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Monday, August 5, 2013

Sacred Rituals

The minutes tick by. The house remains silent. Even the tired old dogs barely wake up for visitors or passersby. Occasionally there is an unexplained burst of wild, crazy energy from the little Scottie. They have been Michael's nearly constant companions but today they stay away more from his room. Could the strong odour that now emanates from that space be the reason? Are they more attuned to what is happening in that room?

The daily task of bathing Michael is a welcome one. It is an opportunity to renew the rosewater scent that I have been using for the past week but which no longer masks what might be the smell of imminent death. Every day, with or without assistance, I engage in a ritual which has nearly taken on a spiritual significance for me.

I start with a clean cloth and gently wipe the eyes, remembering techniques used when my children were babies. Then the cloth is dipped in warm soapy water and I ever so slowly wash Michael's face and hair. I take special care not to rub too hard but sometimes have to with his now fairly long beard. The last time I shaved him was nearly two weeks ago, if not longer. It just seems like too much trouble now but I know he doesn't mind. He was pretty shaggy when I met him so it is a nice reminder of that handsome man I fell in love with. But now that the beard has greyed it most certainly ages him more than the clean face does.

Next each arm and hand is caressed with the cloth, paying special attention to the palms of his hands which have developed a slight cheesy smell. Careful drying is important. Then, with his shirt still on, I reach underneath to rub his chest, and his legs and his feet. I stop at his knobby knee, the one that took the brunt of thousands of falls, and rub it with affection. To me it symbolizes Michael's resilience and strength with the calcified bumps and a few remaining scabs that dot the knee.

Now comes the challenging part if I am alone. I must be certain that I am well prepared and have all that I need ready at hand because once I have him pulled up into a seated position, supporting his back, I only have one hand free to do the rest, unless he is able to grab the bars of the bed and hold himself up. That is becoming less likely with every passing day. I whisper what I am about to do, then pull him up to a sitting position. The t-shirt must be pulled off with my free hand, careful not to hurt him. Then I am able to wash his back, his neck and the back of his head. Underarms too, then a generous application of deodorant. Now the clean t-shirt goes on, again with great care. My tendency to be quick and efficient has been replaced with a deliberate slowness and calmness. We have all the time in the world for such things.

I lay him back down onto the clean pillowcase that has had a fresh spritz of rosewater applied to it. He sinks into the pillow with what seems like relief. Next comes the diaper area, left always to the end. A clean waterproof mat is ready to replace the old when Michael is rolled over, as is a clean diaper. First I roll him to one side, careful to use my whole body, not just my back, a technique I learned years ago while caring for him at home after his heart attack. The squeezed-out cloth lies ready over the rail. Once all the washing is done on that side and the diaper has been removed, it is time to partially unroll the waterproof mat to the halfway point and the old one rolled up ahead of it. When Michael is pulled over to the other side of the bed, it is simply a quick action then to remove the old mat and pull the clean one fully into position, as well as to finish the positioning of the clean diaper. Once returned to his back, more adjustment might be necessary to the diaper before it is closed.

This process always moves Michael down the bed so that his feet touch the base. Making sure the bed is now as low as it will go, I hook my arm under one armpit and haul him up higher to provide the clearance he needs at the end of the bed. This is when I am grateful I have a strong back. It is, of course, much easier with two people, but that is not always an option. The sheet and blanket are now pulled up to his chest and he usually sinks into an exhausted snooze immediately if he even woke up in the first place. The final step is a gentle swabbing of his mouth with the minty little mouth sponges the nurse provided and a quick application of balm for his dry lips.

The Baha'i ritual of cleansing the body before burial now makes perfect sense to me. It is an acknowledgement of the sanctity of the vessel that has contained the soul on this earth.

*Sainte-Chapelle in Paris: Rose window


  1. The extreme loving tenderness is so appreciated, both by the receiver I'm sure, and also by the giver. It absolutely makes everything make sense in the world.
    I love you dearest woman.

  2. Sad but beautiful, Claire. Words fail me. God bless you both.

  3. Claire, I have been reading these amazingly honest and heartfelt postings, passed on to me from Francine. I didn't know Micheal well, but i knew him as a gentle and encouraging soccer coach to my daughter and as a loving father.I realize as I write that I am using the past tense which I guess is valid because I haven't known Micheal in his illness. It's the former Micheal I remember. It gives me lots of hope and in a strange way pleasure to read your musings, my hope would be that everyone could be surrounded by such attentiveness in their final days and it has been my pleasure to read about your journey. thank-you