It is my daughter’s turn to bathe me. Under the guise of “sick leave,” she has left her new job in Durban city early to perform this duty. I hear her before I see her. She is wearing her red Converse sneakers (because people at her job are “chilled,” she says) and the rubber soles squeak along the Hospice floors. She enters my room, slipping her phone into her jeans pocket, and carrying a Spar plastic packet in her other hand. Inside the packet is my one requested personal item from home, a Dove soap bar.
These days, pretending to be asleep is easier for me than pretending to be awake. Knowing this, my daughter tiptoes over to me in slower, gentler squeaks. When she gets to my bedside, she pauses and stares at my eyelids like she did when she was a child, wanting me to wake up and play. I feel her gaze move from my eyelids toward the hollow in my chest where two breasts used to be. When I first arrived at the Hospice a week ago, everyone who entered this room came to see me. But as the days have passed, and my body has shrunk, it is only this hollow in my chest they now come to stare at. My daughter is relieved to see that it is moving up and down today. Yes, I am still breathing, I tell her without moving my mouth, and she smiles to conceal the guilt that she had ever doubted it.
Getting my daughter to help out around the house has always been a point of contestation. But here at the Hospice, she never seems to run out of things she doesn’t need to do. As my sickness spreads, I spend my days drifting in and out of morphine highs, listening to her busy herself around me and the hollow in my chest. I hear her opening and closing the fridge door, stocking it with food I can no longer eat. Glass vases clink almost daily as she throws out sunflowers before any signs of wilting. On my windowsill, she places little angel ornaments bought from The China Mall down the street. Around the angels’ feet, she brushes away the fallen glitter from Get Well Soon cards I don’t recall receiving. When I roll onto my side and moan, she talks about the weather and rubs coconut oil on my coccyx where the bone has begun piercing through skin.
This month, my daughter turned 23 years old, the same age I was when I gave birth to her. It worried me that she never cried at birth. The doctor joked that she must’ve been saving her voice for greater things. But I have often wondered if she had just been too lazy to scream. My daughter has never been particularly gifted at executing duties, you see. When she was a teenager, she was once too impatient to dry the dishes with a cloth, so placed them in the microwave instead. After the three-minute ping, she removed them, burning her fingers and crashing the plates to the floor. Even now, lying here on the Hospice bed with my eyes closed, I can feel her strategising. She is wondering how to raise the scaffolding of my body up from the bed with the least amount of effort. The Hospice nurse waits a long while before intervening, then shows her how to lift my head up without it flopping. The nurse then exits the ward without looking back and I wonder how it is that she can trust my daughter with this when even I cannot.
My daughter makes her first attempt to lift me out of the bed. My head flops off my neck instantaneously and she uses the Spar packet, containing my Dove soap bar, as a pillow to rescue it. Shit, she says. Then, sorry, she says, more for saying shit than for dropping my head. She proceeds to pull me up by my arms like a zombie and I find myself dizzy and dry-mouthed. My swollen feet make contact with the floor for the first time this day, triggering my insistence that I can walk on my own. I clutch the bed rail to lift myself, my loose rings rattling against the metal. Eventually, I am standing upright in the land of the living, but my body no longer leaves a trace on the mattress.
My daughter wraps her arms around my waist like a drunk person hugging a streetlamp. Her Converse sneakers begin to squeak along the floor again as she walks and I cannot escape her grip. An image of the inflatable arm bands I made her wear as a kid enters my mind. How the plastic squeaked when I pulled them off her raw limbs after long summer days spent at the Sutton Park public pool. How she wailed, eyes red with chlorine and hatred for her mother. We begin shuffling faster toward the door in a three-legged race, our knees and elbows and apologies clinking. She’s doing this all wrong but I cannot correct her because I do not know a right. At this clumsiness, my daughter begins to laugh, then says sorry for laughing. I say sorry, too, but for not having the strength to.
We both glance at the plastic Mr. Price clock on the wall, my surrogate sun and moon. It is almost 5pm. In my old life, which still existed just three months ago, I would have been cashing up at work at this time. My eyes darting between the two-Rand coins, the clock, and the shop exit, waiting for 5pm to strike. When 5pm came, I would remove my heels, place them in my handbag, slip on my pumps, and race home from the Gateway Shopping Mall. I had a habit of cooking dinner with my cashier’s nametag still pinned to my breast. My daughter always made a point of unpinning it for me, saying that I was not fully home until I’d taken it off. Here at the Hospice though, time is not governed by retail hours but by the rhythmic clunk of the ice machine and the bodily needs of the patients. Eating, sleeping, shitting, peeing, bathing, and dying.
My daughter and I begin down the corridor toward the bathroom. The hallway is decorated with plastic flowers that never appear to get dusted. Next to a bouquet of perfect roses, a glass tank of tropical fish mimic swimming in a sea they’ve never known. A miniature treasure chest opens and closes its mouth from the ocean floor beneath them, the bubbles laughing at us. We pass by the other rooms in the Hospice, all of the doors are open. This is one of the few places where dying can be seen, allowed, encouraged in fact. But like the tropical fish and the plastic flowers, I am convinced of my exemption from natural cycles.
My daughter slows her pace and I glance into each of the rooms without lifting my head. The young woman in Room 03 with the bald head is still there. Only now, she is chain-smoking by the window, looking at photos on her iPhone and ashing into an empty creme soda can. A family singing a Zulu hymn and traces of imphepho rise out from Room 07. I am too white to understand the words and because of this, the comfort I get from their singing feels like theft.
