I am spending my New Years Eve 2021, with Irene Smith.
In the post called ”I have lived on signs… and impulses…”, I mention that I sent a message to my friend Alison, about a man who died in 1989, but was not laid to rest until his mother died in 2020.
She answered that she could not write at the moment, ”I´m sitting here with Irene…”.
I thought it couldn´t be Irene Smith, because I had seen her on Facebook not long ago, so it must be someone else. But it wasn´t, it WAS the Irene Smith we both knew, and she had just died, surrounded by friends, in her home in San Francisco, where I had once interviewed her.
It was an American friend who showed me an article about Irene Smith, in 1987.
I have found a (blurry) photo from that time.
She had been a drug addict who had turned her life around, and was one of the few people that touched people with AIDS. She volunteered at San Francisco General Hospital and Hospice of San Francisco, as a Massage therapist.
Her story was so interesting that I sent a letter to the hospital, asking if they could help me get in touch with her. She eventually wrote and told me to contact her when I came to San Francisco. I was also in touch with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross at the time, and she wrote that Irene was her best friend, and that I should call Elisabeth when I was in Irene´s home.
We met in her apartment, and she brought me out on her balcony and offered me a glass of water. There was however too much noise, so we went inside.
She was dressed in white, and everything around her was white. Irene was very beautiful, but she seemed cleansed from everything. The only words I can think about are serene… serenity.
I knew she had been an actress, but had turned to drugs, and worked as a dancer and a prostitute to support her habit. But she had somehow stopped, and was now doing AIDS work.
It was interesting to interview Irene. And a bit scary.
She would sit silent and just look at me, until I looked away. And when asked a question, she became like a computer that was stuck. She looked down on the floor, as if sorting things out in her head, and then she delivered an answer, somehow relieved.
So how come AIDS work?
- When do you want me to start?
- Wherever you want to start.
- Ok. I was lead to the workshops of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and in these workshops Elisabeth talked a lot about the Hospice movement. She talked about dying patients.
Irene had had a Massage license since 1972, but she had never worked with it due to her drug abuse and alcoholism, but after three workshops with Elisabeth she called San Francisco General Hospital and asked if she could become a volunteer massage therapist at the hospital. They had never heard of that, but she was welcome to come and talk to them.
- So I went and talked with them, and in April of 1982 I started as their first Massage volunteer.
In the summer of 1982, she was asked to see her first AIDS patient. She was not sure what that meant, but was shown how to protect her self, and then she started.
- After the first… couple of visits with this man, I realized that not only did the touch work ease a lot of his physical pain, but it also seemed to ease a lot of pain of fear and isolation that was experienced with his friends and lovers, and whole support network.
Irene said that fear and isolation in the country in 1982 was so great, so that even if you had a network of friends, you were not touched, and friends did not stay close, because they did not feel safe.
- So the simple fact that I was massaging him, I was touching and communicating, made things easier. So I decided that that´s where I needed to put my time and energy.
The word spread, and more and more people wanted to take part, because they were not touched, nor loved and nurtured, Irene said.
- In 1983 when the 5 A unit in San Francisco opened, I asked them if I could go room to room in the 13 bed unit, and offer the service once a week, and they said; ”Well let´s try it.” So I started working up there, it was a Friday night, and I´d go in about 4 in the afternoon, and I´d stay until 11 or 12 o clock at night. And the therapy was beautifully received, not only by the patients, but also by the Medical staff, so by the middle of 1984 I was seeing patients at Hospice, I was seeing patients in my home, I was seeing patients in their homes, and I visiting the 5 A unit once a week, seeing patients.
Irene worked 7 days a week on a voluntary basis, and she was eventually given money by the AIDS Emergency fund, SHANTI and the Hospice she was volunteering at, so she could stay in the field, as she said. It was 700 dollars a month.
She was asked to train other volunteers, and it grew and grew, and eventually she created a program called Service Through Touch. Irene was asked to teach and do workshops both in the US and Canada, and in Europe. I had hoped to go to a training in Copenhagen in 1990, but I was pregnant at the time and got sick and could not go.
