Is it odd that one of the caregiving tasks I like most is helping my father bathe? Growing up, privacy was sacred. I was taught to knock before entering a bedroom or a bathroom. I was gently admonished if caught rummaging through my parent’s dresser drawers for a lost sock or loose change without permission. Unless under the age of four, no one ran around our house naked. My crop tops and butt cheek baring cut offs of the late 1970’s, were allowed but frowned upon. Decorum didn’t exactly reign in our home, but it held its own.
On occasion, my mother would get dressed or undressed while I was in her room, but one of us would always turn away before the most meaningful parts were revealed.
I remember vividly the locker room at the Davenport, Iowa, YMCA. On weekends I steadily swam my way from Guppy, to Minnow, to Fish, paddling ever faster towards Flying Fish. By some accident of timing, I always came out of the pool at the same time as an older woman whose locker was next to mine. She was very large, with heavy hips, and seemed not to notice the wide eyed ten year old next to her as she peeled off her black one piece bathing suit and hung it on the locker door. She calmly dried the pool water from her legs and ankles, bending and turning as needed. I do not remember what she looked like from the neck up, because my gaze never made it that far. I was transfixed, Saturday after Saturday, in that YMCA locker room, by her gourd-like breasts, hanging down to her belly button and swaying from side to side like twin upside down metronomes, regulating the tempo of my blinking eyelids.
My father had strict personal and privacy protocols. His watch, tie clips, hair combs, and handkerchiefs each had a place of their own, and were not to be moved or borrowed. He was the first man to get pissed off at me for using his razor to shave my legs. Even today, if I look longingly at my husband’s razor in the shower, I hear Dad’s voice in my head – an unmistakable warning.
Dad’s suits were made by a local (and infamous) tailor, Willie Eckstein. He took me to fittings some times. As Willie moved the tape measure around my dad’s shoulders and down his long arms, I inhaled the air of respect, of power. At the end, Willie always gave me a dollar, a memorable token, and we were on our way.
“I was voted the ‘best dressed boy’ in high school,” Dad recalled to me recently, calling out the irony, as he looked down at the folds in his shirt where the crumbs and detritus of breakfast had settled.
I really thought I would get through life without ever seeing my father’s penis. Now I see it, and it’s accompaniments, every day as I help him up and down from the toilet, to dress and to shower.
I took over the task of Dad’s bathing when he lived in our home last Fall. I took over from his aide, who had taken over from my mother, as the physical demands became too much.
It is a ritualized process that, after helping him undress, and taking off my shoes and socks, involves helping him maneuver his walker close enough to the grab bars, so that he can hold onto them while I take the walker out. I try to help him maintain his independence as much as possible, so he usually stands for the first five to ten minutes and with one hand grasped around a bar, uses the other to spray his lower body. Some days, I can pour liquid soap into his open hand and he can clean his “nooks and crannies”, as I refer to those formerly private areas, on his own. On other days, his arms weak and frozen by Parkinson’s Disease, he cannot reach and I do it for him.
My father’s mannered protocols and boundaries about his own skin, slipped away as his disease progressed. I wonder if I would be so gracious and accepting of this type of help? Would I not put up a fight, would I not be embarrassed, not wanting anyone to suds over my varicose veins, my cellulite, my unshaven legs? His vanity dissipated along with the Dopamine.
When did the most private areas of this man’s body become muted, as bereft of any special significance, of weighted meaning, as an elbow, or an earlobe, or the back of a knee? It’s as if my perception of my father’s physicality has blended into a picture more holistic, where there are no “parts” anymore.
Dad sits on the shower stool to clean his upper body. He holds the shower wand over his head and closes his eyes. He is still. The water runs in myriad rivulets down his nose and cheeks, over his ears and down the nape of his neck. I watch as he enjoys a brief moment of peace, of relief, under his gentle waterfall.
Later, my mother passes me in the hallway, shirtless, braless, wearing only a pair of panties.
“Please, mom, cover up.” I beg. “I can only handle one naked parent at a time.”