A letter from Ayelet: An historical moment and note of gratitude…
As many of you know, the past few years have been very challenging for me. At times, it felt as if I was on a roller coaster ride-one of those really big ones with all the loops! There have been so many blessings-too many to count! I am so grateful for my family and friends and my entire community that have all been so supportive and loving. I have felt everyone’s love and prayers on a very deep level and it has been so fortifying and restorative, particularly during some very dark and difficult times when prayer was the only solution. During this journey, I have had so many epiphanies. These epiphanies have been very empowering. I have learned so much about myself and my strength.
My mother, Sharon Honey Weiselfish Giammatteo, passed away in February of this year. She was very dear to me. Sharon was a remarkable woman. She had an enormous capacity to love and a passion for community. Her circle was enormous. When she passed away, I received countless emails, Facebook posts, letters, and cards reflecting the enormity of this circle and how many people she influenced over her lifetime.
I recently visited with my family in Toronto, where my mother was born and raised, and it occurred to me that her influence began at a young age, much before I was born. The quality of her relationships were so genuine.
As I sit here writing to all of you, I am considering this journey of my mother’s life and my own and how they were intertwined. I wanted to briefly share this history with you… to then segue into today.
To be able to share with you a glimpse of Sharon as a mother, I will start at the beginning of my life. I was born with a hole in my lung. At the time in the 70’s, there were limited options for babies born with these types of issues. I had lung surgery which was successful. Following the surgery, I was in an incubator for one month. I left the hospital with a limited capacity for breathing and looking very sick. But I was alive. From this moment, my mother was committed to my health.
If ever there was an image to embody Sharon, it would be the Statue of Liberty. The image is relevant in multiple ways. My mother and father immigrated to New York from Israel in the early 70’s. They worked hard to create a life for us. My mother was a true advocate in every sense of the word. From a very young age, I was guided into activities that would restore my health. She insisted that I become an avid swimmer, and as much as I protested, I was required to play some type of wind wood instrument (Though I’m a pretty good swimmer today, my clarinet skills are definitely lacking!). Because of the lack of oxygen to my brain as an infant, I had learning challenges as a youngster. I can remember every weekend of my childhood, needing to write some type of paper and then watch over her shoulder as she corrected sentence structure, vocabulary, and so on. Before there were summer reading programs, my mother insisted that I read lengthy books and then write comprehensive book reports on them. Which she then edited, of course! I have to admit that I hated every minute of it. But today, I am so grateful. My capacity for learning is remarkable. This is the ‘functional’ side of the story.
One of Sharon’s favorite analogies was of a child playing the piano. For any of you that have taken a class with Sharon, this story will be familiar to you. Consider the piano as our body and the music as our body’s ability to move and function. If the child does not know how to play the piano, then the music will sound poor. But if you get a piano teacher (a functional therapist) to teach the child how to play, then the music can improve and even sound quite beautiful over time. But what if there was something wrong with the piano? Maybe a torn string or a broken leg… Regardless of how hard the child worked at learning the piano, the music would still sound poor. This is how ‘structural’ therapy comes into the picture. Fixing the piano would create the opportunity or potential for beautiful music. It is through this combination of functional and structural therapies that the most wonderful changes can occur. This was the underlying premise to my mother’s single most remarkable contribution to the world.
My mother began to develop Integrative Manual Therapy (IMT) when I was a child. In fact, throughout my childhood, she repeatedly said that I was the reason for her steadfast research and development of this wonderful body of work. Integrative Manual Therapy is a gentle form of body work that is performed with the hands of a trained practitioner. It is the epitome of structural therapy. IMT is about treatment of not just surface problems, but the underlying reasons for why we develop those surface issues. If we have pain in our knee, is it because of something wrong in the knee, or is there another reason for this pain? IMT is about this search, and the hands-on tools to solve the problem.
