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Second Childhood

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In this semi-autobiographical reflection, a college student navigates an abrupt role reversal when she must bathe her ailing grandmother.

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Chapter 1

“The nurse can’t come in today,” your father says at the kitchen room table.

“She just called, and she can’t come in to give Ma her shower.”

“Well,” an uncle says gruffly, “What are we gonna do? Ma has to have her shower.” Your father indulges in one of his characteristic pregnant pauses.

“Well,” your father says, “I suppose Annie can just shower Ma.” The uncles grumble incoherently in agreement before changing the subject to something more palatable than their naked mother. Meanwhile, you are in the adjoining room gripping the edge of the kitchen sink, letting the hot water run until the steam clouds your eyes.

The Hadsel ancestral homestead threatened to crumble to pieces around your grandma’s oblivious head for decades. What once housed three generations of family was now occupied by the one person too brittle-boned to care for it. Once a year, your entire extended family filled up the house again for a thinly disguised social visit. When you were younger, Grandma took the grandkids out and baked cookies while the aunts and uncles ripped rotted shingles from the roof and gutted the sinks. Now you and your cousins scrape paint and polish windows alongside the adults, leaving grandma inside. But the constant cycle of home maintenance, negligence, and repair is in itself a disguise and distraction.

Your father recently received some very startling reports of his aging mother. The nurse who regularly stops by to administer your grandma’s medicine and bathe her discovers that your grandmother cooked a five-course meal for phantom visitors. Your father received a panicked phone call from Grandma in the dead of night after she failed to reach your uncle Jim, who died of a heart attack ten years ago. Kathy, a local woman who capitalizes on the aging population of this town by informing on its movements, spotted your grandma two miles from her house in a blustery snow storm, no coat, steadily ambling forward with her arms outstretched. Fresh off the plane that carried you home, you found yourself hurriedly googling “frostbite signs” and “hypothermia” and dictating information to your father, who in turn told Kathy over the phone how best to examine your grandma’s feet.

Something had to be done about grandma.

As the uncles made plans and your father packed an overnight bag, your mother pleaded with you to go with him. “Someone needs to take care of your grandma,” she said. The whole ‘take care’ of grandma euphemism was somewhat ominous, and you didn’t really understand how it applied to you. Wasn’t that the very reason your dad was going there? To ‘take care’ of his mother? You agreed, but only because the hoopla over your grandmother’s health convinced you that it might be your last chance to see her. The way your parents told it, she could die any second. Your mother would have gone herself, but unemployed college students are by nature better suited for spontaneous trips out of state.

After nine hours on the road, your dad’s Volvo rolled down grandma’s driveway, the wheels crunching over gravel and packed snow. You and your dad heaved your bags inside through the kitchen door, and you noticed that the house’s shingles are the color of damp fire wood. You could already imagine yourself replacing and repainting them next summer. Your grandma and the uncles were waiting to greet you, each uncle giving you a perfunctory pat on the back. When you embraced your grandma, she seemed to shiver into you. She was shorter than you recalled, and her curly blonde-white hair radiating out her scalp like a crown of mist. The oven timer went off and your grandma scurried around the room divide.

You left the room for only a second when the sound of metal clamoring to the ground caused your lungs to leap into your throat. Dropping your bags, you dashed back into the kitchen. Your grandma was cooking hamburgers in the oven for her sons and dropped the scalding pan, burgers and all, on the ground. She just stood there holding her little potholders, arms trembling in the air.

“I didn’t do it,” she said, mystified.

You snatched her potholders away and asked if she burned herself. She was taken aback by your quick action and curt tone, but remained motionless in the kitchen. As you salvaged the food and uttered small condolences like “It’s okay Grandma,” “The food is still good,” and “I’ll take care of everything,” your grandmother retreated into herself, swiftly fading away without moving an inch. In your flurry of activity, you didn’t notice when she finally left the room.

It is now your second night in this old farmhouse, and you have been anchored to the kitchen sink. The uncles and your father have similarly planted themselves around the kitchen table, exchanging in friendly banter as they figure out what will happen After Ma Goes, a mythical era that has been long talked about but never planned for. You are on the other side of a small dividing wall that separates the kitchen table from the real kitchen, rinsing dishes. The physical divide that separates the cooking from the consuming is telling of the era in which it was built. The faucet’s warbling doesn’t drown out their guttural laughter in the next room, so you increase the water flow. Steamy water flows over your hands and you scrub a pan absent-mindedly, wondering if this was how it was when your grandma was in her prime—four boys chatting around the dinner table while she stood apart, with rubber gloves on. You wouldn’t mind cooking and cleaning up if you weren’t the only person in the house who was getting anything done. Those old men in the other room, with rotund bellies and receding hair lines, had rapidly regressed since their arrival. They came here to make decisions they had actively avoided for the better part of a decade, but immediately slid back into the comfort of childish negligence the moment their mother greeted them at the door and offered them hamburger.

