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Amy Mattila >>

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Amy Mattila

In Between: Open Heart Surgery

      I was awake but I couldn’t open my eyes. Distant voices purred around me from all directions.  There was blackness everywhere, no evidence of space or shape or time.  I felt lost and disoriented, like when you are lost in the deep forest on a cloudy evening without stars.  There was no color, or scent or taste or touch, just sound.  A chorus of familiar voices wandered into focus.  There was more than one and my ability to identify and sort these melodies became slowly accessible.  First my best friend Sara, staccato and tiny, then my brother Danny, bassy, solid like an old redwood, then finally my dad, rhythmic and soft weaving among the two of them.  Their words mixed and bubbled like they were speaking underwater.  Their tone would peak and fall marking changes in emotion.  I thought of a summer wedding I attended in Barcelona.  Normally chatty I was silent and gagged by the language barrier of German, Romanian, Catalan and Spanish.  I stuffed food in with a steady stream to explain for the lack of speech and observed, nodded and smiled between bites and swigs of wine.  As the wine and food reached my bloodstream I found myself relating and able to identify the conversations through the tone and cadence of their voices; oddly, I felt very much a part of the conversation while being completely mute.
      Back in the Intensive Care Unit where I currently resided, I wanted to join in and sing along with them.  I wanted to tell them “I'm here!" Did they know? They must know!
      A full picture drew as time passed; their conversation and pronunciations were more specific and crisp.  Particular names, events or phrases brought forth memory.  I tried to open my mouth to speak and nothing happened, my body on boycott from the demands of brain.  Dreamy and cloudy, my legs felt heavy like cement and a flame burned around my ribs and deep within.  I was in a tug of war with my consciousness. My eyelids felt like sandbags stood on top of them.  I surrendered to the pressure and kept them shut.   If only I could have more strength, I would open them.  The fire was spreading from my chest outward like a rash of pain.  Trying again to speak, I felt a hard sharp resistance of the plastic chest tube in my mouth preventing such a thing.   
      Time passed by unaccounted for, and I heard Sara’s voice again. She was talking to me, not to anyone else in the room.  I could make out her words clearly and wanted to reach out and touch her to make sure she was real and I wasn’t dreaming.  I viewed her without the use of my eyes and saw her sitting in a chair beside my bed with a black and white striped scarf tied in her hair.
      “Hi baby,” she said.  “You are so strong, so so so strong.”  Her voice was quivery and I could hear fear underneath it.  “Are you in any pain?”  There was space and silence for me to answer.  I attempted to speak to her with the only thing I had full access to, my spirit.   I felt alone and frightened, she held my hand and stroked it softly with the other.   I tried to touch her back and tell her not to leave me. 
      Inside thoughts were swirling and emotions building.  I felt drunk in happiness with the battle I had just won.  There was exhaustion, and fear and anger mixed about inside.  A whole new beginning for my life, a new way of living and embodying the person I had always dreamed of.  There was a deep love that was present in my body that pumped through each vessel and gland and organ. I lay there and celebrated, crying without tears and laughing without sound and dancing without movement or music.  I have never felt that alive before in my entire existence.  I entered my heart surgery a child and emerged a woman with a second chance at everything.
      My friend Sara told me I repeatedly spelled out m-o-m in sign language while in the ICU.  I have no recollection of this and wonder if was the day she sat and held my hand.  I recall a deep aching and desire to comforted and held tight in a way that only a mother can offer her child.  The kind of consoling, unconditional love that seems to fill every disappointment and heal every scraped knee and broken bone. 
      I don’t like to think about my sternum being broken in two.  It was, after all, necessary to reach the inner cavity of my heart.  Even today, reclined in a claw-foot tub with a bottle of Bells beer and fancy French bubble bath, I can barely stand to touch the zipperlike scar running between my breasts.  Three years ago the bandages came off, presenting the incision with brown and orange swabs of iodine painted around its edges.  Visible stitches drew tiny x’s marking its path, similar to the edging of my grandma's apron.  At first glance my head went weightless, vision blurry and legs rubbery. Later I learned to tolerate its appearance in small chunks of time.  Five seconds when getting out of the shower, three seconds putting on my bra, ten seconds in the mirror of yoga class, and a whopping five minutes while getting my haircut.
      I feel very comfortable in my body and enjoy the pleasure of the sensual, so having resistance to feeling my own body is awkward.  The exploration of memories held in those wounds are still present and frightening to me.  Touching makes it real, and my emotions come front and center.  The places in between life and death have so little do with the physicality of the body.  The body only holds the key to access the deeper life that exists within.
      The times in life when I have felt so alive and content were when I was without the use of any of my senses.  I couldn’t feel sunshine or smell my favorite muffin baking, exchange a juicy kiss nor confide my deepest fears and dreams with a friend.  I was greater and far more expansive than the me I have come to recognize in a mirror's reflection.  I was still flawed and broken but filled with peace and perfection.  Like this, eternalness seems to flow through us and removes our brokenness with beauty. We leave behind that imprint of our old self and become perfectly imperfect.


