Wash Me Clean by Cathy A. E. Bell

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shower head on spraying stream of waterMost Memorable: October 2013

She refuses to bathe anymore. Gram stinks of aged urine and dirty clothes, her greasy hair stuck to the side of her head. At first I buy her body wash and put it in the bathroom, letting her know it’s there. But when I return to her house the next Saturday to do my weekly chores, the bottle sits untouched, with the tub still dusty, full of cat hair. Maybe she’s afraid of falling again.

“Gram, how come you don’t take showers anymore?” I ask.

“Oh, I do sometimes, but it hurts my knees to get in the shower. I clean up in the sink. But will you wash and curl my hair? It looks terrible,” she says, patting her dense, lightly grayed hair.

Her hair, when clean, is radiant, full, and abundant. She’s lucky—many older women face thinning, lifeless hair, but not Gram. Photos of her later years always elicit widened eyes: “Your grandmother is so pretty. You can tell she was gorgeous when she was young,” they say. But along with her memory, her vanity has faded, and she doesn’t know enough to be grateful for her beauty anymore.

I decide showers or bathing are no longer something she cares about. Whatever her reason for not wanting them, it falls on me to help her bathe. Grandpa hasn’t even noticed all the things she doesn’t do anymore. I’m leery about undertaking the task; never had I imagined bathing her.

I ask her if I can help her shower. She shakes her head. I say, “I’ll help you. It will be over before you know it and you’ll feel so much better.”

“No, I’ll take one later, Honey.” Or maybe she lies, saying, “I already took one.” Sometimes she says, “I’ll take one tomorrow.” Or simply, “Not today.”

“Gram, I’m taking my whole day to come over here and help you. Can you please just shower for me? Please? Because you love me?”

Sometimes she doesn’t see through my manipulation and agrees. Other times we fight. I try to be patient and remind myself how I love this woman, but after months and years of hearing “no” I scream at her: “Gram, you stink! Do you think I want to be here on my day off every week doing this? Please, help me out here!” In order not to lose my mind along with hers, I begin bathing her only every other week. I can’t handle the fighting anymore. Fine, let her live with the stench a week longer. I give.

But eventually I learn. Maybe it takes me one year, maybe five, but I figure out the best tactic is to appeal to her vanity. I realize I’ve misjudged her. She does know to be grateful for her beauty after all.

“Gram, let’s get you in the shower. Then I’ll curl your hair the way you like it and paint your fingernails. You’ll be so beautiful.”

“Oh, I’d love for you to do my hair, Sweetie. Can’t you just wash it in the sink?”

“No, I can only curl your hair if you take a shower first.”

“Okay,” she pauses. “Now?”

My shoulders unclench and I breathe one heavy breath, knowing I have won. “Yes.  Now.”

I turn on the water, adjusting the temperature while she undresses. Sometimes she’s still in her pajamas and robe, but surprisingly most mornings she’s dressed on her own and made a bowl of Bran Flakes. These two habits stick with her even as every other ability or pleasure she once had sits untouched in the cluttered, dusty attic of her brain.

I ask her to test the water. It’s never right the first time. But I’m so relieved she’s this close to letting me shower her, all previous frustration has faded. I adjust the temperature as many times as she needs me to.

“No, that’s too hot!” she says, yanking her hand back.

“Okay, how about now?”

“Still too hot.”

“Is this better?” I step back again to let her feel the water.

“I think that’s okay.”

“Good. Here, let me help you step over the tub.” Gram is overweight now, but remnants of her former grace radiate from her, like a dilapidated chapel that still emits something unnamable yet sacred. Even full of grace, though, her left knee is twice as big as her right, so I help her bend it and lift her leg gently, gently over the tub. She cries out in pain and I wince, guilty for forcing her do this one thing she hates.

Now we begin. Gram sits on her metal shower chair and I give her a washcloth to cover her eyes so they’ll be safe from the stinging shampoo.

Suddenly, I am the child again. She’s scrubbing my hair in the tub. I am the one with water rushing over me. At home, my dad and stepmother don’t bathe me. I shower or take a bath by myself. But when I’m with Grandma, bathing me is her chance to reconnect with me–to make sure I’m unsoiled and pure in this moment—to wash away all that isn’t perfect when we’re apart. She fills the bathtub with her pots and pans, measuring cups, and big plastic spoons. I measure my creations, cook them, and stir them until it’s time for her to wash me clean. I cover my eyes with the washcloth and she tilts my head back, the same way I am now tilting hers.


The shampoo is washed away. She wets and wrings out her washcloth three times to make sure all the detergent is gone. It’s always three times. She says, “I’m ready,“ placing the cloth back over her eyes and face. I drench her hair in conditioner, rubbing her scalp gently before rinsing again. Her saggy-skinned arms, firm legs, and curved back are next to be lathered in our ritual. Cleaning her, rinsing her, making her human again. The water flows down her back and all the thoughts of what we are losing and have lost sweep down the drain with the dirty bubbles of soap.

This is the holy well where we meet, she and I. The one place where our forgotten memories don’t matter, where only this moment is important.

When we are almost done, I help her stand up. “Okay, you wash your private parts now and I’ll turn away.” I look away, trying to give her some dignity, or maybe I am just preserving the last little bit of my innocence. I douse her with the warm flow of water one final time. I begin to dry her off with a clean towel, help her out of the tub, and then finish patting her dry.

She sits down naked on the toilet-seat lid with the towel draped around her shoulders, shivering like a child. I kneel before her and begin to lotion up her parched and wrinkled skin— starting with her crooked toes, inching my way up, giving her a light massage on her full, round calves. As I rub lotion into her back, I think: This is the only time she is touched, when I touch her. This is the only time her skin is clean and moist, when I bathe her.