Your father is so nonchalant when he volunteers you to bathe your 95 year-old grandma that you are too utterly dumbfounded to speak up. You switch the faucet off and peer over the room divider where your father and the uncles were half-heartedly sifting through papers. The four of them, bent over stacks of financial statements, their scalps shining through thin wisps of hair, are nearly indistinguishable from each other. It makes you glad that you inherited your mother’s sharp, freckled face instead of their creamy round ones. You say only ‘dad’ and one speckled head rises, revealing your father’s spectacled face. He joins you in the kitchen.

In the other room, which is actually the same room, you fiercely whisper that there is no way that you are bathing Grandma, and your dad should phone that nurse right away to make her do her damn job. This does not go over well.

“She is sick,” your dad says, “and she’s contagious.”

“Then get someone else!” You’ve given up on whispering.

“There is no one else!” You father explains that your grandma is showered three times a week, and never on weekends. This means she hasn’t been showered since Friday, and the nurse cannot come back until Wednesday.

“Well, do you have any suggestions?” he asks.

You fume. “I have four suggestions, actually.” This takes him aback.

“But she’s our Ma!” he sputters. A son bathing his mother is too weird or taboo for him to handle, so he resumes attacking your character instead. “I can’t believe you would actually refuse your grandmother the dignity of a shower.”

“Grandma hasn’t had any dignity for a long time.” Your voice cracks because you are incapable of becoming angry without your throat thickening and your eyes watering. Most of the time it’s infantilizing, but now you use it to your advantage. “She can’t dress herself or cook for herself. She can’t wash herself. I’ve bathed children before, but this--”

“I know.” Your dad swallows. “But she’s my ma. Don’t you see? I just can’t do it Annie. Don’t make me do it.”

You are suddenly reminded of one of your father’s childhood pictures, the one where he is standing in the self-same kitchen and a younger, smoother Grandma is buttoning up his collared shirt. You imagine that when your dad was standing in the same kitchen, adorned with the same yellow wallpaper and the same decorative plates, he never imagined that his tireless, omnipresent mother would one day become incapable of buttoning her own shirt. You twirl a bracelet around your wrist in reluctant silence, and your father fetches grandma.

You now pace in the living room, painfully aware that your grandma was heading into that shower now. This is really happening to you. You consider telling her that no one is coming to bathe her, or that she has to wait a couple days. But the idea of making her wait sickens you—forcing your grandma to accumulate sweat and filth because none of her beloved progeny knew what to do and her grandchild, you finally admit to yourself, is too disgusted by her decrepit body to try. You could claim that you aren’t a nurse and thus unqualified for the task, but that insincere cop-out would only make you the bratty grandchild. And you won’t stand for that.

You walk up the stairs to the linen closet and retrieve several towels. You shuffle down the steps and circle round the corridor to the bathroom door. This bathroom, recently installed after grandma officially moved her bedroom to the downstairs, is so unfamiliar and modern, a style completely divergent from the house’s aesthetic of warped wood panels and cracked ceramic doorknobs. You knock. You breathe. In her little voice, you hear your grandma announce that she is ready. You open the door.

One summer years ago during your annual visit, you spent three days crying in your room. You were fourteen and your first boyfriend broke up with you shortly before you left for your grandma’s, and you had lost your ability to love. Resigned to a life of everlasting heartbreak, you pouted your way out of doing chores and began your life of seclusion in bed. Oddly enough, it was your grandma that coaxed you back into the land of the living and loving. She was younger then, looked younger, stood up straighter and didn’t pause so much between sentences. That day, she strode right into your room without knocking and sat down on the edge of the bed. You had been lying prostrate on the bed crying your adolescent eyes out, but quickly scrambled off the bed. Your grandma sat alone, the mattress lightly bouncing beneath her. She had a box in her lap.

“I want to show you my artifact collection.”

Before she settled down with grandpa, your grandmother earned her college degree in social work and began her career traveling between Indian reservations in the Midwest. She doubled as a nurse and a social worker, and had actually traveled more than you have. Her artifact collection included some bracelets and objects she had collected, but it’s mostly photographs and letters. She systematically sorts through each object, explaining where got it, who gave it to her and what prompted them to give it to her.

“A man who was sweet on me in Utah gave this to me on New Year’s day,” she said, fingering a ceramic pendent.

“Was he your boyfriend or something?”

