I’ve been thinking about my late mother-in-law lately. This piece is something I wrote many years ago about a special moment in my life, near the end of hers.
By the time we all understood that my mother-in-law was failing, it was too late to talk much about it with her. Marilyn had lost her words. She would often point in frustration while everyone guessed what she was trying to say. Sometimes she could offer a few words, but they were never the right ones. Marilyn was losing her battle with cancer, and so her older sister Bette came north from her home in San Diego to give moral support and comfort. Marilyn was 71 and Bette was 75—they had been known as the Burns girls back in Bangor, Maine where they grew up. Although my father-in-law doted on Marilyn, there are some things a husband just cannot do. Bette decided Marilyn needed some pampering, and I was enlisted to help in this maneuver. The womenfolk were taking over.
Bette started off by asking Marilyn if she would like a bath. When Marilyn nodded in agreement, Bette asked if she would prefer a tub bath or a bed bath. We watched as she mouthed the words, “bed bath.” Bette looked at me and said, “We have to make a trip to the drugstore. I know just what we need.”
As we drove to the store, Bette began ticking off on her fingers all the things we would have to shop for. “When was the last time you did this?” I asked her. She thought a moment and answered, “Oh, it must have been in the ’40s. But you never forget how. We’ll need a couple of tubs, some plastic sheeting, sponges, and some nice scented bubble bath, and a couple of other things.” When we arrived at the store, Bette led the charge, commandeering a cart and checking every aisle. We could not find everything right away, so Bette tracked down a young man in a green vest whose nametag identified him as Carlos. “Hello, Carlos,” Bette smiled at him. ” Will you help us find a few things?” Bette was clearly in charge now, and poor Carlos was unable to duck out on us until our cart was full. At the checkout counter, Bette thanked our patient helper Carlos, (“Thank you, deah”) in her best New England accent.
Back at the house, we sprang into action—donning aprons and filling the tubs, adding some lavender-scented bubble bath to the comfortably warm water. As we walked into the bedroom where Marilyn waited for us, Bette gave me a look that I understood to mean: this will be hard, but we have to keep the mood light—and above all, we can’t let Marilyn see us cry. Using the childhood nickname that no one else would think of using, Bette urged her little sister Mimi to be a good girl and roll onto her side. Watching the two of them was like seeing the girls they used to be, when they were playmates and confidants, before husbands and children and illness and loss.
We began bathing Marilyn’s hands and arms, the warm water filling the room with the calming scent of lavender. She had always been a private person, and the intimacy of this moment and her vulnerability were unsettling. I found myself unable to keep the tears at bay and left the room frequently to refill the tubs or run more hot water—unnecessary tasks that allowed me to regain my composure and steel myself. Bette, however, never left the room and never stopped her gentle patter. We bathed Marilyn’s feet and noticed that that they really needed some attention. I found a pair of nail scissors and a small brush and gave Marilyn a poor approximation of a pedicure, while Bette continued speaking sweetly to her sister as she gently bathed her and used a soft towel to pat her fragile skin dry. Even though words often failed Marilyn now, she murmured her appreciation and smiled as we pampered her.
Once the bath was finished, we massaged lavender lotion on her arms and legs, the soothing scent working into her papery skin. We kept up a little conversation, calling each other Olga and Helga, keeping things light, keeping our hearts from breaking right then as we cared for this woman we loved —cared for her like a baby. Her essence was still inside, even as she began to drift away a little more each day.
Marilyn was a professional woman, an educator, and she had a sense of who she was and how she fit into the world. Never at a loss for words, never in doubt—I think I only saw her cry twice in all the years I knew her. And now, she was always at a loss for words and her clothes hung on her like sacks and she seemed lost and unsure. I think she was afraid, and I had never seen her afraid before.
When the bath was over, Bette helped Marilyn into a kitten-soft robe that felt nice against her skin. We helped her to her feet, and with robe and slippers in place, she was ready to go sit up with the menfolk in the other room. Before she walked out of her sick room, Marilyn gave her blonde wig a pat, and I assured her it looked fine. One more smoothing touch to the wig, and she walked slowly to her chair, her arm linked with Bette’s. She carried the scent of lavender with her; graceful and somehow strong despite the strength she lost and continued to lose.
Bette taught me an important lesson, and not just how to give a bed bath. Despite age and time and life’s complexities, the bond between sisters is stronger than anything else. When everything is stripped away and time is forgotten, the older sister takes care of the younger sister. Take my hand when we cross the street. Don’t catch cold. Would you like a lovely bath? Here, let me help you, dear.