“It could have happened to anyone,” I told those who asked about my broken arm. “I was in a strange place and it was dark.” And I congratulated myself and thanked my Pilates-trained body: a step sideways into thin air from a high stoop onto a brick patio could have resulted in injuries far worse than a broken humerus.
Dr. Martin suggested Vicodin for pain and a sling for my arm, broken near my shoulder just below the rotator cuff. “You won’t recover full mobility, but your freedom of movement wouldn’t be much improved by surgery,” he said. Relieved to escape an operation, I wore my black sling while sleeping and when I was in a crowd, like walking Seattle streets or attending the symphony, hoping others would notice and not bump into me. Otherwise I was directed not to rely on the sling, to gently use my arm, and several times a day to bend over at the waist, let my arms dangle, and move in small circles. After a month the break was mending nicely, and I was advised to eliminate the sling.
That’s when I noticed something peculiar. I first experienced it when I went back to Pilates. My instructor, Adrianna, had modified my program so I could exercise without compromising my healing, but now she positioned herself on my left side near the broken arm when she usually stood in front or behind me. I wondered about that. If I lost my balance and she had to steady me, I’d prefer she be on my healthy side. But here’s the strange thing: she began to touch my shoulder, gently, just a graze. She often corrects my position with verbal directions and occasionally physically coaches me; for example, holding her hand on the back of my head to encourage lengthening my spine. But this was not a Pilates instruction. Why caress my injured arm?
I live near the Pike Place Market in Seattle, and when I felt up to it, I took over the daily shopping from my husband, Weldon, who’d been filling in for me. When I went back to Sosio’s, our favorite produce market, I walked up to Al, one of the co-owners, with two Cameo apples in my hands. He bagged them and began telling me about some purple asparagus arriving later that week and how lucky they were to get it. As he talked with me, he repeatedly grasped my left shoulder. It didn’t hurt but I was startled, mostly because I had been shopping with Al for fifteen years, and he had never once touched me. Now he couldn’t keep his hand off my broken bone. I considered reminding him of my condition but didn’t want to embarrass him.
Later that month I went to my book club’s Christmas party. I was leaning against the kitchen counter, drinking champagne and talking with the hostess, Ann. Early in the conversation she inquired about my arm and its recovery. Now Ann had never touched me, not even a welcoming hug, in the ten years we’d known each other, but as we continued to discuss other topics, she repeatedly took three steps across the kitchen to pat my left arm as she made a point. She seemed irresistibly drawn to my wound, like iron filings to a magnet.
I realized this arm-touching was a trend because others were following suit. My husband thought I was simply noticing it because I was hyper-aware of my injury but I disagreed. Physical contact is not common in some of my circles, so of course I noticed acquaintances behaving out of character. I was reminded of pregnant women who report strangers asking to feel the baby and some who don’t bother to ask permission, just start rubbing their hand over the baby bump. No one asked my permission; I don’t think they were aware of what they were doing.
I wondered if I had ever handled someone in this way and thought of Walt, a fishmonger at Pure Food Fish. I remembered massaging his upper arm twice in one week and feeling self-conscious about it. Six months later Walt was diagnosed with lung cancer. Did some part of my brain know this the way my mother’s schnauzer, Fritz, seemed to anticipate her epileptic seizures? Was I trying to warn Walt? Or heal him.
There’s a branch of healers who work with the flow of energy riding on the surface of the skin. I had scheduled a session with a practitioner twenty-five years ago before a hysterectomy, hoping to prepare my body for the coming assault. Jean, a retired R.N., put me on a massage table and lightly ran her hands above the surface of my body, looking for stuck or sluggish energy. I liked the idea of my energy flowing unimpeded, and I started to understand that grief or hurt feelings or anger or anxiety can negatively affect the body. Maybe this was when I began, on some level, to realize I could open to others and receive their healing energy.
The touching continued as the healing continued: Nancy at the Creamery; Stacy in my writing group; William, our building doorman; Jane, my primary care physician, as she bid me good-bye after an office visit; and many others. I was never fearful or annoyed at the contact and that’s unusual for me. I abhor people brushing against me as I walk down the street. I’m irritated with colleagues sitting too close to me at a meeting. I bristle when someone comes up behind me and whispers in my ear. I don’t hug easily and yet I began to welcome the touches. It dawned on me that I must be inviting therapeutic caresses, and certain sensitive people picked up my request and obliged.
Then the touching stopped. My arm was healed.
I felt lonely. I’d enjoyed the physical contact, even though I didn’t understand what was happening until the end. Is that how a healing touch works—both parties spontaneously communicating on a level that is unknown, unfamiliar, unrecognized? It surprised me but I was grateful for this personal discovery. I believe we are sometimes presented with the extraordinary, and it’s up to us to recognize such events, embrace them, and learn.
I don’t anticipate another injury or illness, but if it happens, I now know it won’t be just the medical profession helping me heal.
Susan Knox is the author of Financial Basics: A Money Management Guide for Students (Ohio State University Press 2004, 2nd edition, 2016). Her essays and short stories have appeared in Blue Lyra Review CALYX, Forge, Halfway Down the Stairs, The MacGuffin, Melusine, Monkey Puzzle, Zone 3 and elsewhere. In 2014, her essay, Autumn Life, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She and her husband live in Seattle.
© 2015, Susan Knox