I turn off the water when we go into the bathroom. I ask Mom if she’d like to take off her watch before stepping into the shower. I remind her to take her nightgown off too.
She says she prefers to turn the water on herself once she’s in. She doesn’t want to wash her hair she says; she’s afraid of getting soap in her eyes. It’s okay I say, I’ll help you make sure you don’t.
I bought special non-sting shampoo the other day should things go awry, but I don’t mention it. Better she thinks she’s using her regular shampoo.
She turns the water on. Be careful Mom I say, make sure it’s not too hot. I know how to turn the water on she says. I know you do I say. And then she says: oh the water’s too hot! Turn it down a bit Mom I say and she says okay but she’s not quite sure how to do it after 30 years of showering in the same shower and so I reach in and twist the knob for her and my arm gets soaked and water sprays all over the floor but even if the bathroom floor were flooded a foot deep it would scarcely be a drop in this colossal Alzheimer’s bucket and who worries about a drop in the bucket? Not me right now.
I guide her through soaping and rinsing her body and then it’s time to wash her hair, which is the worst part for her.
Pick up the shampoo Mom I say and she says where is it? On the floor on your right I say. She pauses to think about where her right is and then starts to reach down to her left and I say the other right Mom, the other side. I have to yell a bit so she can hear me over the sound of the shower and through the foggy glass doors that separate us but I try to yell softly in a calm and soothing tone so it doesn’t sound like I’m telling her what to do because she doesn’t know how to do it herself anymore which clearly I am because clearly she doesn’t.
But we pretend otherwise. We pretend we’re not inside out and upside down. We pretend it’s normal that I should be standing here fully clothed while she’s naked in her shower in her bathroom with the pink floor and that I should be telling her how to have a shower because it’s something we’ve done together for decades like making jam, or picking green beans in her garden or walking down to the lake.
We pretend this demented world is normal. I pretend to preserve her dignity. She pretends for the sake of her pride. We both pretend so the other won’t be embarrassed. But somewhere inside we feel embarrassed anyway. We bury it.
Somehow healing sniffs out that bone of embarrassment, digs it up and worries it until the awkward intimacy becomes strangely natural and familiar. It’s a small miracle. We’re lucky. We accept our unwanted reality and protect each other in the process.
She gropes around and finally finds the shampoo and I tell her to flip the cap open and put a bit of shampoo in her hand and then to put it on her head and then to put the shampoo container down and she does and she’s scrunching her eyes shut so tight it must hurt because she’s terrified of soap getting in them and I say okay mom you can rinse now, back up a bit and put your head under the shower and she does and then I say turn around Mom and put your face under the water and she turns around in a slow motion pirouette with her hands over face because “I don’t want to get soap in my eyes” she says and I say I know Mom and it might be easier if I just got in there with her but it’s important that she does it herself because she wants to and she still can and it’s about confidence, competence, and the illusion of control.
She may be helpless, vulnerable and childlike, but she is also a grown woman with thoughts and feelings. She is my mother.
“You can turn the water off now Mom.”
“Okay,” she says and she does.
She slides open the shower doors and stands there not quite sure what to do next. I hand her the towel I had put on the heater so it would be warm when she got out.
“Oh!” she says, “that feels good.” She’s talking about the whole experience: the shower that’s now over, the warmth of the towel and the fact that she’s fresh and clean.
“I’m glad Mom.” Inner peace seeps through the cracks in my heart like a rising tide. Pockets of despair get filled with something else. I smile. She doesn’t see. She’s too busy drying off and thinking about what’s next.
“I need to brush my hair.”
“Your brush is there Mom.” I point in front of her, beside the sink. She picks up the brush, runs it through her hair hard and fast. Then she “plumps” the sides with her fingers; she’s always done that. She has a particular way of looking at her reflection, with her chin pulled slightly in and her eyes gazing upward. She’s still beautiful and youthful, even at 84.
“Powder?” I ask.
“Oh yeah.” She had forgotten. Johnson’s Baby Powder. Large size. She puts a little on each breast. Also large size.
“You like to put deodorant on too Mom. You do it like this.” I stand beside her in front of the mirror; she watches as I lift up my left arm and motion up and down with the stick of deodorant in my right. Dove unscented. White and blue plastic package. I hand it to her. She copycats. I pour a little Oil of Olay into the palm of her hand.
“Rub your hands together Mom, then put the cream on your face.”
“Okay.” She applies the cream none too gently. “That’s that done!” she says.
And with that done, it’s time to help her get dressed.
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