I drive past a house going to and from my weekly errands that has a raised porch attached to it. It’s in a neighborhood that is comparable to the storybook streets of the 1950s – a Pleasantville realized. There truly are white picket fences, blocking in emerald green lawns. Creamy pink roses are perfectly misted each morning as the sun rises and settles over the street at approximately 72 degrees most days. Orange County, you’re a gem when it comes to weather.
Each house is a bit unique as you cruise through at 15 mph. Some craftsmen style, a few modern ranches, and many cute cottages with creeping ivy are sprinkled in and perfectly spaced out with 12 feet between each home.
The house that catches my eye has an elderly woman sitting in a wheel chair on a high porch. She’s positioned in the center of the platform, facing the street that I drive by on. It’s the odd nature of the porch being taller than the ground by about a foot and a half that makes the scene all the more eye-catching.
A few months ago she was out there with a young man who was cutting her hair. She looked frozen and without faculties – mental or otherwise. She was dressed in a white nightgown. The kind with a tiny pink ribbon woven through the neckline, that skims your ankles so as not to trip you up, though I doubt this woman had walked in many months. Her swollen ankles led to unutilized feet that were equally swollen and marked by time and use.
It appeared odd to me at first. I felt uncomfortable by such intimacy, though it was nothing lude or inappropriate. It was so tender and the woman looked so vulnerable. It seemed as though she should be given privacy, but instead was a sitting duck in the open for all us passerby’s to see. What appeared odd to me at first then created intrigue. I dreamed up a fantasy world for this woman by simply assuming that the man with her was her grandson who came over to tend to her once a week. He would arrive and announce, “Granny, it’s Steven here to say hello”. He would lightly open and close the door so as not to startle her, though she didn’t react to his beckoning or arrival.
He would sit across from her at the dining table, chat for a minute and then ask, “do you want to do the usual?”, and she would nod. He would escort her through the living room and bedroom in her wheelchair, stopping to open the French Doors that led outside to the blank wood patio. The simple, edgeless space that gave way to a great breeze and warm, perfectly temperate sun.
Today there was a different man, which shifted my daydream narrative. He had a closely trimmed black beard and he was stretching the woman’s neck. He would lifer her head and gently bend it, dipping her ear to her clavicle, while very softly rubbing the top of her shoulder. It looked like physical therapy, or maybe massage. She was dressed this time in a blue patterned hospital gown that sunk down slightly on one side, leaving her neck slightly open to the air. She was still in her wheelchair, but had a new accessory. Two clear oxygen tubes strung over her ears and into her nostrils, though I couldn’t see the tank that I guessed was attached.
I felt equally as uncomfortable as the first time I saw her, still a voyeur that was glimpsing through the peep hole into this woman’s private and quiet life. It looked as though she may be getting sick – maybe sicker? Certainly shifting into older age. It saddened me.
What struck me most as I drove passed this time was something that had shifted in me as well – I had had a baby since the last time I saw her. And instantly I compared the two in my mind. I thought of how proud I was to indulge my infant in a baby massage, and how tenderly I did every single thing for him from washing his hair to pulling a shirt over his head. I thought, why should it be different for these two populations – the infants and the elderly.
With babies comes a whole new brightness. The world conspires in your favor and everyone is showering you in gifts. I even received the sweetest present from my own masseuse who I maybe see once every three months via one of those chain massage places that cranks out 35 basic back rubs a day. She gave me some flash cards for the baby to learn his numbers, as well as some Baby Gap clothing. I thought it so touching that someone who I barely know, who I merely exchange basic small talk with thought to indulge my baby in a gift.
In contrast, as people age, we get afraid. Our tenderness turns to pity and the gentle touch we reserve typically for babies and kittens becomes an averse gesture, shaky to touch the brittle bones of old age, fearful they will turn to dust beneath our grasp.
What I realized in the 25 seconds of passing by this woman this time was the presence of the moment. The relief and relaxation of a shoulder massage is not lost on an old woman, her muscles tense and atrophied. They are not lost on the babies whose muscles are learning to loosen and move. For no other reason than to create a moment of enjoyment, that is a reason for tenderness. To perpetuate the gift of togetherness, and physical touch. A warm hand to show momentary love. Because, don’t our feelings manifest in just a moment?
I have my own distinct memory of showing tenderness that I wish I had handled more gracefully. I got a phone call one day from my step-father while away at college. I was eating breakfast with a bunch of friends at a nearby Denny’s… Nursing our hangovers. We were all laughing and teasing about the night before, and all I can remember are big smiles and fluffy pancakes. I get a call from Dennis and ignore it. I get another call and ignore it. Then I get that pit of the stomach feeling that travels up and pricks the back of your neck. I called him back. There had been an accident. My mother had fallen off the roof of our house while cleaning out the gutters. The extension ladder she was using hadn’t been locked into place.
A few weeks after that initial day when I drove up to see her in the hospital, I revisited to check on her. For a long time I regretted not visiting her more. I still wish I had, but in this present phase of life I understand myself better. I was in college, they wanted me to stay there and focus on school, blah blah, etc. etc. and I listened.
On that one visit when I first saw her in the aftermath, she had on a halo. It was screwed into her skull in four places, which to this day have left four tiny little Frankenstein scars. My mother was ever herself and handled the event with such humor and acceptance. She even decorated herself for the holidays hanging fake white cottony spider webs from her metal posts and sticking little plastic spiders in.
Amidst the decorating and the conversations about just how lucky we felt to have her here, she asked me to help her wash her hair. Like the woman on the raised porch that I now pass, I felt like it was too intimate a task. I was nervous about it. I felt like she was so fragile and I was afraid to touch her head which was attached to her neck, which by the way mom don’t you know is broken?! I didn’t want to do it.
I don’t actually remember if I washed her hair or not. I hope I did. I imagine we laughed and she pranked me by yelling, “ouch!” just to freak me out. She would do that, and it would totally freak me out.
With my baby, with my mother, with the woman on the porch, with myself even, we are all overlapping. We are all fragile, strong, hurt, sick. Don’t turn away in the moments that beg you to shift your gaze. Instead, share your tenderness. Be brave.