Assignment 2 in Memoir and Personal Essay Course: Write a narrative describing an activity that you do regularly which incorporates at least ten steps—something you perform preferably every day, but at least several times a week. With attention to voice, imbue the writing with a sense of character and personality. Pay attention to the way you transition from one step to the next. Connect each step in a unique way that is not merely repetitive like “first I do this, then I do that.” Instead, think about cause and effect. Explain the rationale for each step and why it follows the one before it. You are only allowed to use the words “next” or “and then” twice total.
My maternal grandmother was a larger-than-life figure in my childhood. She was one of the first women to be sworn in as a police officer in Glendale, California, and for years made the 35 mile drive each Saturday to our home in Orange County to share grand tales of her professional exploits with my young mother, housebound with five children under ten. I would generally hunker down somewhere near the couch, where I could hear what had gone on that week in the juvenile bureau and with her partner, Copie. Since my grandfather’s motorbike accident left him a paraplegic in 1943, my grandmother was the sole breadwinner and his caretaker for decades; to my inexperienced self she represented the epitome of independence and self-determination. This, of course, was before I appreciated the extent to which care-taking can infringe upon self-determination and independence.
These days, GG (the sobriquet bestowed when she became a great-grandmother more than 36 years ago) is 98 years old. Making her bed, combing her own hair, reaching anything on a higher shelf, opening pickle jars – little things that most of us accomplish thoughtlessly – are painful, almost impossible feats for her, saddled as she is with arthritic joints, frozen shoulders, compromised mobility, and vertigo. There have been numerous falls in the preceding decade, many of them resulting in trips to the ER and overnight hospital stays. Now, even some of the basics of personal hygiene have become challenging and potentially dangerous. Like many other common tasks of daily life, it has become a preventative measure to assist her with the mechanics of undressing, getting in and out of the shower, and donning her pajamas once again. Providing this type of support to her consumes about ten hours of my week, time that I give willingly and joyfully, but which does limit some of my wider-ranging activities and time away from home.
GG is a congenitally orderly person who craves routine and predictability. Hence, she’s happiest if she has a bit of notice that shower hour has arrived so can she prepare herself and the environment accordingly. Usually, I enter her en suite bathroom to find her new pajamas already laid out on the dresser, her bathmat placed in front of the shower, her towel hanging from the vertical hand bar just outside the shower door. It is only then, when all elements are in place, that the ritual may commence.
We begin in her walk-in closet. I pull down her pajama bottoms, she braces herself against the dresser and steps out of them. Her underwear follows; we carefully preserve the protective pad she has inserted against bladder accidents as disposing of one before its fully soaked is wasteful. Her pajama shirt comes off slowly, with considerable attention paid to keeping her arms below her shoulders: their arthritic pain is so excruciating she cries out if I accidentally pull her arms up too high. I remove the button hanging on a chain around her neck that allows her to send an electronic signal to other rooms in the house if she requires assistance, though most often she hits it unknowingly against a counter or her mattress, sending my mom and I flying into her room, usually in the middle of the night, expecting to find her again on the floor. Traces of Oil of Olay waft in my nostrils as I bend close to remove the gold wristwatch, an essential component of her wardrobe that she references throughout the day to track her unbending, self-imposed schedule. (Lunch is always at 10:30am, cocktails at 2:00pm, dinner 4:30pm, bedtime 7:45pm. You can set your own clock by her unflagging routine.)
Once she is undressed, we leave the closet, GG pushing her walker some ten feet across the tiled floor to the shower stall. Following closely behind her, I marvel at her upright posture. She moves rapidly, with straight-backed confidence, when holding onto the walker’s handles. From the back, one might take her to be in her 70’s or early 80’s; her skin retains a rosy vibrancy, its delicate topography a well-preserved, creamy tulle sagging ever so slightly from bones sturdy and true. People comment, still, on her beauty. It is a quality that emanates from her being, rather than her physiognomy or figure. By the time once reaches her age, character has infused form; like a light glowing warmly from behind a worn curtain, one is drawn to the illumination rather than the occluding fabric.
I deliver her bright pink shower cap and help her position it over her head (those shoulders again!) There is not much hair left these days, but her hearing aids cannot get wet. She reaches in, turns the faucet on and waits for the water to warm. After entering the stall, she lifts her bath brush from the shower knob and waits while I squeeze an inordinate amount of Oil of Olay body wash onto it – despite her depression-era thriftiness, she allows herself small, idiosyncratic extravagances. She slides the door shut and I wheel her walker over to the counter top and set the brakes; this is where I sit for the next ten minutes or so while she completes her ablutions.
This marks a measure of her independence regained, actually, because for months at the beginning of this year I was in the shower with her. She had broken her right wrist in a fall and wasn’t able to maneuver her plastic-encased cast sufficiently to wash herself. During this period, I would disrobe, also, and accompany her into the steam-filled cloister of the shower stall, neither of us talking as her hearing is so poor, she is unable to make out words over the ambient noise of the water spray. If I narrowed my eyes and imagination just enough, I flowed into the stream of consciousness into which so many women the world over daily immerse, the i soul-rinsing experience of communal bathing. Sharing a shower, pool or sauna, baring one’s skin, scars, bumps, lumps, and awkward angles among a group of females, becomes its own form of cleansing. I would slowly and carefully pass the brush over GG’s tissue-thin skin, as if it were a baby’s. This was never an activity I imagined sharing with her when I was twelve, but one that I grew to love for its warm and relaxed intimacy.
Now, since she has regained the use of her right hand, I allow her the private bathing that our culture favors. I keep an ear tuned to her movements while I work the New York Times daily crossword at the bathroom sink, turning occasionally to ascertain that the pink dot of her head is bobbing away behind the obscuring glass of the shower door. I am usually close to finished by the time she shuts off the water. Then, the long ritual of drying herself begins. Because of her compromised flexibility, it takes seven to eight minutes for her to complete the task to her own satisfaction. But, before she will exit the shower, she must thoroughly dry all the walls, fixtures, and door, too, even though we have a weekly cleaning service that ensures mold or mildew never gains a foothold. By the time I am completing the last few clues, I hear the door slide open and drop my pen to bring her the walker and stand vigilant while she places first one foot, and then the other, under the bath mat, bringing it up to wipe the surface of the opposite foot dry. This is an important element of the ritual, don’t ask me why. When this is done, like an obedient foot soldier I trail her back into the closet.
GG has uncommonly long, narrow feet; I must remind myself to be patient while she stabs the arrow of her toes at the opening of her underpants as I bend over, trying to corral the moving target. It usually takes three or four attempts. I pull the underpants up and she spends a minute or so adjusting the inserted pad. The pajama bottoms are a bit easier. Once those are donned, I hold the top open at shoulder-level as she struggles to place her arms in the armholes and we both shift the cloth up and over carefully, trying to minimize the pull on her joints. Even though the top is button-up, GG insists on being respectful and having all but the very top button fastened, so I don’t need to “waste” my time on buttoning five extra buttons. I’ve argued about this, to no avail. It’s an element of the ritual.
I then replace the alarm button around her neck and her precious watch around her left wrist. I run a comb through her sparse locks to lift them back into place. She kisses me and says, “thank you, thank you, thank you!” no less than three times. Sometimes more. She is so very grateful. As am I. For no matter how insidiously care-taking may infringe on self-determination and independence, I know that both of us benefit. Though little conversation takes place during this thrice-weekly ritual, the closeness that it has engendered goes beyond mere words.