I ache knowing she can no longer make herself feel better with the daily ritual of bathing, where we seek to shed our bodily pain, our stress, our grime. She doesn’t know anymore how important the water is. Or perhaps she does because she smiles at me and says, “I feel so much better.” Restoring her skin to its former pink hue, we are both now renewed.

Her reward for showering has come at last. We move to the kitchen and assemble at the table. I blow-dry her hair, standing behind her, rubbing her scalp as I dry. Curling and teasing and shaping her hair, she sits, eyes closed with a drunken smile and purrs, “Oh Sweetie. I love you messing with my hair. It’s so relaxing.” I rub her shoulders and tell her I’m glad. I touch her as much as I can, knowing it will be two weeks before she is touched this way again.


Nearly a decade has passed since I bathed Gram that first time. I’m caught up reading a book about Chinese mothers who gave up their daughters. A book of mother/daughter loss and love. The young girls often wondered how their mothers could give them up. Did they not love them? Although my life is not nearly as tragic as the stories told, the pain of not knowing if your mother loves you, or worse yet, in my case, knowing for sure she doesn’t love you, leaves me with a sad parallel to my own life. But like the adoptive mothers who brought love to those abandoned girls, I know the love of another woman—my grandmother.

After I finish the book, I fill the bathtub with warm water and sink down, immersing myself. I shampoo my hair, feeling my grandma’s fingers through my own. It’s the first time I’m sensing her since she died eight months ago. Or am I feeling her for the first time since she disappeared through the dark forest of dementia? I had forgotten the woman she was before—the vibrant, charismatic, nurturing matron. Those stretched-out years of struggle wore away what used to be, alongside her memory. But, her illness, that scary nighttime mist, stole away my memories, too.

Tonight, though, I do remember. I was once the child and she, my caretaker. I recall a time when I felt safe, content, and nurtured—because of my grandmother. I didn’t notice when that feeling left me, but I long for it now. She scrubs my feet, my legs, and my arms. Plugging my ears, submersing my head in the water, moving it side to side to rinse my hair, I feel her rubbing my scalp, breaking loose the soiled particles. Feeling her strong fingers, I’m comforted and I silently thank her for washing me clean again.

cathy-bellCathy A. E. Bell writes narrative nonfiction and is a member of the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver. When Cathy is not writing, she’s earning a living at University of Colorado Denver fixing computers and servers (and other geeky things). She has been published in Colorado Central Magazine, Tiny Lights Online, Long Story Short , Human Touch, and appears in the book Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. Read more of Cathy’s work on her blog. Or say hello on Twitter: @cathyannelaine


  32 comments for “Wash Me Clean by Cathy A. E. Bell

  1. That’s my sister, and she has done an awsome job!! I remember gram like that and how she used to say the things she did. Love and miss u grandma. My sister tells in such great detail makes u feel like u were really there. Again great job sissy!!!

  2. I realized that I commented on your blog, but never directly here. I’ve just reread this beautiful essay as I struggle to give context to a new piece I’m waiting for. This entire piece sings, Cathy, but the ending is so artful in the way it finishes, rather than ties up, the musing. This time, the tears welled. I love it maybe even more for having reread and studied the craft.

    • Oh, Pamela, you are so sweet and amazing. Sorry I didn’t see this sooner. Your comments touch me and your support has been wonderful. You reached out and now we are long-distance writer buddies and that means the world to me. I’m so glad to know you and read your writing as well. You really to inspire me.

  3. What a lucky grandma to have such a devoted granddaughter. Your story echoes with how your grandmother’s love is reflected back to her in your kindness and concern. I hope every doting grandparent finds their love comes back to them as yours did to your grandma. Saying “I love you” is very different from showing love.

    • Thank you so much Linda. Your comment is very touching. I was really the lucky one to have her. But yes. We can only hope all the younger folks return that love and care their grandparents gave to them. Thank you for taking the time to comment! It means a lot.

  4. Simply amazing and so eloquently sweet. Those subtle moments of childhood and then roles reversed are one and the same. Thanks for sharing this touching story.

    • Dean, thank you so much for your comment. I’m so happy you took the time to read it and to comment! Makes me happy that people are liking it and reaching out. 🙂

  5. I just got the most touching comment about this essay from a woman caring for a relative with Alzheimer’s. I have to share:
    “THANK YOU, Cathy. What a beautifully written essay. Your grandmother was a lucky woman to have such a loving, caring granddaughter. Your story really impressed upon me how important them” simple” things such as touch, doing ones’ hair, etc. can be to our loved ones. Your essay- the words and the sentiment woven within the words moved me. Beautiful!”

  6. Cathy,

    What a beautiful story! I really appreciated the subtlety of dementia portrayed – it didn’t overwhelm the story. I also enjoyed all the rich imagery of the narrator bathing her grandmother.
    Beautifully done!


  7. Trying to do that same act for my husband with Alz. I will incorporate your thoughts during his next shower to help make sure he is enjoying every second, just like your Grandmother. Joan

    • Joan, thank you so much. Finding something beautiful in the mundane is helpful in dealing with such a heart wrenching disease. My thoughts are with you and your husband. If no one has told you lately…Thank you for all you do! You are doing a beautiful thing.

  8. Great job on this piece, Cathy. I can totally relate to your story since I presently bathe my mother in very much the same way you described–weekly–and I can remember her bathing me as a child.

    • Thank you so much Maya! I’m so glad to have made a connection about such an intimate act. It helps to share this with each other.

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