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.

Just Write

25 thoughts on “Bathing

  1. Girl, you knocked my socks off. This was delicious in every detail.

    It also made me cry a little, both at the harsh reality of having to bathe someone who used to bathe you (grandmother, mom) and the beauty you were able to find in it. Brava, Amy.

  2. Oh goodness. Since my grandfather’s passing last year I’ve been helping with my grandmother and yes- it’s so strange how the circle goes round. She has had the hardest time with me giving her help, paying for things and I constantly remind her about how she did for me, and I know how much she loved doing for me, and how I much I love doing for her now.


  3. Wow Amy. This reminds me so much of my last Christmas with my mother. My sister’s family and my family were all staying at my parents house. Time came to prepare Christmas dinner and my mom was not well. My sister and I kicked her out of the kitchen with a command to go play with her grandchildren, which she did. My sister and I took over the kitchen and prepared Christmas dinner and I remember thinking to myself that things really have come full circle. It marked, in some ways, my adulthood as well as my mother’s success at raising truly capable daughters. She passed away a week after I returned from that trip. I haven’t thought of this in awhile – thank you for the reminder.

  4. Oh Amy, you made me cry (at work) in a very good way. The simple things really are the best and I love that you have such a wonderful relationship with you grandmother. I never got to experience that. I’m so sorry for her fall and hope she is feeling better very soon.

  5. Amy, this is beautiful. It has been 3 years since my dad passed away. And we never imaged taking care of him and how fragile he became. After how strong he was and had to be. Thank you.

  6. Wow Amy…. I’m an emotional wreck – in a good way… My mom passed away at 67 years old from breast cancer 3 years ago – and I became the inhouse nurse for about 6 months as she choose to live it out and ultimately die at home… So wonderful to read this in a new light… I can relate to everything you wrote… So ackward, so horrible – so beautiful… Only women can really get this….

  7. Put me right back in the shoes I walked in the year before my mom passed. It was so hard for me… harder for her… but I’m glad I was the one to be there to care for her and that she was strong enough to let me. I remember her saying she’d done the same with her mom and never knew how absolutely humbling it was to ask the child to help the elder. I know someday I’ll be in her shoes and I can only hope whomever is there for me will also see the “happy”…

  8. I’m weeping, thinking about…my own grandmother, and how my mother bathed and cared for her at the end of her life…how close I was to my Grammie when I was little…how I transitioned into the grandmother role 4 years ago and have been lovingly bathing grandchildren in our tub ever since. The thought that one day my granddaughter might return the favor had never occurred to me. Now, it seems a profound thought. Thank you for writing a piece so moving (sniffle!).

  9. oh. no words.
    absolutely gorgeous and an honour to read.
    ( and I had some intimate moments with my mother who just passed away.. poetic is right )

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