As we pass Room 10, a nurse smooths out the creases on fresh linens on a bed. The man who used to sleepwalk through the corridor in his nappy is gone. The pile of Torque magazines his wife had bought him sit alongside his already emptied room bin.
The very last room we pass is the Staff Room. As my daughter and I shuffle by, I hear a kettle boiling and distorted ocean waves vibrating from a portable speaker. My daughter tightens her grip around my waist as the volunteer Hospice masseuse shimmers past us. She is wearing a pink feather boa around her neck and conceals her greying hair beneath weathered blonde highlights.
My daughter and I are three quarters of the way to the bathroom when I insist that I can walk the last stretch on my own. The dignity of the sick is not permanent here but for a moment my daughter agrees to loan me mine. I use all of my strength to flap her away and she loosens her grip. I wobble as she releases me; a cleaner twice my age looks up, steps aside, and continues sweeping up the dust beginning to accumulate behind me. The cleaner wears denim blue Tomy Takkies, without the laces, her swollen brown ankles bulging out the sides. My daughter makes a point of smiling at her, offering her automated sympathy. But all we both really want is to receive some. I cling to the pale walls of the corridor trying to camouflage my guilt inside the armour of illness. I am still not sure which is the worse affliction.
With each slow step, my daughter cushions the air around my wings with her hands.
Mother, how do you catch a moth without hurting it? I think I hear her ask.
We enter the bathroom. My mouth is desiccated and the hollow in my chest is heaving beneath the fluorescent lights. Without taking her eyes off of my chest, my daughter removes the Dove soap from the packet and places it on the closed toilet lid. I lean against the edge of the basin and for the first time let her undress my white exoskeleton. As she lifts my pajamas over my head, goosebumps rise in cold metal studs beneath every hair follicle. Strange how cotton burns the skin of the sick. My arms are as thin as straws and she bends them in all the wrong directions before getting them out of my pajama top.
Sorry, she says, not so much for bending my elbows backward but for not knowing this new body of mine.
Sorry, I say back, for not knowing it either.
My daughter turns the shower tap on and in silence we watch the water thrash onto the tiles. We wait, for what feels like hours, for the steam to blur the nakedness between us. To waste water is to waste time; I realise that this wastage is one of the few pathetic acts of defiance I have left. The satisfaction this gives me, however, is dull and vacant, a rainbow in a black and white movie.
I grip my daughter’s shoulder as she bends to guide my balloon feet into the shower. We both notice the pink nail polish still clinging to my toenails, a reminder of the woman who once lived here. I can paint them for you tomorrow, if you’d like? my daughter says, without making eye contact. The water runs into the cracks on the sides of my mouth, over the hollow in my chest, and through the gutters of my ribcage. I watch it spiral down the drain and wonder if me or the droplets will be the first to make to sea.
They use a bright pink industrial soap to wash the smell of death away here. Its chemical odour lingers in the corridors, on the rims of the plastic ice cups, in the nurses’ hair, on the lip of every night sweat. This chemical odour is like a spell, convincing us that sound hygiene will protect us from the terminality of death. My disdain for the soap is the reason I requested my daughter bring me Dove soap from home to bathe me with today. It is the soap brand I have used for over twenty years and my request for it has been incessant. The closer death gets, the more my bucket list consists of the simple things I know, and have done, a million times over. Dreams of traveling abroad, paying off my house, and holding my first grandchild, no longer matter.
A nurse knocks on the bathroom door and asks if we are okay. My daughter tells her we are fine, thanks, and I wish I believed her. She rips the Dove soap bar out of its box and it falls out onto the floor, denting one of its perfectly sculpted edges. She says sorry, and I say something that sounds like please hurry. The soap’s pure linen scent fills the bathroom and reminds me of walking through the aisles of Woolworths on my lunchbreaks at the mall, pumping bottles of tester hand-lotion into my palms, fantasising about payday and the next public holiday. Every Women’s Day, I would drive my daughter to the beach in our rusty Citi Golf; we’d stuff our stomachs with Debonairs Pizza and MilkyWay ice cream, on the pier, tossing one or two crusts to the pigeons as the day’s charity. I hunch over this memory while my daughter splashes water over the thirty-three vertebrae gnawing through my back.
Mother, is this the monster they said is eating you? I think I hear her ask.
My daughter wets the soap, sliding her palms over and under its white fish belly. She begins to wash me, me her chore, her dishes in the sink. Against my corrugated chest, the soap bar is a rock in her hand.
Mother, is this how we wash death away? I think I hear her ask.
As my daughter moves the soap over the skin of my shadow, I grip the shower rail tighter and close my eyes; trusting that she is closing her eyes too. This is how we liked to play hide and seek together when she was a child… While I closed my eyes and counted to ten, instead of running to find a hiding place, my daughter would just stand there in the middle of the room, her eyes scrunched shut, the unseen almost passing for invisible.
About the Author:
Robyn Perros is a South African writer, researcher, and multimedia artist. She holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Rhodes University and is currently a PhD scholar and Teaching Assistant at the Rhodes University School of Journalism & Media Studies. Her work has been exhibited/published/presented in multiple spaces such as: the KwaZulu Natal Society of the Arts (KZNSA), Open Plan Studio (Durban), Theotherroom (Durban), Nature is Louder Literary Project (Makhanda), Symposium for Artistic Research in Analog Photography (Helsinki 2022), Institutions & Death 2022 conference (Centre for Death & Society, University of Bath, UK), and Ons Klyntji zine. Her PhD research is looking at online death practices in South Africa. She lives in Makhanda. Find her on Tumblr: robynperros.tumblr.com
Feature image by Robyn Perros