This week when I was in Chicago, my sister treated our childhood friend Jan, me and herself to a massage at a place called A Thousand Waves across the street from the Theatre Building on Belmont.
She said she wanted to say thank you in some tangible way to us for all the support we have given her over the past year and to offer an experience that the three of us could share.
No such thanks are needed but it was a lovely gesture and I looked forward to it all week.
I liked this place. If there is such a thing as a proletariat spa in the good ole US of A, this would be it. There is a steam room, a sauna and a tiny hot tub for people to share. Downstairs is an area called the Relaxation Room, where you can rest before or after your massage and drink tea and read for as long as you like.
Although the setting is muted and serene, it is not posh. The wicker chairs are a little shabby, the cushions a little frayed.
That suits me just fine. I am not that comfortable in really expensive settings where there is such a disparity between the customers and the people who are providing services. Where the cost of one massage could feed a family in Africa for months.
I know the usual arguments. Those places are providing employment and opportunities for the workers. I am all too familiar with the trickle down economy of the wealthy and how it presumably sustains legions of people who provide for their needs.
The fact is, I am not comfortable with such extremes.
So what I like about A Thousand Waves is that I can easily imagine the people who work there also returning for services.
When I found out that the spa provides free messages and spa services for women with cancer, I really liked A Thousand Waves.
And they don’t just offer one massage. That in itself would be generous. They offer five free massages and five free spa visits just to enjoy the Relaxation Room or the whirlpool.
When Laurel and I went to investigate the source of this largesse, we learned that the lover of the woman, who owns the spa, had died of breast cancer.
We’re not talking not the Ritz Carleton here. No, this is a sweet and humble little place, accessible on the El and built into a storefront. The sense of this woman’s legacy deeply moved me and I felt comforted, saddened, grateful and wondrous. Almost in the same instant.
Sitting in the hot tub with my sister and Jan, I reflected on the fact that all three of us have had cancer. I was 42, Jan was 45 and Laurel was 46. Talk about an epidemic.
This week, we were paying customers. Laurel is making plans to return there soon to take advantage of their generosity.
Wrapped in my robe on a chair in the Relaxation Room, I looked out on the bevy of women quietly sipping their tea and wondered who had cancer among those who had gathered. Other than one woman who appeared to be bald from chemo, I couldn’t tell. I was sure that the majority of women were healthy.
When I went to get dressed, I noticed a woman who had been in the room. Tall, big boned, athletic, blonde. Probably in her 30’s. As she slipped off her gown, I noticed that she had one breast. In place of the other was a long pink scar.
She had had a mastectomy.
She didn’t seem self conscious. There is something about the environment at A Thousand Waves, with its gentle and quiet women only space that inspires trust.
Part of me wanted to say something to her. To say, I am a member of this club with you, a club for which neither of us signed up to join.
But I did not know why she was there on that particular day and what was on her mind. I did not want to call attention to her cancer, even if it was there for the viewing. Especially since I wasn’t clear if I wanted to say something because of her, or because of me.
And as much as I cherish and seek authentic connections in all forms, however fleeting and short lived, I also sometimes just want to sit with my feelings. Sometimes the connection I most need is the one with myself.
I felt sad looking at her and then tender towards her and myself, towards all of the women at A Thousand Waves, whether they had cancer or not. I sent a silent prayer to the lover of the owner who had died, whose angelic presence ghosted the space.
I was glad I chose to keep silent.
Because as the story goes, the woman in the dressing room then slipped on a bra, containing a prosthesis. Over the bra went a turtleneck and sweater.
She was dressed and you would never know she had had cancer.
There are a lot of reasons to have a prosthesis or even reconstruction. For some people, the loss of a breast makes them feel lopsided physically and they actually get muscular problems if they don’t restore balance.
For some, the loss of a breast raises issues of attractiveness and femininity and sexuality, leading to a kind of psychic lopsidedness. Or perhaps they just don’t want to advertise their status to the world.
It is a very complicated issue and I respect anyone’s choice to make whatever decision feels best for them.
But what struck me the most about this woman and the situation was that she was not one of the people I would have picked out to have cancer in the room. And her clothing masked the fact that she had a life threatening illness.
It did not take away the reality of her illness; it only masked its presence for a wider world.
And I thought about how clothing can both reveal as well as mask our identities and situations. And I thought how much we don’t know about somebody we meet when we read who they are by what they are wearing.
Friday, Dec 30, 2005