    Everyday I see people naked.  They always surprise me, those bodies of theirs.  My assumption of what I’ll find under a thick wool sweater, a pair of tight Levi’s or squeaky red rain boots is never exactly how I conceive.  Similar to meeting someone for the first time, you don’t know their habits or preferences.  Do they prefer coffee to vodka? Brush their teeth in the shower? Are they addicted to Facebook? Have they had their heart broken?  Or do they chew on pens when under a deadline?
      Introductions are mostly clunky.  Conversations can silence themselves with long, obscure, uncomfortable moments.   Exchanges of whiny weather forecasts and repetitions of other complaints like body temperature, lack of slumber and transportation woes.  After that, we get to the meat of the conversation. Turning the initial corner and  cleared for tangible subject matter.
      Comparably, our bodies are composed of ligaments; muscles, bones, and vessels are the external gatekeepers.  Behind the outside corridor resides the limbic system, stuck emotions and secrets. I gently place my open palm on the bare back of a client, introducing our bodies.
      Definitely not a job for the pretentious or easily startled.  For in discovery, you come across nuances.  Atypical body parts like webbed toes, extra nipples and tail like spinal processes.  There are also lands of bumps, boils, blisters and blemishes in obscure locations.  Among my favorites are beauty marks, wounds and scars that have been sewn, mended and repaired.  Body art and decoration, illustrations manifested in all genres and fashion.  Small pin sized stars to full torso color creature explosions.  Words, manifestos, promises etched into the tissue like graffiti claiming ownership.
      We speak, the body and I.  I listen as memories resurface and tell me what they need.  It aches here, so stiff I can’t breathe over there, haven’t been touched for weeks, or months, or sometimes years.  Some days I feel like an artist crafting a precious metal or sculpting a fine vase. Their tissue and muscles morph into a new form. 
      Pouring rich almond oil in my cupped hand, the liquid warms and soaks into the pores. I slide my hand skating downward from the neck to the tailbone.  I return my hands upward tracing along their spine.  Deep breaths and even deeper exhales as they release the busyness and expectation of the daily grind.  Some bodies shake out past trauma, others weep out words unable to be formed, some slumber, feeding their exhaustion while on the massage table.  I watch, I listen, I hold this quiet, accepting space for the stress in the body to melt away.
      Like Mr. Klertz, my eccentric high school art teacher. During our painting critiques, he would just stare with stillness at the thick, acrylic-covered canvas without a word.  After a few moments, he would shoot a glance and the corner of his mouth would turn up sweetly.  He might then proceed to rip my work down to a blob of color on the dingy tile floor.
      Drizzling essential oils on the skin throughout the body. The tartness of citrus, the crispness of peppermint, and maybe the lightness of rose lingers in the room.  With each stroke, the muscles release rigidity and tightness, unwinding tangles and balls of tension in the connective tissue.  I breath deep, diaphragmatically, with an audible exhale, my stomach filling with air and emptying.  Their body mimics.  I repeat and so do they.  We dance like this for 60, 90 or 120 minutes.
      Unlike the mind, the body cannot lie.  The body is always honest and forthcoming, childlike and innocent.  An interconnectedness of emotions and physicality, the intrinsic blueprint of structure, function and divinity.  Just as pages in a book tell a story, so does the body.  Not with words or syllables, but a map of its own.  Where it’s been, the struggles it’s seen and who the character is. The scars mark chapters on the journey.
      The music lulls smoothly in the background to the tone of their body.  Each body has its own pacing.  Some are quick like a hummingbird, able to move in any direction without notice like a fast salsa.  Others are sedate and purposeful, like a sauntering mule listening to jazz with a glass of pinot.
      I knew I wanted to touch people when my grandma, not formally trained, gave me my first massage.  My sister and I would bicker over who got to go first.  I would stretch out on the drab brown upholstered couch in the living room, beaming out the oversized windows in my childhood home, and Nana would drop a couch pillow to the floor and plop down on her knees, thundering her hands in karate-chop motions up and down the entire length of my body.  Energy would bounce around inside my lanky limbs and arms like I had just consumed copious amounts of gingersnap cookies.  Starting at my neck and cascading all the way to my feet, she would chop across my tush on the way down. Why do you do my butt, I’d say.  Because it’s good for you, she always replied, we are getting your blood moving. My grandmother always seemed a little magical to me, like she might be sprinkling pixie dust on my sister and I while we slept.  Perhaps she had angel wings underneath the knotty pink sweater that she never told us about.
      Today a handful of my clients bring their own children to get bodywork from me. I wonder if they think of me that way, magical?  A child in an adult’s body, who understands them, speaks their language.
      Seeing people naked is one of the most rewarding things I do.  If you haven’t gotten naked in this way, try it.  Trust me, you won’t regret it.

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Amy Mattila is an artist, performer, and bodywork practitioner. In her work she explores the connection between creativity, divinity, and healing.  She has been offering bodywork and wellness coaching for the last 13 years. She believes people hold experiences, emotions, and memories in their body.  She lives to laugh, move, play, learn, collaborate, inspire, and grow.