by BAR staff
Wednesday Apr 28, 2021 (ebar.com)
January 23, 1945 — April 4, 2021
San Francisco lost one of its greathearted citizens when the beloved Irene Smith, the first person to offer massage to people with AIDS, left her body from complications of esophageal cancer. As she transitioned, the woman whose touch was the last loving contact that so many received prior to their deaths was surrounded 24/7 by equally selfless caregivers who ensured she could die in her longtime Cole Valley garret.
Irene may have been born in Seattle, but it was the fierce independent spirit of a staunchly idiosyncratic Texan and niece of country singer Hank Williams that lived within her. Voted the prettiest girl in her high school, she migrated to San Francisco where a life of drugs, alcohol, and sex work was transformed through workshops with the foremost expert on death and dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Inspired by her mentor, Irene began offering massage through Hospice of San Francisco. When AIDS hit, she began going room-to-room on Ward 5B, the AIDS Ward of San Francisco General Hospital. Years later, Irene was the first person inducted into the National AIDS Memorial Grove for AIDS service.
After establishing massage programs for people living with AIDS worldwide through her organization, Service Through Touch, Irene founded Everflowing and taught mindful touch as an integral component to end-of-life care. Untold numbers of people worldwide have died feeling loved thanks to her book, “Massage in Hospice Care, An Everflowing Approach,” videos, workshops, and personal example.
An online memorial for Irene Smith will be held Thursday, May 27, at 3 p.m. To register, click here.
For more on her life, see the recent letter to the editor below:
Remembering a compassionate healer
San Francisco has lost one of its great citizens. When outer Haight resident Irene Smith left her body after a long illness on April 5, she did so knowing that her compassionate touch was, in many cases, the last act of love that graced many people’s lives.
After Irene’s life was transformed in 1980 through a workshop with her teacher, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler Ross, she became the first person in the Bay Area to offer massage to Hospice of San Francisco’s terminally ill clients. A year later, she began offering weekly massages to people with AIDS on Ward 5A/5B at San Francisco General Hospital.
On September 13, 1984, the Bay Area Reporter published a remarkable letter from Smith about her experience with people with AIDS. In retrospect, it seems enormously brave. At a time when the mass perception of AIDS was of a horrible and merciless death sentence, Smith reached beyond the surface to the true nature of the healing that AIDS had initiated. There was so much wisdom in her letter that I immediately resolved to contact her and put her letter in my book, “Psychoimmunity & the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity and AIDS.” Thus began a friendship that lasted for almost 37 years.
While it is impossible to do justice to Smith’s letter through excerpts, it began, “What I believe we are dealing with here is a condition of fear, negativity, guilt and anger that has come to a head. We are being forced to see it manifested in the physical body, that we might begin to learn to grow, to sort out and confront the conditions that we have set up ourselves at this time. … The fear, sadness, and horror of this dis-ease must be overcome if we are to overcome the disease itself.”
Smith understood that the people with AIDS whom she met, many of whom had been rejected by their parents, were “the healers of our time. They are forcing us to grow. What greater memorial than to look at the lessons we are learning, the love we are sharing, and to continue to grow with it. We are being forced to reach the truth of our very existence. Love. Love in its purest form. … People are actually dying for love. We need to take a good look at what is going on here.”
In the decades that followed, Smith moved from working primarily with people with AIDS to teaching compassionate touch in workshops throughout the United States and abroad. Her everflowing voice, videos, writings and deeds inspired countless others who continue to selflessly channel love and caring to the dying. Throughout the world, people die graced with love because of Smith’s work.
After Smith was diagnosed with a mass in her esophagus and expressed a wish to die at home — an act made possible by her late landlord, who ensured that she could remain in her Carl Street apartment regardless of her ability to pay her rent on time — a huge international community of teachers, healers, and practitioners came to her aid. With enough money raised to enable 24/7 hospice care, Smith found her constant pain eased by countless individuals who showed up out of the blue and asked what they could do. Daily she received ear acupuncture gratis from a practitioner who said, “This is from the people of Germany, in thanks for all you have done.”
There are so many tales of love and compassion surrounding Smith’s work and death that I cannot possibly know from a distance. But what everyone who knew Smith understood is this: If anyone on this planet deserved all the love, care and nurturing that a community can offer, it was Smith. And it was Smith who understood that everyone else on the planet deserved as much love as she received in her last months in the body.
Bless you, Irene, for all you gave the gay community and the larger human community. Thank you for helping us know ourselves. The angels are dancing now that you are again among them.
Jason Victor Serinus
Port Townsend, Washington