The room was warm, lit like dusk and the vague scent of ylang ylang beckoned from the corner. I quickly undressed, leaving only my least shabby boy leg underwear on, and lay face down on the table, awkwardly twisting to pull the white towel over my bum and legs. I positioned my face in the headrest and then watched the chain around my neck swinging slowly from side to side, the pendulum that would never rest. I surrendered, hypnotised by the shadow of Steve’s wedding ring as it oscillated across the wooden floorboards. I’d had it soldered onto a clasp around the chain just after he died and wore it every day. There was a soft knock on the door.
‘Yes,’ I muffled.
Before the therapist had left me in the room alone to undress, she’d asked me what was happening with my body. I had shrugged, ‘I guess I’m just pretty tight all over right now, my neck’s been sore. And I’ve been having these weird chest pains.’
Now she whispered, ‘I’m just going to remove your necklace,’ and before I had a chance to protest, it was gone, flung precariously towards the floor before being sucked up through the hole in the massage table where my head rested. I was naked.
She rearranged the towel, turning it perpendicular, and covered it with a warm, soft blanket. I felt her two hands working their way up and down my legs and back, gently squeezing, as if to say hello. I felt the air bounce off me as she moved around the table, finding her easy to locate. But then I was surprised when she started by drilling her knuckles into the soles of my feet. My feet are normally ticklish, but this time I just gasped. She applied gradually heavier force as she pressed her weight into me, all the way from my legs to my shoulders. She folded the blanket to my waist and I heard the pffft as she pumped some oil into her palm.
As she started working rhythmically up through the middle of my back and across my right shoulder, I found it harder to breathe. I told myself to relax. ‘How’s the pressure?’ she asked, but I just responded with a monosyllabic grunt, indecisive but apparently suggesting affirmation. She started kneading around my shoulder blade in broad circles until I winced. She’d found a tight spot and set about grinding it into submission. Breathe, I remembered. Breathe into it.
Kiva Spa is hidden down a laneway running off the main street of Mullumbimby, behind a high brush fence. Only a small sign on a heavy carved hardwood Balinese gate and the waft of incense demarcates the area from what otherwise looks like the tradesman’s entrance to the neighbouring furniture store, with delivery trucks often parked haphazardly across the driveway opposite. On the other side of the gate, Buddha statues, trickling water fountains and the orchestral sound of Balinese music is designed to transport you to somewhere exotic – but it just weighted me down with my saddest memories: the last time I was here; the familiarity of our garden at Binya Place; the sound of Steve practising the gamelan; the boring reality of getting a massage somewhere other than Steve’s clinic; his enormous absence.
Someone had suggested we go there for my hen’s party. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want a typical hen’s party, so I agreed. I booked a private hour just after closing. Mum came with us. I’d just had my hair coloured and blow-dried, my eyebrows waxed and my lashes tinted, so I couldn’t submerge myself into the bubbling depths but squatted on the seat trying to keep my head well above water. Emma had smuggled in some champagne and a few glasses and I agreed to join her, but only one, I told Mum, shrugging apologetically. I drank the glass quickly and felt my muscles loosen. The warm water gradually relaxed me a little more, as it always does. We showered and dressed and walked across the road for dinner in the courtyard of the fancy French restaurant, the most expensive eatery in town at the time, with a name that few locals could pronounce correctly – ‘La Table’ with an Australian accent just doesn’t measure up.
This time I was there alone. Vanessa had offered to meet me for a sauna and soak and to shout me a massage, but I wasn’t yet accustomed to receiving gifts, I was still so deep in guilt and self-loathing. Then Wally had talked me into teaching tai chi with him. One of the students couldn’t afford to pay me, so she offered me an exchange: a massage in return for ten classes.
But I wish they’d warned me about the music, I thought, as the therapist moved around the room. I heard the pffft again, and she started to work on my left shoulder. The familiar percussion being piped into the room bent time backwards; back to Bali and back to those wonderful but fleeting months when Steve was going to get well. A distinguishing feature of this music, very different to Western tunes, is ‘ombak’, which roughly translates to ‘wave’. One instrument, tuned slightly higher, is thought of as the ‘inhale’, and the other, slightly lower, is called the ‘exhale’. The alternating tempo of the gamelan reminded me of conversation rather than breath. Steve had found a Balinese metallophone teacher late last year. He’d bought three xylophones to practise on at home: a small wooden one, with short curved coconut making up an insufficient number of keys; a multi-coloured plastic triangle one with a small blue foam mallet; and a large, straight simple one, with jumbo yellow plastic keys. On it, he could produce the sweetest tunes. I dropped him off to classes in the Byron Arts and Industry Estate and picked him up an hour later. He was always late finishing, busy chatting to the short Balinese teacher – with shoulder length hair and full arms, or ‘sleeves’, of tattoos – about the sacred energy and timeless living in Bali, about playing with other Balinese musicians, about motorbikes, about the meaning of his tattoos. I was happy to wait in the car, enjoying the moments when I knew he was able to feel whole. No one here knew he had cancer. His big grin would carry his body back to the car and, when he climbed into the passenger seat, he would excitedly re-live every moment of the class and the conversation. ‘You should come next time, Kerry, it’s so much fun.’
