I am led into a small treatment room at WE-ACTx. There is a bed/table with wooden stairs leading up to it. A desk. A rolling chair and a large bottle of omnipresent hand sanitizer. I’ll be working for just an hour and a half – performing 15-minute massage sessions on staff.
There are too many patients. And they may be too traumatized still to receive touch. This is a beginning.
I have been told that my work is unique. Less massage. More connecting, following, feeling, listening, leaning in. Subtle. I know it is not for everyone.
I am amazed to find the workers’ bodies incredibly open to my work. Chantal makes happy noises as I lean into her back. She hugs and kisses me when we are done and tells me, “I feel like a baby.” Edwin, who I have put on the table, is curious if I work with patients in a chair. He thinks they would feel more comfortable that way. He is looking forward. Francoise asks me to massage her face. She asks if I have videos or books on how to massage. I take her email and promise to send her sources. Jacky seems dubious about all of it. Her boss has told me how important it is that I work on her. When I am done she says something in French. I respond in French that I do not understand. (I speak only that much…) She says in English, “Begin again.” We laugh and we hug. I say, “Next time.” She repeats, “Next time.”
A line has formed. Word has gotten out among the staff that this is a good thing. I do not have time for them all.
Before leaving, I take photographs of the room and I say out loud, “G-d, if I am supposed to be here, let me know.” And I cry. I run into Marge, one of the founding doctors. I tell her I am humbled and honored. That there is much work to be done. On staff. Teaching staff. Teaching self-care. And I begin to cry again. Happy tears. Grateful tears. I am grateful for my hands. For the ability to connect with people in this way. For this opportunity.
After lunch, we meet at the WE-ACTx house for a dance lesson with Jolie. It is hot and sunny, but I am excited anyway. I have been taking West African dance for four years now. And while this is different, it still translates. I feel clunky and unskilled and I remind the group of what I tell myself at class, “permission to suck.” The group does not think I suck. Many ask if I am a dancer. I tell them of my secret, private, fantasy career to be a choreographer but that I wouldn’t take a dance class until I got sober. Until my husband bought me a gift certificate at the Old Town School of Folk Music and Dance. And then I was hooked. The reflection is nice. Affirming. I usually dance with men and women who have been doing this far longer than I. That has been my gauge. Our “photographer” shows me a video he has taken. I am moving my back and not just my limbs. My Senegalese teacher would be proud.
After dance class we divide into groups of three for home visits with Peer Parents from WE-ACTx. We bring them samosas and juice. My group is assigned to Lilliane’s house. She is a Peer Parent leading the young mother’s group. She is a young mother herself.
The Malcolm X bus drops us and we are swarmed with locals, fascinated by the muzungos – the wealthy, white folk. Lilliane fetches us and we cross a rickety bridge into her neighborhood. I feel like I am in the bowels of the Old City in Jerusalem where streets are like a cobblestone maze and no one speaks English.
We arrive at her home, 3 rooms. We sit in the main room that has a couch and two chairs, a table and a chest that holds a radio and I am guessing, a television that is often mentioned. I am told that for Lilliane’s child’s birthday, 40 people crammed in to celebrate, with food for days.
Mama Lilliane arrives (Parent’s call themselves like this. Mama and Papa and insert name of one on your children.) Mama Lilliane is a vision in yellow – skirt, top and head wrap. Tall, elegant. She is quintessentially French. She greets us with three cheek kisses and many Oh La La’s. We dress R in Lilliane’s African sari and take photographs. I show Lilliane what we learned at dance class and she and I break into impromptu dance in the dark house.
There is a stove outside and a public toilet somewhere in the neighborhood. I had been directed to pee before coming and am glad that I do not have to go now. Mama Lilliane tells us that the government is buying her home and that she will receive a small sum of money to relocate. They are razing the neighborhood to build new homes. We tell her that this happens in Chicago too. She seems nonplused. She has lived through so much worse than this.