I help my mother undress for her shower. I push the bouffant white hair into a shower cap, marveling at its softness and body after a week in and out of bed.
I help her into the shower and return to help her out. I’m glad she can still bathe herself. I know that someday I may be doing that also; for now, that competence furnishes some small measure of modesty and independence.
I help her dry off. I look at her 82-year-old body and I see the shape that has morphed from my own. I see the sagging breasts, softly rounded and voluptuous. As I wipe her back with the towel, I notice how her waist in still a deep indention in her rounded little body. Only her abdomen is out of proportion, protruding as though pregnant.
I think of how slender she was at my wedding, 40 years ago. Her girlish figure looked much like mine in my ivory dress. She was a young mother-of-the bride. How little did I—or she—know then of the paths her life would take.
I get myself ready for bed. I look in the mirror and see the same shape, the same color, similarly shaped breasts, already beginning to sag. I suck in my belly, not wanting to have the shape where my breasts touch my stomach, with the waist of my skirt disappearing between. I throw back my shoulders and think of what I will be like in 22 more years. Will I do as well as she does? Will I still be here?
My daughter says, “Mom, is it hard for you to help Grandma like that?”
I answer that it is not; I simply feel so sorry for her as she keeps apologizing for needing the help.
“I will not mind doing that for you, Mom,” Kelsey says softly, and I am deeply touched. At age 24 I never had such thoughts, not even later when I saw my mother care for her own mother and mother-in-law in the same way.
I do not know what will happen to our bodies next week or next year. I cannot think about that now. I simply do what needs to be done. But I keep feeling that I am caring for another version of myself, that I am what she was and she is what I will be. It is hard to understand, and yet I get satisfaction from knowing that I am helpful to her and that we have made peace with each other. When she apologizes again, I make light of it, saying, “Well, I need to pay you back some way for all those diapers you changed, and all those baths you gave me all those years.”
She smiles, remembering, and says, “Yes, you kept me pretty busy.” Her moment of regret melds into one of memories, and she smiles as I tuck her in and kiss her good night. We’ve come full circle.