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Aunt Bette and the Bed Bath
How do people make it through life without a sister?
It was late fall 1999. Marilyn, my mother-in-law, was failing. She was losing her battle with cancer, and her older sister Bette came north from her home in San Diego to give moral support and comfort. Marilyn was seventyone,
and Bette was seventy-five. They had been known as the Burns girls back in Bangor, Maine, where they grew up. Those New England women are made from stern stuff—they don't complain much and usually keep a stiff upper lip. Although my father-in-law doted on Marilyn,
there are some things a husband just cannot do. Bette decided that her sister needed some pampering, and I was enlisted to help in this maneuver. The womenfolk were taking over.
Bette started off by asking Marilyn if she would like a bath. When Marilyn nodded in agreement, Bette asked if she would prefer a tub bath or a bed bath. We watched as she mouthed the words "bed bath." Bette looked at me and said, "We have to make a trip to the drugstore. I know just what we need."
So, with promises to be back soon, I drove us down the hill to the store. As we drove, Bette began ticking off on her fingers all the things we would need. "When was the last time you did this?" I asked her. She thought a moment and answered, "Oh, it must have been in the '40s. But you never forget how. We'll need a couple of tubs, some plastic sheeting, sponges, some nice scented bubble bath and a couple of other things."
When we arrived at the store, Bette led the charge, commandeering a cart and checking every aisle. We could not find everything right away, so Bette tracked down a young man in a green vest whose nametag identified him as Carlos. "Hello, Carlos," Bette began in a formal yet familiar way. "Will you help us find a few things?" Bette was clearly in charge now, and poor Carlos was unable to duck out on us until our cart was full of the necessary items. At the checkout counter, Bette thanked Carlos
("Thank you, deah") in her best New England accent.
Back at the house, we sprang into action, donning aprons and filling the tubs, adding some lavender-scented bubble bath to the comfortably warm water. Bette gave me a look that I understood to mean: This will be hard, but we have to keep the mood light—and, above all, we can't let Marilyn see us cry. Using the childhood nickname that no one else would think of using, Bette urged her little sister Mimi to be a good girl and roll onto her side. We began bathing her hands and arms, the warm water filling the room with the calming scent of lavender. I found myself unable to keep the tears at bay and left the room frequently to refill the tubs or run more hot water—unnecessary tasks that allowed me to take a moment to regain my composure and steel myself. Bette, however, never left the room and never stopped her gentle patter. We bathed Marilyn's feet and noticed that that they really needed some attention. I found a pair of nail scissors and a small brush and gave Marilyn a poor approximation of a pedicure,
while Bette continued speaking sweetly to her sister as she gently bathed her and used a soft towel to pat her fragile skin dry. Even though words often failed Marilyn now, she murmured her appreciation and smiled as we pampered her.
Once the bath was finished, we massaged lavender lotion on her arms and legs, the soothing scent working into her papery skin. We kept up a little conversation, calling each other Olga and Helga, keeping things light, keeping our hearts from breaking right then as we cared for this woman we loved like a baby.
My mother-in-law was a role model and a mentor,
although she seemed intimidating to me when I began dating her son when I was seventeen. Over the years,
however, after I married her oldest child and produced the first grandchild, she became more than that: she was a source of wisdom, support and unconditional love. I will be lucky if I can have this kind of relationship with my daughters-in-law if and when my sons get married. She was a professional woman, an educator, and she had a sense of who she was and how she fit into the world. She was never at a loss for words, never in doubt. I think I only saw her cry twice in all the years I knew her. But now, she was always at a loss for words, her clothes hung on her like sacks, and she seemed so lost and unsure.
The bath was over, and we helped Marilyn into a kittensoft robe that felt nice against her skin. She was up on her feet, slippers on, ready to go sit up with the menfolk in the other room. Before she walked out, she gave her blonde wig a pat, and I assured her it looked fine. One more smoothing touch to the wig, and she walked slowly to her chair. She carried the scent of lavender with her, graceful and somehow strong despite the strength she had lost and continued to lose.
Bette taught me an important lesson, and not just how to give a bed bath. Despite age and time and life's complexities,
the bond between sisters is stronger than anything else. When everything is stripped away and time is forgotten, the older sister takes care of the younger sister.
Take my hand when we cross the street. Don't catch cold. Would you like a lovely bath? Here, let me help you, dear.