I want to move on to the later part of the interview, when she spoke in a more private way about her life. Today I find some of my questions insensitive, but she answered, and I am grateful for that.
Irene was extremely busy when I met her, she was doing workshops, had emotional support groups for volunteers both at Hospice and at the AIDS Ward. She also gave massages her self to make a living.
And here I started asking questions about Irene, and later wrote on the side: The big silence. The interview with the long pauses.
I wondered about her time as an actress, how long had she been active?
- I don´t really look at years of being an actress. I was a drug user and an alcoholic for 15 years, and a prostitute for 9 years, and in the… I really lose track of time there…Oh, probably not more than two years.
I wondered if she had memory blocks from those years, and she repeated my question and sort of froze, and her eyes penetrated some memory,and then she continued:
- I don´t necessarily have memory blocks. I´m very lucky to be alive! I was extremely stoned, I was extremely drunk, and the Los Angeles years are very very vague to me, which is, you know, ok…
Irene talked about the theater – and film business, about being young and vulnerable and beautiful, and people not necessarily being interested in her ability on stage.
- How do live apart from giving massages?
- What do you mean, how do I live?
- It´s a private question. How do you live? Do you live alone?
- … Yeah I live alone with my cats… when I´m not working or doing a workshop, or… I prefer to spend my time alone…and for me a social life is taking a very long walk in the park, going to look at nature… or taking a long hot bath, or doing the sweat-treatment, or…sitting in the sun… those things which connect me back to nature, so that´s how I live. I live very simple.
Here started my insensitive questions, where I asked if she had a lover, and asked a Why, when she said no. Some part of my brain did not connect with the fact that she had spent 9 years as a prostitute, and had probably seen the worst side of humanity in many shapes, and been used and abused.
Irene told me that she chose to not have a lover. She could not see how a lover would fit in to her lifestyle, nor where she would put one on her schedule.
- There are times when I feel that I could certainly use to be held, or… loved and nurtured in some way…but I seem to… have those moments very rarely, maybe once every couple of years… Yeah, that´s it.
And then there was silence.
- I get as silent as you do between questions…But, if you give a lot, do you get as much back as you give?
- Yes…I think this life, for me, is about… learning to love and accept my self… and it is about… raising my self esteem… and those points are fulfilled in my work… I don´t really have a division between personal life and work… Am I answering your question?
Here I started laughing because she was so peculiar, every word seemed to be so incredibly measured and weighed and a sentence was not delivered until it was really ready.
I said that her work with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross must have changed her life. Irene talked about her life with abuse and prostitution.
- When I went to working with Hospice, I really didn´t come from a standpoint of ”I want to do service for these people” – I wasn’t coming from that concept. I was coming from the point of having been very opened in several workshops over a period of a year with Elisabeth, and reached a point where I was very confused.
The lifestyle I was living did not fit the personality that was coming up in me. It did not fit the vulnerable child that I seemed to be, at that period…and I didn´t know any other way to support my self, plus I really didn´t know how to go out and be part of the society.
I didn´t know anything but drugs and alcohol and prostitution, so… Elisabeth had talked about dying people being… very loving, very accepting, very open, and not concerned with cars, clothes, the latest theatrical presentation, or the most modern of conveniences. They were on a different path, and so I thought: That is the group of people I need to socialize with, it´s dying people.
So Irene started working, silently touching the sick and the dying.
- So what I did the first years of being with dying people, was reinstate… my…sense of…I came back to life with dying people. Ok?
Irene said it was a perfect setting for her, she could be her self, she didn´t have to talk about things she didn´t know about, because, as she said, she had always been in the whore house on drugs. And she laughed a little.
- As a matter of fact, the first two years of my volunteer work, I continued to support my self through prostitution. I´d do my volunteer work, you know, in the day time, and late in the afternoon I´d go work in the House.
Here Irene laughed a bit, and I laughed a bit, not at her, but at the absurdity of the situation.
- Hey! I continued to support my self that way until the community gave me funding, and then I was able to quit, because I knew I was on the right path.
