2009 / Year Seven of Alzheimer’s
“Giving her a bath is soothing to me, something about shedding clothes, the warm water, comforting scent of soap and shampoo—everything that says we’re in this together.”
My older sister has been hired by a home healthcare agency to care for our mom forty hours a week. The rest of us siblings create a schedule to visit at various times, so my dad only has to be alone with my mom for a few hours a day and while she’s asleep at night–usually 10 pm to 11 am. I volunteer to take one or two evenings a week and every Saturday during the day.
Saturday is bath day for my mom. Giving her a bath is soothing to me, something about shedding clothes, the warm water, comforting scent of soap and shampoo—everything that says we’re in this together.
“I love being clean,” my mom says to me as she splashes in the tub. “I was always clean. That’s why I had so many boyfriends.” She giggles
“I believe it,” I say each time.
I pour warm water over her head and put a dollop of shampoo on top of her head. “Rub this around,” I say, and she does. I hand her a small pink brush, one bought from her Avon lady Mrs. Anger thirty years ago. A name like “Anger” and a person would have to sell joy. I say, “Brush in your shampoo like you like to do.”
“You remember everything,” she says.
I prompt her to wash her face. She does as I say, then she takes her wash cloth and scrubs between her toes, a move that charms me each time I see her do it. As a farm girl, I suspect washing the cow pies from between toes was important business.
“Ready to rinse your hair?” I ask her.
She nods and closes her eyes. This has become our pattern, and she knows what to do. I scoop water in a plastic cup and pour it over her head. “That feels good,” she says.
When most of the soap is gone I run the tap and pour one last cup of water over her head. “Too hot,” she squeals.
“Sorry,” I squeal back.
“I’m tough,” she says, the same thing she says when I pluck her eyebrows and tug the skin. She never flinches. “I’m tough.”
Her aging body shocked me when I first started helping her change clothes and then eventually give her a bath. Her large breasts like feed sacks hanging to her belly. Her stomach like a deflated balloon with tracks of stretch marks across it—swelled with eight pregnancies and so much weight gained and lost over the course of her lifetime. Today I notice her delicate shoulders with the lovely freckles across them, a one-inch scar atop the left shoulder where she had a cyst removed when I was ten. She has a six-inch scar across her lower back from kidney stone surgery when I was two. I called it her Frankenstein scar when I was little and watching her squeeze into a girdle. I know my mother’s scars. Just one more on this seventy-nine year-old body: on her chin is a tiny discolored strip of epidermis from a car accident when she was a girl. Her face hit the dashboard with such force that her bottom teeth came through her flesh. That’s when she lost her first adult tooth.
I wonder if back then she learned to say, “I’m tough.”
I wipe her wet face with a towel so she can open her eyes. When she’s safely on the bath mat, I wrap a towel around her and pat her shoulders.
“My daughters are nurses, too,” she says.
“Oh really?” I say. Often when I give her a bath she believes I’m her nurse, and I play along with her sometimes, just to see where the conversation goes.
“Sharon is a very important nurse. A surgical nurse. And Jackie is like a nurse.”
“She’s a dietician.”
“Yes, a dietician. Do you know them?”
I nod. “Then you know she’s a very dedicated dietician,” she says.
I use another towel to dry her hair. “Do you see them often?” I ask her. I know the answer but I wonder if she does.
“No, we don’t see them too often.”
I help her slide one arm into her robe.
“You’re my favorite one here,” she says.
I hug her. She says, “I’m so lucky to have you. Do you like working here?”
“You bet,” I say.
One evening I find my mother alone in the living room reading what looks like an invitation. “Can I see it?” I ask her.
She won’t give it up. She says, “It’s a dirty trick. I just want to burn this.”
I read over her shoulder, “Joe and Virgie’s See’s 25th anniversary party, September 1, 1973.”
She says, “How come I didn’t know about this?” She’s still scowling at the paper in her hands.
“You did. You went to the party over thirty years ago.”
“Nah,” she says.
My dad comes in and sits in his chair. “What’s the matter now?”
“Let’s just get married next week,” she says. “People are playing a dirty trick on us, saying we’ve been married twenty five years.”
“Well, we’ve been married 60 years.”
“Nah,” she says. “We have to have our wedding first. I’m still a virgin.”
My dad chuckles. “Not after our eight kids you’re not.”
“I’m going to be a virgin on our wedding night,” she says.
“Too much information for my little ears,” I say. “Let’s talk about something else.”
“You should hear this,” my mom says. “You’ll be a virgin on your wedding night, too.” My dad laughs some more.
Later I’m helping my mom put her pajamas on. I guide her arm into the sleeve. She says, “I hope you’re my nurse when I have babies.”
“Don’t you think you’re a little old for that?” I say.
“Why do you want to have babies?”
“Life would be boring without children,” she says.
“How many kids do you think you’d like to have?”
“Oh, one or two,” she says.
I’ve come to think nothing of helping my mom with her bath, standing next to her as she uses the toilet, even cleaning and dressing her bed sores—what our homecare nurse calls “pressure sores.” But each time I help Mom brush her teeth and put in her partial denture, I have to look away as she spits. As a kid I used to think of her dentures in their soaking solution and its leftover particles as “food soup.” Now I can barely stand to look at it.
She’s worn some form of denture as long as I can remember. The old wives’ tale “gain a child, lose a tooth” certainly was true for my mother. Her teeth also suffered long term effects of poverty; I’m sure she rarely visited a dentist until she was eighteen and married. My siblings and I still laugh about her lenient teeth brushing rules when we were kids: she’d tell us “just eat an apple before you go to bed.” At fifteen, after my braces came off, I bragged that I’d live to be a hundred years old and still have good teeth. It’s the future my mother hoped for me.
For the many months that I helped my mom with her morning rituals I could simply hand her the teeth box, and she knew what to do. Now I have to drain the water out of the box and put her dentures in her mouth. It took me many tries before I realized the bottom denture has to go in first.
Each time she asks me, “What if those aren’t mine?”
“See, they fit,” I say every time.
What makes me turn my face away from her today is not her dentures floating in an ancient box, but her desperation when she whispers to me from her spot on the toilet, “A boy’s been after me all day.”
“You’re safe now,” I say. “No one can get you.”
“He’s out there right now,” she says. “He’s looking in at us through the crack in the door.”
I slam the bathroom door and lock it in one swoop. Sometimes she scares me, like a girlfriend at a slumber party. You know the ghost story isn’t true, but the hair on your arms still stands up.
“No one’s getting in here,” I say. “You’re safe.”
She can wipe herself today, and I help her stand and wash her hands. As I lift her up she grabs my arm. “You’re the only one I can trust here.” I turn my face away from her and swallow the lump in my throat.