I get regular massages. No one begrudges me this; in fact, I’m applauded. It’s part of the “taking care of me so I can take care of Niles” program. I indulge in naps, too.
When I visit school, colleagues tell me how good I look. I don’t know if they’re comparing the way I look now to the way I looked when I was teaching, or if they mean I look better than they would expect me to…considering. It’s the naps, I say. With a couple of trusted coworkers I elaborate: it’s the naps, and no longer having to attend faculty meetings.
I believe in this self-care program, but I’m also self-conscious about it. Maybe a mother whose son is undergoing cancer treatment shouldn’t look rested. I feel uneasy about any benefits I enjoy because of Niles’s illness–not just the naps and massages, but a heightened sense of purpose, too, a strange exhilaration that might actually be panic but feels more like vigor. There’s a new and essential energy to our days that is as vivid as the ache I feel for what Niles has to go through, and as potent as the constant fear of what lies ahead.
It’s possible, however, that I’m not as rested as I look. I’ve become convinced–on a level that is not exactly on par with reality, but exists on a congruent plane–that I’m becoming an angel. The first sense I had of this transformation was in the Outpatient Cancer Center’s main waiting area. Niles and I were sitting in chairs facing the big fish tank. I was holding the thick plastic coaster that would vibrate when it was Niles’s turn to check in. A child with the sad, patient eyes of an old dog sat in a stroller opposite us. She might have been three years old, no more than five. A pink beanie covered her head. She was eating raisins, probing into the little red box with her index finger and carefully bringing each wrinkled fruit to her mouth. When she noticed that I was watching her, she returned my look with a disinterested gaze. I opted not to turn away or smile, but simply to meet her eyes, to match her neutrality and openness with my own. That’s when I felt it: a warmth filling my body, as though I were a conduit, as though energy were passing through me to her. The warmth was concentrated in my shoulder blades.
I tell my masseuse about this at my next appointment. “Masseuse” is a limiting title for Rochelle; she’s a gifted healer. Because she regularly converses with spirits and can see energy-sucking lizards attached to people’s heads, I figure she won’t be freaked out by the news that I’m becoming an angel. I mention the sensitivity in my shoulder blades and try to explain the sensation I had while looking at the little girl in the stroller.
“This is weird,” I say, “but I know what color my wings are–gray, like a young seagull’s.”
Rochelle massages my shoulder blades, loosens up the muscles in my back so that my wings can grow. At the end of our session, she suggests that I see an energy specialist. She gives me the phone number of a woman who was an important guide in her own journey as a healer. I take the number gratefully. There’s a freedom to being in extremis; you’re no longer bound by the usual conventions and considerations. You’re open to possibilities that previously might have seemed frightening or absurd.
The energy specialist lives in a cottage behind a stucco bungalow in Hollywood. I park my car and pass through a wooden gate, following a driveway with a strip of dried grass down the middle of it, to a miniature white clapboard home with bright blue trim. I knock on the door and a middle-aged woman answers. She’s round, with frizzy blond hair, and stands about four feet six. A munchkin healer in a fairy-tale cottage. This, for reasons that will soon become unclear to me, I find reassuring.
She invites me inside. There is a lot of lace. Angel effigies hang in doorways, in windows and from lampshades. Clearly, I’ve come to the right place. The specialist asks me to sit on the sofa and I sink into chintz. She climbs onto a chenille-covered armchair opposite me. I tell her about Niles and the little girl in the stroller and my wing sprouts. She doesn’t smile or nod as I expect; she doesn’t welcome me into the tribe of messengers. Instead, she looks wary, slightly dissatisfied.
“Your aura is flat,” she says.
Then she wiggles to the edge of her armchair, hops to the floor, and leads me into an alcove between the tiny living room and yellow-tiled kitchen. She tells me to remove my shoes, but to leave the rest of my clothes on, and to lie face-up on the massage table that takes up almost every inch of the space. While I get settled, she lights gardenia-scented candles. Before she turns on the atmospheric soundtrack, she warns me that she might make strange noises as she extracts negative energy from my body. I close my eyes. Music that sounds as though it’s created from found objects fills the room.
The energy specialist begins at my head, gently placing her hands on either side of my skull. After a few moments, her fingers begin to tremble and twitch, as though they’ve connected to a faint electrical current. She clears her throat. Then she moves her hands down to my shoulders and slides a palm between my shoulder blades. Soon, she begins to cough in a ragged, back-of-the-throat way, like someone trying to bring up mucus. I thought I was growing wings, but maybe it’s just bad energy sticking to my bones like phlegm.
Floating in a half-sleep, aware still of the music that now sounds like tinkling glass, I find myself entering a scene from The English Patient, a novel I read a decade ago. I was nine months pregnant then, waiting day to day for our daughter to be born. The novel seemed to me less written than dreamed onto the page, and I read it in my own dream-state of fatigue and anticipation. I’ve seen the film version since then, but the images and sensations that come to me now are not from the screen but my own experience of reading the book. I recognize the dark desert, the dance of flame, the tinkling of glass bottles from my own imagination. Sense memories surface from deep storage. I am the English patient, being tended to by gentle strangers. I hear roughhewn words murmured in an unknown language. I smell musky cloth, herbs, wood smoke. I feel myself being lifted. I’m interested and calm. The energy specialist coughs again, sniffs, coughs.
An hour later, we are once again sitting opposite each other in the living room. The specialist asks me how I feel. I smile and bob my head.
“Your aura is bright now. It’s radiating energy out the top of your head. Do you feel it?”
I tell her about Ondaatje’s scene in the desert, how images and sensations came back to me while I was on the table, as though they were my own memories.
“I felt a lot of fear in you,” she says.
I write her a check and she walks me to the door. We’re both smiling now; we’ve come to an understanding.
“Thanks,” I say, “I’ll be back.”
But I won’t, and I’m convinced she knows this as well as I do. She will not indulge me my wings and I cannot pretend to feel energy radiating out of the top of my head. I would like to; I’m hungry for transformation, but the afternoon has suddenly become banal. I’m aware of an odor of cooked broccoli beneath the smoky bouquet of candles.
I leave feeling not so much disappointed as sober. I know that wherever Niles’s illness takes us, or whatever transformation I undergo will not be fast, or easy, or magical.