As a young child, I received ‘treatment’ at least daily. It was an ever-present part of my life. As she was treating me, she was creating more techniques. Sharon was always creating and developing and exploring. When I consider all the ‘functional’ activities that I was required to do as a child, such as swimming and playing the clarinet and working on countless ‘papers’, the structural treatment was even more plentiful. This wasn’t just our healthcare… it was our way of life. “Mom, my shoulder is hurting, can you treat me?” “Sure, honey. Just lay on the table.” The support went beyond my own family and my mother’s patients. Our friends would come over for Sharon to treat them. “Hey, Mom. You know my friend, Geri? She hurt her back in lacrosse. Can you treat her?” “Sure, honey. Just have her lay on the table.” Our home became a haven for others. Our dinner table was always shared with friends. It was my mother’s love of community that created this kibbutz environment in our home.
Through IMT and the endless hours of functional therapies, I became very healthy. Over time, the varied issues that were related to my difficult birth began to lessen. I no longer felt challenged in a classroom. My lungs were strong. My body was healthy. I remember a time when I was sitting in my high school guidance counselor’s office while he was having a heated discussion with my mother over the phone about my ‘history’ of learning disabilities. My mother happened to mention to him that I ‘used to have’ these challenges but they were no longer an issue for me. Not only did he not understand what she meant, but he clearly thought she was from another planet-a planet where these types of deficits can disappear and no longer affect a person! In his world, you could never ‘get rid of’ a learning disability. You could only learn to compensate for them. At the time, this disconnect struck me as very odd. Years later, my soon-to-be husband, who happened to be a special education teacher in inner city Hartford at the time, was sitting at our family dinner table (I’m sure you can guess where this story goes!). We started talking about learning disabilities. From his training, he was taught that a person could never eliminate a learning deficit but they could learn to compensate for the challenge. It was a definite Déjà vu moment. Fortunately, the conversation continued in a very pleasant manner. I asked him to imagine a person with dysfunction in their frontal lobe, the part of the brain that was responsible for how we think and learn. This would obviously lead to learning challenges. But then I asked him to imagine a way to improve that dysfunction. “Let’s say there’s a way to improve circulation and drainage to and from that part of the brain; wouldn’t it make sense that the person’s learning deficits would improve?” My husband is a very special person and fortunately, very intelligent. But what I have often found most special about him is his constant need to question. For him, my explanation made a lot of sense. More so then blindly following an unsubstantiated claim.
My mother’s influence on me as a child reflected in the way I saw the world. As I grew into an adult, I began to work with her and learn from her. The learning was immense. When I finished high school, I enrolled in Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO. My intention was to study undergraduate Occupational Therapy and then graduate with a Master’s degree in Physical Therapy. But after two years away, I knew I needed to come home and continue my learning. As many of you know, my mother was a force to be reckoned with. Though my mother was consumed with creation and exploration of IMT, my brothers and I were everything to her from the time we were born to her later years. Her need for me to return home and continue my learning with her was powerful. As I reflect back on my life then, I know it was meant to be.
So I moved back home and enrolled in University of Hartford to study Physical Therapy. Following my Physical Therapy education, I continued on with my formal studies and graduated from Union Institute and University with a Doctoral Degree focusing on neuro-pediatrics and autism. During all of my formal education, I worked side-by-side with my mother, learning from her. If osmosis was a valid form of learning, I would have been quite the scholar at an early age. Fortunately, my time with my mother was extensive. My expansive knowledge of the body emanated from this mentoring time.
This doesn’t exactly bring us to ‘today’… There were many years of us working side-by-side with an amazing team of people; a team of people that I still work with today. Tom entered into our lives. He was an amazing support for my mother and my family. Our company grew even larger. We traveled extensively to work with clients as well as teach IMT around the world. We made many friendships that lasted through my mother’s lifetime. It was fun! The traveling, the treating, the teaching-it was exciting and exhilarating at times, and other times, very peaceful. As we all know, nothing is perfect. There were certainly challenges during these times. As I reflect back on my mother’s health, there was evidence of her illness early on. We didn’t exactly ignore the signs; rather, we believed her that they were insignificant… that she would treat herself… that she was going to be fine… that she was going to live to be 97 years old. When my mother passed away, it was very clear that she had been suffering with severe diabetes for many years. My mother believed in physical immortality-the idea that you could live forever. As a concept, it may seem incredulous, but as a way of life, it is really just the idea that you believe you can heal yourself and live without pain and dysfunction-essentially, live a long life of health. This is the way my mother believed.
