catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 14 :: 2003.07.04 — 2003.07.17


The healing power of touch

Renee was the person who taught me about the healing power of touch. Sure, I had heard about it before. In fact, I heard or read about it nearly every day as I went to school to become a muscle therapist. Magazine articles would often highlight a new technique to help heal the body and soul; an ancient method to reduce chronic pain; healing touch for singles; healing touch for two; healing touch for migraines, arthritis; attention deficit disorder; bad moods; pre-pregnancy; post-pregnancy; digestive problems; vertigo; healing touch that requires no touch at all. Spa advertisements promised rejuvenation and calm if one would simply agree to be wrapped in the healing properties seaweed, oatmeal, honey, buttermilk or any combination thereof. It only made me hungry. But I got the point and I understood the attraction—the hope that touch could very possibly heal everything—from premenstrual syndrome to obesity to depression.

Renee had long black hair that he would braid down between his shoulders or tie back with a piece of leather. He also had cancer. A tumor had decided to wrap itself around Renee?s cervical vertebrae. It was a precarious situation indeed, with a determined tumor and human. I crossed paths with Renee when there was still hope. After two surgeries and multitudes of exploratory tests, Renee wanted some relief from the growing pain in his arm, stemming from nerve impingements caused by the invasive tumor. Relatively new to my field, I specialized mainly in functional bodywork for chronic and acute soft tissue-related pain. I had all sorts of tricks and maneuvers to relieve pain and wow patients. Unfortunately, I wasn?t sure that any of them would be effective in dealing with Renee?s problem. However, I had been reading about the ?healing? quality of touch for cancer patients and while I was skeptical of the many metaphysical promises of such techniques, I decided to offer my services to him free of charge. I hoped only to gain some practical work experience for my time.

Renee came each week and I would work, as directed, avoiding aggressive changes in circulation to keep from spreading the cancer through the blood; avoiding close proximity to the tumor, to keep from causing pain; avoiding heavy work at areas of lymphatic flow to keep from moving healthy fluids out. When working with my regular patient load, most of my work was structured around systematic problem solving: Back-tracking from the area of pain to find a possible source and then working methodically through origins and insertions to achieve release and lengthening of each piece of the muscular puzzle. The series would conclude when the symptom of pain had been eliminated by addressing the true cause. My work with Renee was nothing like this. In fact, it was mostly jumbled and unpredictable, brand new from week to week and sometimes minute to minute, depending on changes in pain or medication. Specialized techniques that I could use to reduce neck pain in an ordinary person, would cause agony in Renee. There was nothing fancy or impressive I could pull out of my bag of learning. There was little more that I could provide that any Joe on the street couldn?t give.

Because Renee couldn?t pay me financially, each week he would instead bring a gift of his heritage. Renee was a Native American Indian and he would tell me stories of the gifts he brought: First, the apache tear, a small dark stone so clear that it looked like a jet black raindrop in my hand; the feather from a sparrow hawk for guidance and direction; the medicine bag, the tobacco pouch, the turquoise necklace—each story a gift in itself. Renee left for a few weeks in February to visit the Mayo Clinic for some more tests, in order to weigh the risks of another operation to remove the tumor—the risk of loosing the use of his arm, possible paralysis, or increased pain versus the possibility of lengthening his life. Renee returned to tell me that he would not be having any more surgeries.

When Renee was young, he and his brother had lived in Arizona and Texas, where they loved to ride horses barefoot in the dry sun. Together they were initiated into a street gang that vied for power over other rival gangs—his stories reminded me of the wild west portrayed by Hollywood—painted savages thundering across the plains, charging with spears and bows and arrows toward the enemy. In reality, it was not like that at all. In Renee?s reality there were drugs and knives and beatings. He was able to escape that period of life with only three scars, each one a reminder of the night he was stabbed by two men outside a bar. His brother was not as lucky.

Renee later met his wife, moved to the Midwest, became a photographer for the Chicago Tribune, became a father, moved to Michigan, became a young grandfather and tried to hold onto and pass along what parts of his heritage he could. He danced and drummed at pow-wows, visited with medicine men, reconciled for himself that both the Christian God and Great Spirit were very possibly the same entity and he walked the fence of his westernized life and native history, balancing his weight in both worlds.

Four weeks before he died, Renee cut his long black hair off. He was no longer able to comb or braid it. He didn?t want to be a burden and when the hair came off, hospice came in. I would sit on the edge of the sterile hospital bed, working on his hands, listening to him speak beneath the whir of the oxygen tank, that fueled his dying lungs on trips to the bathroom or kitchen. The trees began to show signs of rebirth, his granddaughter raced by outside the window, Renee played Santana on his CD player, and the pain continued to worsen, striking in waves when it came. I had never seen a grown man fight against such pain, writhing and arching against the tide that would grip him with such fury as to make him cry out, make tears run from his eyes. The first time I saw it, I floundered, forgetting every professional instruction taught me. I sat and wept, defeated on Renee?s behalf, unable to help him, awestruck by the merciless nature of his disease. Eventually, a different type of pain would arise—the pain that came from his knowing that he would never lift his granddaughter again; never ride another horse; never make love to his wife… and as I watched the imminent victory of the tumor unfold, I began to realize that there was nothing I could do to help this man—my education was utterly useless. Specialized training was replaced with weeping and handholding, listening and rubbing feet—one of the few remaining areas that did not elicit pain.

My last visit with Renee was spent doing just that. I was rubbing his left foot, sitting at the end of the hospital bed, when I asked him to tell me about his favorite memory….

Bareback across the desert behind his house, away from the neighborhoods and gas stations, through the cactus valleys, away from the Michigan cold, oxygen tank, from the easy Jesus answers—riding under the Arizona sun, feet calloused and dry against the burning sand, hair flying black behind him, his brother at his side again, the Great Spirit waiting in the thunderheads

And this mystery remains: though I could offer nothing to ease his pain, the presence of my touch provided great healing to Renee, even as he gave way to death. And I, though not afflicted with any illness, was healed by Renee without any touch at all. And as I imagine the rhythmic dancing of medicine men around a fire, hear the thumping drums and smell the scent of tobacco rising, I cast my science aside, grateful for the chance to redefine my job description, my purpose and my truth.

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