Maureen had decided that she had a phobia about growing old, if such a thing existed, which—if you stopped to think about it—made a lot more sense than any of those other more popular phobias like fear of heights or airplanes or Mexicans. After all, you could avoid heights and airplanes and Mexicans; you simply could not avoid the fact that you were going to continue to grow older and older and older until one day you simply ceased to exist.
Maureen’s grandmother Helen was 84 years old, and she was not one of those spry, dynamic senior citizens that Maureen was used to seeing on television ads and sitcoms. Helen had Alzheimer’s, and she was sour and disaffected with nothing at all to fill out her days except meals, which she wasn’t particularly interested in anymore either. Apparently whatever missteps the brain took in the course of Alzheimer’s affected the taste buds and appetite as well, because if Maureen didn’t take care to feed her grandmother three meals a day at regular intervals, Helen would simply never eat at all.
Maureen had come to live with Helen in a rather roundabout, accidental fashion and she now feared that she had become so stuck in that it would be difficult to extricate herself when the time came. As far as Maureen was concerned, the time for her to leave her grandmother’s home had already come, passed, and come along again several more times in succession. But so far, she was still there.
Leaving had become almost like a phantom trolley car that she chased after trying desperately to haul herself onto a runner and grab a strap, but falling again and again into fog. She had finished college nearly a year ago, and—at the time—her mother’s suggestion that she go to live with Helen while she looked for a job seemed practical and timely.
“She’s all alone in that big place,” Maureen’s mother had said. “She could use some help at her age, and some company. It’d be a chance for you to get to know one another.”
There was something sweet and folksy about the idea of living with her grandmother, who, it was true, she didn’t know well at all. Maureen had grown up several states away, only visiting her grandparents from time to time at the holidays, and the idea of getting to know her grandmother better appealed to her.
She pictured them shopping together, giving one another pedicures. She imagined Helen good-naturedly grilling her dates about their prospects for the future and bringing home doggy bags of Thai food from restaurants for her and Helen to share as they dissected the motives of this mythical army of winsome suitors that would instantly appear to march through Maureen’s life as soon as she started her life in a new city.
Maureen soon saw that Helen was in kind of a sad condition, the extent to which even her mother and aunts hadn’t fully understood. And even after her condition had been examined and discussed and accepted by her daughters, no one in Maureen’s family had any real idea what the best course of action was to take with Helen.
They all had their own lives in separate places, and there seemed no chance that Helen would consent to move to any of their homes. Nor would she ever be willing to sell her own home and go into some facility, not without quite an ugly fight. So it was decided that the family would try to maintain the status quo for a while until Maureen had found a job and was ready to move out and get her own place to live.
On this morning Maureen came out of the bathroom, freshly showered and dressed, to join her grandmother at the breakfast table, wanting only to drink a cup of coffee and read the Sunday paper. She had slept badly the night before, but there wasn’t much point in trying to sleep in because Helen would start opening all the doors of all the rooms in the house if Maureen wasn’t within view. She got nervous when she was left alone and Maureen had had to develop strategies to deal with this over the last few months.
“Michael Jackson died,” Helen said wonderingly, perusing the headlines.
Maureen sighed to herself. Michael Jackson had been dead for almost two weeks and he was still the leading story in the newspaper? Aren’t we, like, at war? she thought to herself. There’s nothing else for them to write about?
“Yes, Gram,” she said patiently. “That happened a while ago actually.”
“It’s right here in today’s paper,” Helen said knowingly. “He took drugs.”
“Yeah I think I heard about that,” Maureen said. “Do you want a bagel, Gram? I’m having one.”
“I ate already,” Helen said, turning to the obituaries. “I had a toast.”
“I don’t think so,” Maureen said. “There’s no plate here or in the sink. Maybe you were about to fix some toast and you forgot.”
Helen peered at her from above the frame of her glasses. “You think I’m stupid? I know when I’ve eaten, for chrissakes.”
Maureen made no reply to this. She poured herself a cup of coffee and put a bagel in the toaster. She examined Helen’s pillbox and pulled out the four pills designated for her morning dose of medication.