“Oh, I didn’t care much for him at all.” Her laughter was like gravel in a shaken bottle. “That was the best thing about my job. I could go anywhere and meet anyone. Very different from the way you grandkids are starting out.”

That your grandma found you to be a sheltered homebody was cutting, but at least she pointed it out to you gently. After going through the box, you decided that feeling alone and loveless was too exhausting a lifestyle to keep up. Before leaving the room—you also decided that your bedroom, this house, this state, was too small to live in—your grandma surprised you by taking something from the box. It was a leather bracelet embedded with beads arranged in a tribal pattern you couldn’t name or recognize. Beautiful, but due to age, fragile. It was the only gift she ever gave you personally, and it became your most cherished.

You began to stop wearing the beaded bracelet at first because you were afraid of the clasp breaking, but you put it away for good after you learned wearing such a bracelet was somewhat offensive. You tucked it away in a jewelry box beneath dangly earrings, but you would always keep it, this remnant of your grandma’s storied and youthful past.

You decided to take the bracelet out of retirement before this visit, seeing as it might be the last time she would see you wear it.

Now, as you stand in the shower door immobile and blank, you realize that you forgot to take it off.

She is already undressed and sitting in the shower, and you feel like you’ve laid eyes upon your grandmother for the first time. She is a mass, a peach mass of molten skin huddled on a small chair attached to the pearl-like shower chamber. Her arms and legs are crossed and laced with lavender veins, almost luminescent beneath the shower light. She is sitting upright, as in a waiting room or office. Her halo of hair is subdued by a pink shower cap.

You absorb this all in a moment and your eyes dart to the ground. You busy yourself with refolding the towels and arranging them on the towel rack, flustered to your core, but the image of glowing body on tile is hard to shake. Somehow you feel guilty, like you should be prepared for this. It isn’t her fault her appearance disarmed you, left you groping around for sponges and soap as if blinded. Besides, everyone becomes a wrinkled, shivering creature in the bathroom one day. At least, you think wryly, you didn’t have to undress her. As you fumble with the towels, the sponges, the soap, it occurs to you that you don’t know where to begin. How does one shower her grandmother? Your grandma is probably too feeble to stand on the slippery floor, so she ought to stay sitting the entire time. A brief glance towards the shower shows you that the shower head is detachable.

You are suddenly possessed and speak out loud.

“Hi grandma.” There is a light echo, and nothing you have ever said has made you feel so childish. “Are you ready?” You have found the supplies you think you need, yet remain motionless. Thankfully, your grandma seems to sense that you need guidance through the same silent, innate knowingness you’ve observed in many other old people.

“It’s ok hon,” she says. You think she seems very calm for someone who is just about to be washed by her granddaughter. With a towel in one hand and a sponger in the other, you kneel on the bath mat.

Like many confronted with an unfamiliar shower, you inspect the shower cautiously before turning it on. The sudden surge of water spooks you, and after you flinch you take the showerhead off of its perch. Pointing it safely towards the shower floor, you bring it closer to your grandma.

“Let me see how hot it is,” your grandma says. You bring it towards her extended hand until the water runs over it, and she asks you to make it hotter.

She tries to take the shower head from you, and though you wish you could hand it over and let her take the lead again, it is all too clear that you should do no such thing.

The shower happens. Though your first glances at her bulbous knees and breasts hanging like waterlogged balloons repulsed and stunned you, the steam rising off the water has left you numb. You feel too hot in your clothes and your hair sticks uncomfortably to your forehead and the base of your neck, but you don’t cringe anymore. First, you soak a wash cloth in water and gently wash her face. Her skin is wax paper that folds at your slightest touch. For her torso and arms, you use a soapy sponge in the hopes of creating some distance between you and her body. With one hand the sponge grazes over her shoulders, her breasts, her stomach, and with the other the shower head rinses the soap away. You are able to get her standing again for a brief time so you can run water down her backside and legs.

She sits and you lean towards her bare feet. Laying the shower head on the shower floor, you take a foot lightly in one hand and sponge it with the other. Before starting on the last foot, you mistake the sigh of the shower head and the creak of the house for your grandmother’s voice. You attentively look back up to her. Her head is bowed down, and as you look up into her ice blue eyes you don’t see the spark you remember.

She lifts her remaining foot, and you hold it still. The sponge squeezes soap suds over her spindly foot, creeping between her toes and over your wrist, soaking the beaded bracelet. You rinse it well. You turn the shower off and help your grandmother out. Once she is wrapped in a towel and somewhat dry, you both emerge from the bathroom. Only half an hour has passed, but you are drained and feel as if you could sleep a hundred years. When you return to your bedroom, though, you don’t sleep at all.

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