At the time when she became very sick, we had a robust company with multiple people working with us clinically and teaching with us around the world. Our clinical and administrative team was exceptional which helped so much as my mother became sicker and was less and less in the office. Unfortunately, this was also around the time of the economy bottoming out. As my mother became sicker and less able to function, the clinic began to fail as well. This was very sad. Regional Physical Therapy was started by my mother, and Carol Gordon, in 1984. It was a thirty-year business that fell apart because of multiple colliding factors.
As my mother’s illness progressed, she spent countless hours in the hospital. Tom and I alternated our time with her so she would have 24-hour support and companionship. With the incredible support of Vivian, a wonderful helper to my mother, we were able to accomplish this. As some of you may know, diabetes is an illness that affects the whole body-if not treated, it can lead to a breakdown of every major body system. It was an unfortunate sight-my mother, this amazing proponent for health who advocated so much for me and so many others, was now so dependent on the medical system. As her mind began to fail in her sicker periods, it felt as if a part of her slipped away. I spent a lot of that time questioning so much. I questioned whether she loved me… whether I deserved her love… whether I was a good person… whether I did enough for her… whether I did enough for our community… For me, this was the darkest period. I held a mountain of grief inside my chest, but I couldn’t cry. As I reflect on this period of time now, that seems so odd but probably very familiar to anyone who has lost a parent or loved one. When we lost my mother, it felt very surreal to me. It took me some time to really feel her loss. The mother that I had always known and depended upon was so absent in the last period of her life. It took me time to remember who she really was. That she wasn’t the invalid on the hospital bed, looking sickly and behaving strangely… but rather, a beautiful woman who guided me and loved me and gave me strength.
When we closed Regional Physical Therapy, our clinical branch, I opened up Integrative Wellness & Physical Therapy. Many of our team came to work with me at this new company. We started Integrative Wellness & Physical Therapy in May of 2014 in Bloomfield, CT. I won’t pretend that it was all easy… certainly there have been highs and lows and lots of uncertainty. But we are doing very well now. I feel blessed and filled with gratitude for the support of everyone that I work with. We are so fortunate to work together.
On the IMT education side of things, I stepped down from the role of Dean of the Connecticut School of IMT a few years ago. It was a very strange step for me. For my entire life up until this time, IMT and the education of it was my primary focus… even more important then my own family. It took me these last few years to truly understand what I was missing in my life. My husband and children are so precious to me. My time with them is more important than anything. Life is so much about balance. Obviously, being in balance all the time is not truly living. Just like always ‘being in the light’ is not possible. Being human is to err… and then to forgive and be forgiven and love.
I have missed teaching. I have missed being integrally involved in the development and organization of IMT education. It is a part of me, as much as my mother is a part of me. I have felt so displaced these last few years. Well… now is the time to return to it. As many of you have been waiting with bated breath to hear, we are returning to teaching! More information will follow soon about Manual Therapy Seminars, our new seminar company focusing on IMT education.
The last year plus has been focused on managing my mother’s estate that included the entire body of IMT work, as well as getting our new wellness center up and running. Now that we are settled, and the estate process is coming to an end, we are ready to move forward with organizing IMT courses.
For the time being, I feel at peace. I miss my mother, but I know that she is looking down and watching over me with a smile on her face. She always said I would continue on this journey she started many years ago, and lead the way, carrying the IMT torch. I’m excited to work with an amazing team of individuals to carve more paths in IMT. Thank you, again, to all of you for your offerings of love and peace during these last few years. There are no words to truly express how much it has helped me.
With so much love,
Ayelet Connell-Giammatteo, PhD, PT, IMT,C
Integrative Wellness & Physical Therapy
Manual Therapy Seminars