Irene continued, saying that she had NOT supported her self through prostitution since the latter part of 1983, but there had also been other changes, because she had gone through another transition.
- It took me from 1983 and til 1985 to get comfortable with living people. And starting about… the middle of 1985 I started being comfortable enough to NOT fill my days with being in the rooms of the dying, but have been able to orient my self more in to being with groups of living people that have an interest in the work. And it´s still very scary for me… but that´s the way I´ve reoriented myself back in to society.
Irene talked about how her work has changed. When I met her in 1987, she was working more with newly diagnosed people or people that were doing well on alternative therapies, she said, it was more helping them live with a quality to their lives, rather than helping them accept death.
- See, when I first started I literary went from room to room of dying people, not just advanced stages-people, not just sick people, but last few months-people, or last few days-people, and after a few years of that… It used to be, if you didn´t have AIDS, and if you were not dying, I couldn´t possibly see you. Because… dying grabs our heart, you know, somebody dying sort of rips our hearts open, and I really needed… something that GOT my attention, and that really RIPPED my heart… The bird drinking water out of the fountain – if you really sit there and watch it, it will very much open your heart, and sometimes to the point of tears, because of its gentleness. But is has taken many years of extreme conditions of life, before I´ve been able to see the gentleness and openness in a bird, if that makes sense to you.. Yeah, so the work is changing. She laughed a little.
- Will you be able to be only with people who are not sick and dying?
- That´s a very broad question, because we are all sick and dying.
- I am finally being able to see, thank God, I am finally being able to see pain, without it being… pain of someone covered with lesions, gasping for their last breath.
Here Irene stopped her self, but said that she would continue her work with people with AIDS.
I asked again about her personal life, if she would be able to let someone in to her life, to live with, and she thought that was possible, but as she said, it was not her focus, and she had so many people in her life.
- I need at this time to do what I need to do… I am definitely healing those places in my self that need to be healed… and I think that I´m on schedule, if there is such a thing, with my healing… I don´t know, but I think that for my ultimate healing in this life, I will need to have a… personal relationship, at this particular period in my life, one with my self, is…very needed.
We moved over to the massage, and I will not write so much about this here, only a few things.
- We give massage, primarily for relaxation and pleasure. The patient may be under a high level of stress, due to fear, pain and anxiety on physical and spiritual levels. Slow, gentle, loving touch, is used in order to offer the patient a time of peace and quiet.
Irene talked about being able to feel compassion and love for our selves, then we can communicate that to another person, by touching them, stroking them.
- With loving them with our hands, if you will…
Irene mentioned different situations, just touching someone with a slow caring attitude.
- Just the way that someone walks in to a patients room and says: Hello, and maybe that person connects with that persons eyes, and really looks at them, and maybe the person is coming to the room, stops and takes a breath and breathes with that person – that´s a massage, that can be the most beautiful part of someones day.
For me, touch is not just a hand, touch is the eyes, touch is the breath, touch is the voice, touch is the body movements, and last, but not least, touch is the hand. But touch incorporates everything about our presence.
Here Irene talked about our own pain, how we need to address it, and work with it, if we are to help other people.
- And that is whats needed with people with life threatening illnesses. It´s the eyes, it´s the breath, it´s the voice, it´s the rhythm – none of which we can connect with, or use to connect with another human being, if we are all blocked up with our pain. The only thing you can do is heal your self to the point that your presence is healing to be in. You can only heal your own pain, to the point that you can sit with someone else who is in pain, and its bearable for you to be there.
Later we called Elisabeth Kübler Ross, and I was invited to come to a workshop on Death & Dying, in New England.
I took some photos of Irene. It was too dark, but she is there, with a little scratch on the film:
I stayed in touch with Irene Smith, for a while, but we unfortunately never met again.
But to my joy I found that she was in the film about the AIDS Ward at San Francisco General Hospital, ”5B.”
There is so much more to read on her own page.
Here is an obituary, Irene Smith passed away on April 4th, 2021.
I posted this, and then it was 2022.