“Lift your boob mum, there you go.” My sisters and I take turns in showering her; it’s a loving chore we grow to love and dread. We wash her with great care and tenderness –and at times great dollops of humour - to get the job done.
Mum is 93 years old; a widow for nine years, a soldier’s bride, and the mother of us four rowdy adult kids and enough great-grand children that we gave up counting them. She reminds us, “I started all this mess!”
Old age ain’t for sissies. Undressing her is an art in itself; gently removing her trousers and shoes, unbuttoning her floral blouse, being careful with her arthritic bones. “Here mummy darling, just move your arm a bit.” We speak to her like a toddler, our own living doll to play with.
She prepares to stand, and then walk to the bathroom across the hallway, using her walker. Osteoporosis has left her weak and vulnerable. Our mother is a very intelligent, but physically frail woman; small confusions are beginning to cloud her memory.
Crosswords keep her mind busy. Use it or lose it. Her extensive classical music collection seems to annoy her now. She brushes the suggestion of which CD to play, with an impatient wave of her hand. “I’ve heard them all!”
We dutiful daughters have taken over the task of showering her after she became agitated with the daily rotation of the different home visit Nurses. No matter how cheerily they would arrive to care for her, it became too much. “So many new faces” she would say, and blush with shame. She’s a proud, private woman. This has added another hour to my live-in sister’s daily care of mum, and my siblings and I visit them both when we can, travelling the 700kms to help with home duties. Respite for my sister, new challenges for mum.
We adult children do this because she is our mother, and that’s how it is. We have become her personal hand servants, but it’s our choice and we are up to the task. The years of her love are returned, with gratitude and respect.
I know every inch of my mother’s soft body. Every curve of her dowagers hump, every unidentified lump, every wrinkle and fold where once smooth skin lay pale, unseen. We inspect her for bruises. Her delicate, paper-thin skin demands our full attention. I hold the shower curtain half closed for modesty so she can wash herself. Gripping the handles we have installed with trembling hands, the fear of slipping and falling frightens us the most. It’s constantly on our mind, the elephant in the room we cannot avoid. Already, she’s broken her wrist, and once slid off a chair when her dressing gown proved to be slippery on the leather seat. We have special wash cloths for her face, another one for her legs, yet another one for her curved, broad back. We tenderly check for signs of heat rash. For a small woman who is physically shrinking each month, mum needs at least three towels to dry herself. One to sit on, to protect her from sliding off the shower seat, one around her naked shoulders for warmth and one to actually dry as I raise each leg, being careful to pat between her toes. I powder her chest, easing on fresh clothes, and walk her gently to her bedroom. Now fully dressed, she lays on top her bed, exhausted. “I’ll just rest a while” she say, her eyes closed.
Bathing mum gives me opportunity and wisdom to see hands-on old age and dignity. It teaches me patience and respect, returning my mother’s love and care.
I sit on her bed and discuss the day’s events; recalling memories, quietly chatting as our roles are reversed. My mother is my child, my delicate doll with the blue eyes.
My mother is teaching me gently, still.