes our—somewhat secret—language.
But I only told the son about it being an honor. And with his sweet mother, it most definitely was.
Then we hugged again and said goodbye.
The rest has been percolating in the hours since.
And tonight, totally apropos, Jesse showed me this video called Elderly Animals, by Isa Leshko.
Oh my, I thought. This is very similar to the work I do.
She honors her elders through intimate and honest photographs. I attempt to honor mine through direct contact.
In her artist statement, she says:
“In order to achieve a sense of intimacy in these portraits, I spend several hours with the animals I photograph and I try to visit them multiple times. Depending on the animal, I may spend an hour or so simply lying on the ground next to the creature before I take a single image. This approach helps the animal acclimate to my presence and it allows me to observe the animal without being focused on picture taking.”
“I am creating these photographs in order to take an unflinching look at aging and mortality. My maternal grandmother had dementia during her later years, and now my mom has it. I am scared of developing Alzheimer’s disease and I get nervous whenever I lose my keys or forget a person’s name. Photographing geriatric animals enables me to immerse myself in my fear of growing old. I have come to realize that these images are self-portraits. Or at the very least, they are manifestations of my fears and hopes about what I will be like when I am old.”
To be honest, I don’t spend a whole lot of the time while I am working with my clients thinking about my own mortality. I am busy fidgeting with the recliner, or encouraging them to breathe, or talking with them about their son or daughter who will be visiting soon.
It isn’t until one of them actually dies that I am left with a tiny hole to tend to. I will continue to walk to their room or their favorite spot by the window for a short while without thinking. I will feel a noticeable weight in my heart when I hold their image in my mind.
But, inevitably, as time passes, the weight will lighten and the mental-picture of them will wane. And I will wish I had a photo to keep them from fading—they who were so dear to me at one time—completely from memory.
For the entire gallery of Elderly Animals, click here.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photos: Isa Leshko