Role Reversal (or, man, do I miss my dinosaur bubblebath set from Avon!)

Like many people who are debilitated by pain and/or disease, mom is at a place with her cancer and chemo that she can’t really shower or bathe herself: she’s simply too nauseous and too exhausted to even sit on her special chair in the shower and  just let water run over her (tragically, we’re still not sure if that’s the cancer in her lung or the toxic chemicals coursing through her body to prevent its growth).

So, knowing how just “feeling clean” can be so important to a sick person — especially someone whose insides are so corroded with disease — I helped my mom with her sponge bath tonight.  Not only did it make her feel better physically, especially after days and days of nightsweats, fevers, and spitting-up and vomiting (boy, can that woman fill a kidney-shaped spittoon, even when she’s not trying), it certainly helped her psychologically.  She might “feel” sick, but at least she doesn’t  still “smell” like it.

And, for those that care about such details,  mom’s still a modest woman — despite her bawdy sense of humor — so she washed all her girly bits herself.

Thank God.


Anyway, what struck me so so vividly tonight as I tried to gently wash down her now-mottled and bruised skin and massage her scalp as I washed her hair was how honored I was to be able to be able to do something like this for her at all.

As mom sat there and I washed her arms and cleaned her hands, trying sooo hard not to get sick as I did —

— and as I washed her back down with her favorite soft washcloth, and took real note of her spine and her shoulder blades,  which never used to protrude like they do now —

— the only things I could really think about were the hundreds of times my mother bathed me,  when I was a baby and I was so little and so young I couldn’t do it myself.   If I was happy or sad; sick or wanted to play in the tub or would only play in the tub if it was filled with bubblebath from my  very special tyrannosaurus-shaped bottle (mom used to be an Avon lady), she would bathe me and feed me and make sure I went to bed clean.

This can’t have been an easy thing to do night after night, and I’m sure she skipped a few bathtimes here and there to make life easier on everybody (even the best kids can be fussy, and you have to pick and choose your battles, yeah?).  But what really struck me was how this woman, who could barely hold her arm up long enough for me to scrub her elbows, did this for me because it was the honorable thing to do.  Because my mother was that kind of woman, and she did what she thought was right and good by me, because she loved me.

(And it might seem obvious that this is what parent should do for their children, but many thousands go without these kinds of basic kindnesses; the world is not always a generous place.)

In Turkey, ritual bathes are and have been an important part of the culture; there are elaborate traditions and processes and ways to go about the baths, which begin for most in infancy and extend well into old age.  There’s something very beautiful to me about cleansing rituals, (perhaps I’m just feeling sentimental tonight), and something wonderful about the intimacy they invite between human beings.

I looked at mom tonight while I washed her skin:  seemingly aged 10 years in just two months ago, and tried to take in the lines of her face and the wrinkles around her mouth, and look really deeply into her eyes when they were open and I could catch them,  ’cause they’re still so pretty and her eyelashes are so long —

— and I tried to take in the marks of age and the bruises of needles and the spots from too much sunshine, and the length of her fingers and curve of her smile and the color of her skin, and and I tried really, really hard to remember just what this woman gave up for me, and how she worked so hard to keep me fed and clean and healthy and safe, and how she used to bathe me when I couldn’t even stand or eat or do anything on my own yet —

— and I tried not to stress out about missed work opportunities, or the comic book smash I’m not relaunching, or the TV show I haven’t quite gotten off the ground, or  the con I can’t attend or the the movie I’ve not seen or booze I’m not downing at some trendy bar —

— and I thought to myself, how fucking lucky I am to have this opportunity to give back to my mother, now so little and frail?  To make her clean on a day she’s felt so terrible, Avon bubblebath or no?  To honor her, at this time, now that she’s really sick, now that she’s dying, and to help make her time left here just a little bit easier for her.  To take in her thinning body  and her beautiful face and her wonderful, long eyelashes one more time and remember that it’s very likely I’m not going to be able to do that, or help her in this way, much longer.

And I thought to myself, as I dried off her arms and face, and massaged lotion into her hands and over her terribly bruised arms, and across her quiet, still rosy cheeks, that I will do my damndest to make sure she knows she’s loved and adored and protected.  And that she knows I appreciate every bit of love and kindness and care she’s given to me, and want to make sure now, when she needs it most —

— I will happily, happily give it all back.

Real circle of life shit, you know?

18 thoughts on “Role Reversal (or, man, do I miss my dinosaur bubblebath set from Avon!)

  1. Jen in Oz says:

    And THIS is why one of the Ten Commandments isn’t “You shall LOVE your parents”, but “You shall HONOUR your parents.”

  2. Stephanie says:

    Your relationship with your mom is such a beautiful thing. As sad & painful as these last days/weeks/months will be, I know how much you’ll cherish the time you have together.

  3. Greg Lickard says:

    So beautifully written, Phil. Thank you for sharing. Glad you started the blog.

  4. Steve Bowman says:

    Phil, thank you for sharing this touching blog. What a painful, loving, tender, and surreal experience this must be for both of you. All my love to Pam, you & Joe during this difficult time.

    Steve & Rich

  5. Aaron Broverman says:

    so beautifully written…honor thy father and mther

  6. Really touching… Does your mom know/read this blog, Jim?

  7. So beautiful, Phil. Reading through the tears. I plan to share this, because it is such a powerful sentiment. Let me know if you do not want it to circulate freely on the web.

    All my love to you, mom and Joe,


  8. Alessandra Rao says:

    Wow, this is a beautiful piece of writing. It was so incredibly powerful; I could literally feel the softness and the struggle, the beauty and the pain, the calm and the chaos. I’m so glad to hear that you are cherishing these experiences with your mother. Very inspirational.


  9. Amy says:

    Phil, that made me cry. You are truly an amazing man and your mom is so lucky to have you. And you are so lucky to have her as you said, the world’s not always a nice place. From having worked on an oncology unit in the hospital, I know there were ppl whose family didn’t or couldn’t do what you have. And the patients that did get this were so grateful. God bless you both, and Joe too!!

  10. kim says:

    This is beautiful. And now I feel like shit…. 😉

    I’m the full-time caregiver for my artistic genius mom (with great hair) and after 2+ years of this, I sometimes forget to savor the sweet moments. Thanks for the reminder.

    I have a sparkly ninja caregiver black-belt that I would let you borrow. You know, for bath time or whatever.

    Caregivers unite!

  11. Phil –
    1) you are a wonderful person!
    2) witch hazel helps hugely with bruising [and feels great, too]. Yellow label Dickinsons brand [generic is pretty useless]. if you have no time to find it, send your addy to me in fb message and i’ll send you a bottle immediately [just got more in]. when gram had bruising so severe it looked black down her entire side from a fall, it made an enormous diff.
    3) keep it up!

  12. Peter says:

    Wow! Phil, this made me cry. I’m truly sorry for what your mom and you are going through. But the strenght you have through your blogs is remarkable! I would be a mess if I was going through this! I’m reminded why you continue to be one of my heroes in life!

    Sending good thoughts and prayers to you and your family!

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