LOVE AND LOSS IN THE BATHROOM
Something in the touch of a young woman - a girl really - who was massaging me this morning made me remember this.
The day after my father died five years ago, I ran a hot bath for my mother. All her life this had been a place of rest. It was here she placed my baby brother to calm him when he screamed and fought and cried from the effects of his medication. It was here she calmed herself when she thought he would die. It was not only where she bathed us children, or fed us mangoes so she could wash away the juice from our skin, but a place of story telling and where she shared the next days plans. She often climbed in with us, which was a tight squeeze, one of us would have to sit on the edge of the bath, a position nobody wanted. All my life, she and I would bathe together on occasion, clinking ice in our gin and tonics, telling stories and laughing - and I was 59 when she died. At other times, one of us would perch on the edge of the bath, and soap and wash the other's back, an act of nurturing that still slams my heart. I never realised other people thought this unusual until I was in my twenties, when a girlfriend visited - and then I just thought what a wonderful experience my friends had been missing out on.
The bath was, for her, almost religious - an experience of pure bliss. I would watch the trials of the day evaporate in steam from her face. It was a daily ritual, some moments of luxury, snatched from a day of work and children, and simple to organise. My father believed the sea was a source of healing, my mother believed a bath of hot water was. Much more than a place of cleansing, but a place of escape, of ease and comfort. She never got over the luxury of hot water, a leftover from her 'poverty stricken' youth, and the awful years of the war in bombed London. She went into the bath with cups of tea, snacks, one of her favourite Catherine Cookson novels or a detective story, and a stack of towels and face washers. In Africa, she had a long tray made which fitted across the bathtub, and I have seen her eat whole meals in there when my Dad was away. It was a sanctuary where she could be alone, a place I had seen her wash away the debris of the day, and sometimes the pain and disappointment in her heart, and tears coursed down her cheeks. She was largely a very happy woman and her emotions were always easily accessible, she laughed and cried readily, so I was never afraid of her bath time tears, they dried quickly and I knew they were a cleansing, as one might clear out the pantry of spoiled food.
And so I ran a bath for her in the big bathroom I shared with my husband, with two sides of glass windows looking out on to green fields, olive groves, cows and the sea. She stood mute and immobile as I gently undressed her as she had done for me thousands of times, and I murmured gentle words. I put a shower cap over her hair and seated her on the edge as she obediently followed my instructions, and I helped her swing her legs and lower herself into the warm bubbles. She lay back, pale blue eyes red rimmed and blank. She looked so terribly tired and frail, weight had fallen from her small body, and her breasts hung slack. I knelt, sponging water over her chest and shoulders, humming, in the way she had done for me, and she acquiesced for some minutes. Suddenly she sat up, bent her knees, and laid her head upon them, rocking it from side to side, as if she was refusing something. Her spine and bottom were bony, and from her buttocks to her bra line was a landscape of weeping sores and scabs - shingles - a legacy of the last months.
I stared aghast at the wounded, birdlike figure of my mother, so terribly lost so terribly vulnerable so terribly broken so terribly without my Dad. Panic rose in me in waves, I wanted to scream, my chest convulsed with suppressed sobs, I felt rather than saw, a dark place here. I spoke calmly, said I was going to get her a cup of tea, and I walked with measured steps from the bathroom.
I did not realise it but my mother had suffered a mortal wound, and would die just six months later, when her heart - literally - broke.