“Careful you don’t burn yourself,” Helen said automatically, flipping back to the front page of the newspaper. “I won’t,” Maureen replied, waiting patiently for the bagel to pop.
Helen exclaimed loudly then. “He did? Again?” said Maureen, more for her own benefit and amusement than her grandmother’s, but Helen didn’t seem to notice. Maureen grabbed the bagel from the toaster and slipped it onto a plate for Helen. She knew from experience that her grandmother would simply start eating it if she found it there in front of her, assuming that she had made it for herself.
She took another fresh bagel from the bag and slid the two halves into the toaster, cranking up the temperature slightly before depressing the lever. Gram liked her bread lightly toasted and had gone to great pains to draw a thick black hash mark in felt pen on side of the toaster where she liked the temperature knob to rest, in order to achieve the appropriate level of toasting.
And though it had been a long time since she’d so much as picked up a dustcloth, in her mind she was still a meticulous housekeeper.
It was Wednesday, and Wednesday was the day Maureen usually gave her grandmother a bath and a shampoo, although each week when she would announce these plans Gram would glare and say, “Again?! I just had a bath yesterday.” Once a week was the most that Maureen could manage, because Helen hated the process so very much. It could take the better part of two hours to get her in and out of the tub, get her cleaned and dried, wash her hair, and then style it.
Maureen had come to dread Wednesdays. From the moment she stuffed the stopper into the drain of the ancient clawfoot tub, to the last spritz of Suave Full N’ Soft hairspray on Helen’s steel gray cap of hair, Maureen was anxious and sad. She would just as soon have done away with the weekly bath altogether and let Helen figure out for herself that she should be bathing and washing her hair, but pragmatically, she knew that realization would never come. And she couldn’t bear the thought of how embarrassed Helen would be to discover how lax her hygiene and her pride in her appearance had become.
It really was as if there were two grandmothers that existed at the same time in Maureen’s consciousness: the real one—the one she lived alongside—and the memory of the one who had long since passed into memory.
Memory-Helen had been a force to be reckoned with, a matriarch with impeccable taste who donned herself in formidable fibers such as wool and tweed. Real-Helen favored baggy cotton ensembles from JC Penney, clothes that seemed almost to say to the world, “I’ve given up. I’m going to die soon, and I may as well be comfortable when I do.” Memory-Helen wore Cote powder and Cherries In the Snow lipstick from Revlon in the marbled green plastic tube, while Real-Helen’s face and eyes were usually crusty from sleep. Memory-Helen remembered the face and name of every customer she had ever met, while Real-Helen had trouble recalling who was president.
It was sad to Maureen that she’d never had a chance to get to know Memory-Helen better while she’d been around, and odd to find that she sometimes mourned her absence as though it were a death. These were the kinds of thoughts that turned themselves over and over in her mind on Wednesdays.
“Gram I’m running a bath for you so we can get you spruced up a little, okay?” she said, passing by the kitchen table to head up to the bathroom. She had found that it was best not to engage in a discussion on the matter but instead just proceed as though it had all been agreed to. “What, why?” she heard Helen say as she headed up the stairs. “I just had a bath yesterday!”
“That was last week,” Maureen called behind her, a bit more loudly than she needed to. “It’s Wednesday.”
“I know what day it is, goddammit,” Helen muttered to herself, shaking the newspaper. “It says Tuesday right here.”
“That’s yesterday’s paper, you old bag!” Maureen screeched in a high stage whisper from the bathroom. “And Michael Jackson has been dead for a month!” She pressed her hands into her temples and exhaled a deep breath. Bath day, thought Maureen, would test the patience of a saint.
When the tub was one-third full, Maureen called to her grandmother that the bath was ready. She had it down to a sort of science: In the time it took for the bath to finish filling up the rest of the way, Helen would pick her way up the stairs, make her closing argument against having to get into the tub, and then finally succumb to the process, disrobing as Maureen shut off the tap. Maureen turned on the small space heater she kept in the corner of the bathroom, another measure she had implemented along the way, for Helen complained bitterly if she got too cold. The space heater made the bathroom close and humid for Maureen, so that by the time the ordeal was finally over she felt like a weed on the floor of a rainforest, and needed a shower herself.