Steve’s hands had been the very first male hands to massage my body. He’d healed my asthma, taught me how to connect my hands to my eyes, how to anchor my spirit back into my body, but the treatments from him had become fewer and farther between as the business had grown and our home’s floor space had increased. While he’d set up the new clinic in our garage, he was by then in too much pain to withstand the hour on his feet it took to massage others, but he’d subcontracted to a young trainee therapist called Miranda – after she gave him a treatment on spec. He liked her technique so much, he told me, that he’d booked her to return every fortnight to give us both a regular massage. Soon I was the only one getting a fortnightly massage; Steve would always excuse himself at the last minute. Miranda never seemed concerned but I could never fully relax, knowing that something fundamental was out of order. It’s only now that I realise Steve probably never booked his own massage appointment with Miranda, it was just a ruse to get me on the table.
The Kiva Spa massage therapist was by now working on my neck. No one else concentrated on my lower back and spine like Steve did. He had the ability to re-align my spine as efficiently as a practised guitarist tunes his or her strings. But by the time she pummelled and kneaded my arms, I felt something inside me rearrange itself and settle. When I had arrived, I’d been a bag of bones, rattling around loose in my skin. She had put me back together. Without even noticing, my breath had expanded and deepened into a steady rhythm. My shoulders were laying heavier, closer to the table. My buttocks had softened. And as I let go, the tears started to flow, and I watched them falling onto the floor like summer rain on a freshly waxed car bonnet.
That afternoon, I practised the Yang Chengfu form. Again, I felt Steve beside me, especially when doing ‘Wave hands like clouds’ and ‘Fair lady works shuttles’, both dynamic postures that include sweeping arm movements. Later in the evening, there was a partial lunar eclipse. I arranged seven plastic chairs on the veranda and watched it with Jane, Saffron, Aslan and her little family: partner Ewan and their three boys under five. After soaking the two eldest boys in the spa bath full of bubbles, we’d wrapped up and moved outside. As dusk faded, three kookaburras watched us from the tree opposite. We were all quiet and contemplative – or were Saffron and his sister’s family just curbing their normal boisterous chatter out of respect for me? Our veranda, I thought, is the perfect pew for the universe’s awesome lightshow. Thank you for building it.
A few days later, Aslan and I walked up to her father Nicky’s grave, in the paddock at the entrance of Karikale. It was a solitary grave on the top of the hill beside the family’s farmhouse, with a small fence around it to keep their herd of Jersey cows from knocking over the headstone. Aslan wanted to say her goodbyes before moving to the United Kingdom. I rang the bell hanging above Nicky’s headstone and heard it echo throughout the valley. As I sat holding baby Coron on my lap, I felt a strong desire to find Steve’s ashes (or at least some of them, I thought) a permanent home.
That night, I read an article in the weekend newspaper magazine about the sarcophagus of Eadgytha, a tenth century queen, and felt pangs of doubt about Steve’s cremation. I had been so ill-prepared for that decision, it seemed so unfair to have had to make it. Then I remembered connecting with Zenith a few weeks earlier at the memorial for the wife of one of my tai chi students. We had spoken about the possibility of a ceremony for the scattering of Steve’s ashes. I asked for a sign from him and the universe about when to do this, but resolved to do as Zenith had recommended in the meantime: to open the plastic container. She told me that, in her experience, it often helps people who are grieving to have a sensory connection with the ashes. She gave me precise instructions about how to do this as opening the container is often tricky and can result in mishap.
‘Then dig your fingers in, hold them, and smell them.’
I nodded, what was there to fear? It might bring me closer to Steve’s spirit, a yearning I had not yet satiated. I also resolved to find another more suitable urn in which his ashes could temporarily reside. Perhaps earthenware, I thought.
The very next evening, I received an email from Steve’s sister, asking whether I would consider burying his ashes with his beloved nana. I was a little spooked by the timing of this communication. I’d just found Steve’s annotated copy of The Monk who Sold his Ferrari, which had almost been his bible in the months leading up to his death. ‘Life gives you what you ask of it,’ writes the author Robin Sharma, ‘It is always listening.’ But I chose not to interpret his sister’s request as the answer – I knew it was important not to make this decision lightly or in a hurry.
Instead I picked up the weekend newspaper magazine again and re-read the article about the Egyptian queen. The sarcophagus contained a coffin, which in turn contained the remnants of an ancient skull with a gap-toothed grin. I felt overwhelmed by gloom; no one would be able to discover Steve’s gap-toothed grin in a thousand years’ time. At the same moment, the television was playing in the background, and the ABC newsreader announced that four thousand Australians die of bowel cancer every year. He isn’t just a number, I thought dejectedly, and poured another glass of wine.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
‘Kiva Spa’ is an excerpt from Beyond the Blue Door: a memoir about love, loss, and landscape by Kerry Sunderland, which explores how our cultural response to death and dying is changing through the prism of her own loss and bereavement.