Issue 19 / Fall 2019
“Mom, check your email for a message from 20 West Spa. It’s not spam,” read the late-night text. Yep, there in my junk folder was the message I would never have opened. I was the recipient of a very generous gift certificate.
A quick look at the establishment’s web site informed me that I could be wrapped, plucked, soaked, pummeled, lacquered, sheared, and slathered in hot mud, among other tortures. Well, it didn’t say those things in so many words, but that’s how I thought of the spa experience.
I am a gardener. A digger of the dirt. I’m also known to be rather frugal, so the thought of spending that much money on a brief, non-tangible experience gave me pause. After about a month of wondering if I could sell the certificate and pretend that I had gone, I decided to use part of it for a haircut (about double what I usually pay) and a manicure (exactly 100% more than I usually pay). The haircut went well. The manicure was challenging. There was an array of colors such as I had never imagined would adorn my often earth-hued nails. Though my first impulse was to go with clear, I decided, after much deliberation, on Fire-Engine Red.
So, the haircut and manicure are finished. I feel kind of good and stop to buy some new makeup on the way home. I put on some earrings and lipstick and go for a walk to show off my new doo and my bright red fingertips. Of course, I take the dog. Wait, there’s a clump of weeds near the gaillardia. Fresh manicure and no gardening gloves handy, but that’s no problem. I have the doggie poop bags, which fit nicely over my hand, and before you know it, I’ve got a pile of torpedo grass, spurge, and creeping beggarweed—complete with its bothersome taproot. The dog, used to these changes in plans, waits patiently.
Meanwhile, I still have a bucketful of money to spend from the gift certificate. I think I could get a few more haircuts and maybe even another manicure. I’d even prefer a bikini wax and tonsillectomy with a fork over the massage. This does not go over well with Daniel. “Mom, I got you that gift certificate specifically for a massage. You need it. You have to get a massage. You haven’t really relaxed since Lydia died.”
Oh, hell. Despite my attempts to pretend I’m managing quite well, my son has seen through the ruse. It seems I’m going to have to get the dreaded massage.
I had a massage once. The massage therapist was a close friend who gave me the massage as a gift. Betsy had a studio in her home, a place I’d been many times. We used to study together there, memorizing muscle groups, smoking cigarettes and thinking up mnemonic devices peppered with profanity to help us remember material for tests in a human anatomy refresher class.
That massage experience in Betsy’s home was so personal, so intimate, so very painfully cathartic. By the time it was over, I was sobbing and did not want to get up and go home. I just wanted to pull the sheet over my head and stay there like a swaddled infant. As it turns out, that’s not an unusual response. We are, many of us, touch hungry and when we are finally given our fill, the tactile riot can be overwhelming. Massage can elicit body memory, leading to emotional release such as I experienced under Betsy’s magic hands.
That memorable massage took place many years before the most tragic day of my life, the day that made all previous tragedies seem about as critical as this chip already sullying my fresh red nail polish. The day I walked into my fifteen-year-old daughter’s room and into the horror of her suicide.
It softens you, a loss like that. Turns you inside-out. Lays bare your organs and makes your heart vulnerable to rupture and your nerves exposed like downed power lines in the wake of the storm. Small hurts that once bounced off your skin now linger with the excruciating agony of a piece of sand in your eye until, oyster-like, you pour your essence over it to smoothe the jagged edges.
I suppose that is a big part of my massage apprehension. If that first massage years ago had the power to release the well of tears within me then, before I had this persistent aching grief always right there under the surface, waiting to erupt, what might happen now? I envisioned the massage therapist’s hands kneading my tight muscles until I began to howl and scream and cry with all the pent-up pain and rage and hopelessness. I might never stop keening. For years I have struggled to keep from delving into the depths of despair. Every November, I begin to dread the approach of Lydia’s birthday, knowing that I will ruminate on all the whys and what-ifs. “Why didn’t I set more limits?” comes up just as often as “Why didn’t I let her get the tattoos?” I’ll remember every argument and every cross word ever spoken and wish a thousand times for one more day to tell her how much she is loved.
As soon as November passes, there’s December waiting to tempt me into some semblance of holiday cheer but always kicking me in the gut the week before Christmas—the week that she died.
I sense that my son shares this heaviness of spirit. How does a twelve-year-old even begin to process the experience of talking to a 911 operator while watching his mother perform CPR unsuccessfully on his sister? How does anyone ever stop reliving the scene? Yet we both put on our normal-people masks each time we see one another. Our visits now are infrequent— he lives in California and I have retired to Florida.
When I complain that the spa gift is too expensive, he says, “Mom, I know how hard you worked to take care of us. Please let me do something for you.”
You might think I should be over it by now. After all, it happened nineteen years ago. Lydia would be thirty-four now. The last time I saw her she was in a plain pine box at Sol Levinson’s,and a kind Rebbitzin whose name I never asked was instructing me in Taharah, the ritual of preparing the dead for burial. Sure, I know you’re thinking, “Oh I could never do that,” but you’re wrong. You do what you need to do and this was to be the last chance I would have to touch my child. I knew that for the rest of my life I would have that touch-hunger. So ever so gently, ever so reverently, we washed her and dressed her in a shroud. I put my baby girl to bed one last time.