Helen appeared in the doorframe. “Do I have to do this?” she asked irritably. “I’m not dirty. I never go anywhere, anyway.”
This was certainly true but Maureen gave it no credence. “Yes, you have to. It’s just once a week. We’re gonna do a nice conditioning treatment on your hair.”
“All right let’s get this over with.” Hanging onto the towel bar, Helen kicked off her worn Deerfoam slippers and stacked them neatly next to the vanity. She wore a thick terrycloth housecoat which zipped from ankles to collarbone, a feature which made the garment easy to get on and off, but also lent it an unmistakable old lady feel. Over the years Maureen’s aunts and mother had tried buying Helen all sorts of stylish robes and pajamas but Helen stacked them neatly in her bureau without ever even removing the tags, saying she was saving them “for best.” What this “best” occasion might be, Maureen could not imagine, but she thought that if someday she was pushed to the edge and snapped, she might torch the hated housecoat in a fit of frustrated rage, and then at least Helen would have something to put on.
She said that every Wednesday, although Maureen had to look in order to help her in and out of the tub, and in order to help wash her. But she looked politely away as Helen undressed, refolding a towel she had placed on the commode. “All right,” Helen said, somewhat nervously, and instantly Maureen felt such guilt for being annoyed with her grandmother. She can’t help it, Maureen thought to herself. She really can’t.
“Okay take my elbow and let’s get in,” Maureen said brightly, trying to make it seem more like a spa experience than an embarrassing and undignified ritual. Helen had had a fear of the water ever since her brother Eddie had tossed her into Lake Sebago when she was a kid, to ‘help her learn how to swim’ she would scoff angrily if the story came up. “Can you believe that goddamned jerk?”
Maureen lowered her grandmother into the tub, trying not to stare at Helen’s aged body, as much for her own sake as for Helen’s. There was something about seeing her grandmother in the nude this way that brought her uncomfortably in touch with her own mortality, a fact which Maureen had no intention of confronting until she was forced to. But it was impossible to see her grandmother in this way—naked and helpless in the water—without recognizing somewhere in the farthest back piece of her mind, that this would be her fate too, eventually.
Helen shivered violently beneath the warm water, despite the warm air chugging from the space heater in the corner. Maureen wet a washcloth and squirted some Ivory soap onto it. She took her grandmother’s arm and began gently scrubbing it with the cloth, starting with her tiny brittle wrist and beginning to work her way up Helen’s arm.
“Whooo, boy,” Helen said, staring up at the shower head with an unreadable expression. “I don’t know.”
“What don’t you know?” Maureen said disinterestedly, working the washcloth between the sharp blades of Helen’s shoulders.
Helen half-shrugged, as if to affirm this state of not-knowing. “I don’t know,” she said again. “I don’t know anything.”
Maureen pushed the sleeves of her shirt back up above her elbows. “Well you know me,” she said conversationally to her grandmother. “So there’s that.”
“That’s true,” Helen said slowly.
“So there you go,” said Maureen, reaching beneath the water to wash Helen’s feet.
“But can I ask you a question?” Helen said softly.
“What is your name?”
Maureen stared at her grandmother. Helen’s face turned towards her and their eyes met one another’s, both wide, both grey. Both uncomprehending.
She sat down fully on the floor of the bathroom, dampening the seat of her pants. The more she tried not to, the harder she laughed. She laid her cheek on the edge of the fiberglass tub and she laughed until her shoulders shook and her stomach ached with the effort. At some point she realized that her grandmother was laughing too, which somehow made it all that much more absurd—did Helen even know what she was laughing at? Did Maureen?
It scarcely mattered. Their laughter mingled together in the humid air of the bathroom, musical and imperfect and unfathomable even to themselves. And so very, very human.