My grandmother is 87.
She’s been needing help in her day-to-day life for a while now, but a few months ago, she fell and chipped a bone in her pelvis. It’s been a long, slow recovery.
Since her fall, she hasn’t been able to take care of herself like she used to. She’s doing better now, but for the first full month, she needed ‘stand by assistance’ for just about everything, from trips to the bathroom to getting dressed to fixing meals to taking a shower. My mother, sister, and I divvied up her care, and so every afternoon, I drove from work to the little guest house next to my parents’ where she stayed to wake her from her nap, help her dress, eat lunch with her, and stay with her until it was time for the after-school pick up. I still do this, though she needs less now.
Between her medications and her age, she’d forget things. Every day, she asked where the kids were (in school), how I’d found time to see her (she didn’t know we’d all rearranged our schedules), and whether I’d eaten breakfast (it was lunchtime). Sometimes, she’d ask why she was still in bed (she fell).
She mourned her independence (and still does). I understood this all too well. Some days, I’d admit to mourning mine right along with her as I kissed goodbye the hours of writing time I had once earmarked for this time of day. I’d try to let her do what she could for herself, but personal care did not fall in this category. Throughout trips to the restroom and attempts at getting legs into pants, we’d get by on our shared sense of humor, diversions, and a few tears, but the day–the first one on my watch–that she needed to take a shower, our coping mechanisms failed us.
There wasn’t anything easy about it, physically or psychologically: I helped her out of her clothes, then busied myself running the water, hoping my focus would offer her some semblance of privacy as she sat waiting, arms wrapped around her chest. When it came time to lift her legs over the sides of the bathtub so she could sit on the handicap-friendly shower bench, the logistics baffled us: every angle hurt her. Every try to manage something as simple as get in proved frustrating and painful. As I handed her a towel to wrap around her naked body while we awkwardly figured it out, I flashed upon a memory: myself, as a very little girl, in the yellow-wallpapered bathroom at my grandmother’s house, my grandmother the one bent over the tub, hands in the sudsy water, bathing me.
The deep, porcelain bathtub had been huge. The water came up to my armpits when I sat very still, eyes closed, allowing her to rinse the baby shampoo from my hair. When she declared me done, I’d have to hurdle the side of that big tub to reach the thick, terry towels hanging from the rack, and even better, the old radiator along the far wall, hissing and popping with steaming air that I could curl up next to on the tile floor, my towel wrapped around me like a cocoon.
We managed the bathtub entry eventually, after all sense of modesty had been drained from us both and the water had started to run lukewarm, and I began to wash her, rubbing shampoo into her hair and massaging her scalp.
At one point, she said, ‘It’s wrong, this happening…the granddaughter washing the old grandmother,’ and then I told her what I’d been thinking, about the yellow bathroom and the big tub and the heater. I asked her if she remembered that, bathing me on those nights I spent with her. And she did. Then I told her what she didn’t know: how every time I had felt my back toasted beside the mouth of that heater, I’d think in my child’s mind, ‘This is happy.’
I still think it, as a little joke in my head, whenever I’m graced with something truly simple, yet truly comforting, in my life. This is happy.
She did that for me. She was that for me. And so as I ran the handheld nozzle over her stooped back and watched the water run down, hurrying through that shower for both our sakes, it felt backward, yes, but it also felt poetic. And like all good poetry, this act of reversal we found ourselves in had serrated edges. Asymmetrical angles. Pieces that shouldn’t fit, but did. I couldn’t even explain why.
All I knew was that I was honored to experience it, and to keep experiencing it…this rightful order that starts–so young–with receiving, transitions to giving, then one day, to surprise and sadness and goodness, becomes receiving again.