Over the next few weeks, I brought up our trip occasionally. Some days Mom thought her sister was coming to see her at Sunshine Villa. Other times she repeated the story about sharing the good news with Esther. “She was so delighted and surprised,” my mother informed me, every time. Esther had learned a thing or two about talking to someone with dementia. And for Mom? It was as if the trip was continually being planned for the first time.
A week before we were set to depart, I sat down with Rosa Fernandez, Mom’s RA or resident assistant, at Sunshine Villa. Rosa is the person who helps Mom with “personal care.” And on this trip, that job would be mine. So I wanted to know what was required. “Your Mom is very easy,” Rosa began. And then she told me about their routine in the morning. Rosa helps her out of bed, she gives her a shower, dries her body and rubs lotion into her skin. She washes Mom’s private parts and helps her on with her Depends. She chooses her clothes and helps Mom get into them. She applies her make-up and does her hair.
As she continued telling me how “easy” this would be, I could feel little hairs stand up all over my body. I was remembering the forty years I never wanted my mother to touch me. The years I shrank away from her touch, flinched whenever she hugged me. Over the years, I’d learned to take Mom’s hand or to rub her feet. I could stroke her cheek with genuine affection, lead her to a chair or use my body to rock her up to a standing position. But wipe my mother’s private parts? I wasn’t sure I was up for the job.
“Sometimes in the morning, “Rosa continued, “I find your mother’s teeth under the bed. Sometimes they fall out in the night or she doesn’t get them in the container. Sometimes I have to search for them a little.” Then she told me about the little pink plastic container Mom’s dentures go in at night and the Efferdent tablets I would be using to clean them. “After they’ve soaked all night, I take them out and brush them,” Rosa told me, “And then your mom pops them right in.”
“Anything else I need to know?” I asked. We were sitting in plastic chairs outside the nurse’s station at Sunshine Villa. I wasn’t sure my voice was entirely steady.
“Your Mom is easy,” Rosa reassured me. “You’ll see. It will be easy. Just tell me when you’re leaving and I’ll help pack her suitcase.”
Walking away, I wasn’t sure I was up for this journey. I wanted to take Mom, sure, but could I handle this level of intimacy with a woman I’d considered my nemesis for years? When I imagined doing all the things Rosa had told me I’d need to do, I felt squeamish and uncomfortable. But I also sensed that this was a opportunity—not just for Mom—but for me—a chance to be close to her in a way I’d never been close before. And I wanted that opportunity.
I went home and looked up Tony Hoagland’s poem, Lucky. Suddenly I understood it in a whole new way:
If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no.
Into the big enamel tub
half-filled with water
which I had made just right,
I lowered the childish skeleton
she had become.
Her eyelids fluttered as I soaped and rinsed
her belly and her chest,
the sorry ruin of her flanks
and the frayed gray cloud
between her legs.
Some nights, sitting by her bed
book open in my lap
while I listened to the air
move thickly in and out of her dark lungs,
my mind filled up with praise
as lush as music,
amazed at the symmetry and luck
that would offer me the chance to pay
my heavy debt of punishment and love
with love and punishment.
And once I held her dripping wet
in the uncomfortable air
between the wheelchair and the tub,
until she begged me like a child
an act of cruelty which we both understood
was the ancient irresistible rejoicing
of power over weakness.
If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to raise the spoon
of pristine, frosty ice cream
to the trusting creature mouth
of your old enemy
because the tastebuds at least are not broken
because there is a bond between you
and sweet is sweet in any language.