My son grew up overnight. On the cusp of puberty, his voice breaking with emotion and hormones, he eulogized his sister before a crowd of hundreds, then took up a shovel to help fill her grave in the pouring rain. While still in middle school, he designed a lovely tattoo which he had inked shortly after his eighteenth birthday. Daniel has grown into a person of character. His life is not perfect, but he has a job that he enjoys and friends who care for him well. Still, the trauma of that night haunts him.
For Lydia, I have constructed an array of fantasy lives. In at least one version, she has a child. I’d be a grandmother and my son would be Uncle Dan. Sometimes, late at night, I tell myself stories. I used to pretend she was away at college or traveling cross-country with friends in one of those Silver Bullets. She would have aged out of those fantasies by now, so occasionally, I dream up a new one.
A friend once said that Lydia suffered from the “burden of perspicacity.” In a eulogy, her high school advisor spoke of how “her profound intelligence compelled her to see the contradictions, evils and hypocrisies of the world with terrifying clarity.” He went on to say, “Worse, for her, was her exquisite sensitivity to the pain in the world.”
I have a support group made up of parents who have lost a child to suicide. We come from all over the world and we all want to know WHY. Some have sought answers through “psychological autopsies,” sending their children’s art work and journal writings to someone who, for a fee, offers a diagnosis. Lacking both the funds and the heart for it, I accepted my friend’s analysis of my daughter’s burden. From an early age, Lydia saw things in minute layers. She delighted in picking up four-leaf clovers in fields, honing in on them with an uncanny precision. On the beach, she would search out the tiniest of shark’s teeth—the size of a pencil point. In first grade, she once cried inconsolably at the senseless killing of a spider. As a teen, her art work was often dark, but exquisite in detail, her writing so descriptive you could feel its texture.
When Daniel sends pictures every year from his trek to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, I always think that the Burning Man festival is something Lydia would have loved. I imagine the two of them there together. They’d be comparing memories of their half-crazy mother and they would be laughing. I wouldn’t be worried about them falling off an art installation in a drug-induced frenzy, because I would still be naive enough to think that tragedy is something that happens to other people.
Sitting in the waiting area of the spa, I consider leaving. After all, I have a lot to do. Although retired, I’m a very busy person. How can I sit here listening to the tiny waterfall as the scent of patchouli or whatever it is wafts about? I’m really not into things that waft, and besides, it’s making my eyes burn. What keeps me there is Daniel’s earnest wish for me to accept his thoughtful gift.
I sip my herbal tea, casting furtive glances at the exit, until finally I am led into the darkened, divinely scented room. I am still apprehensive and looking for a way out. I could start coughing—say I’m allergic to something—probably one of those essential oils. Or maybe it’s the Himalayan Salt lamp. My mind is racing and I am filled with dread.
The massage therapist is a tiny person. I could pick her up and carry her under my arm. I could put her in a thimble. She looks me over with her eyes and her hands and suddenly grabs one leg and pulls. I feel like it’s coming out of the socket, although oddly, it’s not painful. “You’re stronger than you look,” I say, trying to stifle a bout of nervous laughter.
“Laughing is good for you,” she says.
We progress to the part where I’m prone on the table with my face in the dip and it’s feeling quite good. There is music that could be distracting. I try to shut it out. I don’t want to appear uptight. Now the elfin one is climbing up onto the narrow table with me. Only a sheet separates us as she kneels on my lower back pushing up hard into my shoulders.
I’m reminded of the day Lydia was born—the last time I had such intimate physical contact with another woman. I was in a big double bed, and had just given notice of my intention to go home, having changed my mind about the whole thing. The Joni Mitchel albums I thought would be perfect background music were annoying as hell. I just wanted to punch my husband in the nose and go home. The magnificent midwife climbed into bed with me, took my face in her hands, looked into my eyes and said “Eileen, you’re in transition.”
“Oh, okay then, I guess I’ll stay.”
Maybe I’ll be taller after this, I think as I feel my spine being stretched. I laugh at the image of this little person kneeling on my back. Well actually, her knees are now on my buttocks.
“It’s a good thing you’re small,” I mumble as she climbs off the table. She laughs, and it’s a delightful sound.
“You laugh when you are in pain. There are only a few people I’ve ever known who do that,” she tells me.
I’ve been thinking about that comment ever since. When I left, I drove straight to the beach and walked for a while listening to the gulls and the sound of the surf. I spent time thinking of my children and how exquisitely painful it is to love someone so deeply. I cried as I walked and the gulls mocked me with their laughter. “What the hell is so funny?” I yelled, then laughed out loud at my own foolishness.
This year, my birthday gift from Daniel was a mug with a flamingo and the words “I don’t give a flock,” and a wearable mermaid’s tail. Apparently, that’s a thing. Both gifts made me laugh and laughing is good for me.
Next year, in November, I’m going to schedule another massage with the Lilliputian wizard. Then, I’ll walk the beach and hope to find some Laughing Gulls for company and conversation.
I’ll have to spring for the next massage myself since Daniel is threatening to buy me a ticket to Burning Man for my next birthday.
I think he could use a massage. And maybe another tattoo. A happy one. It’s time.
Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. She has a master’s degree in pastoral care from Loyola University. Collins lives in Florida where she is working on a collection of essays. “The Burden of Perspicacity” was previously published in Anastamos, the Graduate Interdisciplinary Journal of Chapman University. Another essay is forthcoming in an anthology by Chaleur Press. She writes because she must and because it’s cheaper than therapy.