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~ Guest Writer, M. Eileen Hickey ~

A fresh start often follows in the misshapen footsteps of an ending. Beginnings and endings can be fraught with a frothy mess of emotion. Waves of grief, sadness, and hopelessness wash ashore. Then towering waves of adrenaline-induced excitement laced with fear and anxiety crash down. Meanwhile, the big question looms between the sets.
What’s next?

While on the heels of ending a marriage, I was treading water in a riptide of indecision. Where did I want to go with my career? Oh yeah, now I had to support myself. How?
Totally self absorbed with a myriad of options to my what’s next, I felt paralyzed. Then an outside force in one phone call from a friend rescued me from inertia. In her typical fashion, she cut to the chase.

“Hello Eileen, this is Fern. My breast cancer metastasized to the lungs and bones. I’m assembling a healing team to help me fight this. I’d like you to be on board.”
The matter-of-fact call to action instantly pulled me out of my head and into my heart. There was no denying Fern’s request. She was what’s next. The rest would follow. It wasn’t lost on me that fate, coincidence or the universe (you choose) intertwined our unique beginnings and endings. Fern’s call was the rope pulling me back to shore.
Thus, our weekly massages ensued for nearly four years.

Nurse, health educator, entrepreneur, author, quilter, paddler, wife, mentor, wife, mother, grandmother and survivor. Fern fulfilled all these roles with an unconquerable spirit and relentless passion. She took hold of that passion and made it her life’s work. She turned problems into learning experiences with humor and gumption. One of Fern’s colleagues shared this revealing memory.

“When I did my first wellness class on stress management to one of Fern’s clients – a group of legal secretaries at a high end law firm in Newport Beach – I bombed. I was in way over my head. Afterwords, Fern told me not to worry, I did the best worst stress management class they’d ever had.”

Fern had the same optimism about her role as cancer survivor. Her sense of humor and honesty about her diagnosis and the unknown was disarming.

At the start of our sessions, she’d share test results, symptoms, fears and humorous stories. Gentle, nurturing massage followed. I watched Fern quiet her mind and allow her body to sink into unwind mode. She could compartmentalize for the simple sake of healing.
Within her healing journey came numerous little beginnings and endings. On one morning, the onset of relentless sciatic pain crippled her every move. The next week, the pain disappeared only to be replaced with the start of blisters and redness on the bottoms of her feet (a common symptom with some chemo drugs). Then came the onset of unpredictable bone pain haphazardly shooting and darting at her skeletal system like an Asteroids video game. The symptoms moved in and out like restless roommates. There was no sound reason why the symptoms came and went.

Another member of her healing team often joined us in our sessions. He unknowingly addressed common symptoms that plague people living with cancer: anxiety and fatigue. Her new labradoodle puppy “Cedar” would often jump up on the table and curl up between her legs. Fern called it “Cedar Therapy” – no side effects and easy to take.

Bearing witness to this amusement park ride of symptomatology taught me to meet Fern precisely where she was at during each session. And as much as I wanted to relieve her of pain, I remained conscious of serving with compassion – not fixated on an end goal. Our weekly sessions afforded me the opportunity to deepen my practice in the presence of the unknown. Fern’s new beginnings educated me about the ever-constant change in the wake of diagnosis. This in turn, kept me present up until our last session. While burrowed beneath one of her multi-colored quilts, I gently massaged her delicate hands and offered up a prayer of gratitude and love for our time together. Though her end in body was near, I knew in my heart another portal was awaiting her magnetic spirit.

She unwittingly helped me let go of fear and follow my passions. Head and heart no longer battled it out. Witnessing her relationship with the mystery of death educated my heart and unraveled my drive to control destiny. While driving away from her house for the final time, I felt a sense of peace for that looming question of what’s next dissolved on the shoreline.

M. Eileen Hickey

Eileen Hickey is a licensed massage therapist specializing in oncology massage in Portland, OR. She works at Oregon Health & Science University, Nike WHQ and her studio. Her objective: empower her clients to participate in their healing process and feel a sense of wholeness. She’s also a recovering tv news assignment editior of nearly 20 years. Her free time is spent at her cabin amidst the old growth, on the mat or with a good book. She’s still trying to crack a NYT crossword without the help of Google.

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