I’m sitting with my mother-in-law for a while this morning, rubbing her thin hand – the one not connected to the I.V. – and smoothing wisps of white hair off her forehead. One hundred and three years of age, Señora Olga has stopped eating and drinking.
I help the nurse bathe her, gently turning her whisper of a body, naked upon the sheets, bereft of any modesty. What I see in that spent woman, who bore five children and mended the socks of eleven grandchildren, is a life fulfilled, although in recent years, committing to memory the names of her twenty-two great-grandchildren became too great a task.
In my own family, we were ill at ease with our bodies, disinclined to express our feelings physically. Hugs were stiff and awkward. Coming of age in the ‘60s, the touchy-feely era, I grew comfortable hugging friends and, of course, boyfriends, but that ease did not extend to family, and even less to aging grandparents and great-aunts. Years later I felt I overcame a barrier when I first rubbed my eighty-year-old mother’s swollen legs with body lotion and trimmed the toenails she could no longer reach. I wish I’d been more generous. Once she was widowed – maybe even before – she might have longed for me, her only child, to give her more than an occasional squeeze.
Her three-year stay at a facility for seniors allowed me frequent contact with the residents. There I discovered how easy it was to bring smiles to their faces – Sadie, Norma, Bertha – engaging them in conversation and listening to their stories, revealing to me my undeveloped potential for giving.
When my grown sons come to visit, I hold them close, not too proud to say, “Come on. Give me a good hug.” But I do wish I didn’t have to ask for it. According to her children, Señora Olga was not a physically affectionate mother, but in the past year she has begun seeking more physical contact. In recent visits, she’d rub my hands and lift her face for a kiss. She is giving me another opportunity to redeem myself.
Today, sitting next to her bed, I watch the rise and fall of her frail chest as she draws labored breaths, and I give her what I sense she wants, though she can no longer express it. I stroke her hand in gratitude for helping me past my aversion to an aging, sagging body and allowing me to witness these intimate moments of taking leave of the living world of comforting touch.