Getting my mother to wash her hands has frankly has been a hit or miss endeavor. Sometimes she remembers, but on most occasions she does not. “Did you wash your hands, ma?” I will shout charmingly from downstairs as I hear her exit the bathroom. I then wait for her feet to stop shuffling, and listen for her resigned sigh as she begins her loop and the long (for her) walk back. “I’ll do it again,” she says, aggravation and resignation in her voice, as the rest of us start laughing. We know that most likely this is not a repeat performance.
One night after a terrifically long and arduous day, I grabbed my mother’s arm to provide support as she rose from the sofa in the great room. It was then that I smelled something minty. Had she brushed her teeth? No, the scent was coming from her hands. “Did you wash your hands with toothpaste?” I asked brusquely. “I don’t THINK so,” she said defiantly. Not that it hasn’t happened before. It has. And she has, for some reason (most likely because she thinks she is being somehow helpful), smeared the toothpaste all around the inside of the bathroom sink. But I always recognized that as her toothpaste; so OK, not exactly a pleasure to deal with but not big deal. But what I was sniffing now smelled suspiciously like MY toothpaste. On this night, in the mood I was in, it was just enough to put me over the edge.
If I had been in a slightly better frame of mind, I would surely have laughed. But I was instead immediately aggravated.
I followed my poor mother up to the bathroom. I stood on the opposite end of the sink, grabbed her hands, and sniffed. Then I took a deep whiff of both tubes of toothpaste. (And yes, as I am writing this I realize how totally ludicrous it sounds.) “You used my toothpaste to wash your hands,” I said, incredulous. “I did NOT!” she answered. “I would NEVER touch your toothpaste.” “Yes you did, you used my toothpaste!” I said again. Now I was raising my voice, and mom did the same when she replied. “Don’t you think I know the difference between my toothpaste and YOURS?” At this it took all of my strength to bite my tongue. Ouch. Mom continued with her self-defense. “I would NEVER touch your toothpaste, I know BETTER than that.” I glared at her, and she glared at me. I was the first to look away, raising my eyes to the ceiling as if I expected a heaven-sent referee to step in and stop this madness. And with that, my mother turned around with a “Hmph!” “Hmph!” I dared to respond. She stopped in her tracks. “Hmph” she said, and headed off quickly to her bedroom.
I spent a moment or two reflecting on what had just happened, and I could hardly believe it. I was ashamed and still hopped up over the stupid toothpaste (which was indeed smeared around the inside of the sink), and tears stung my eyes. I headed down the stairs to find my husband John standing at the bottom red-faced. John is an even stronger advocate than I am about trying to keep mom with us in our home for as long as we can. Perhaps he realized that I had finally “lost it” and mom needed better care and more understanding than I could provide. I was ready to agree and talk about throwing in the towel. Then I realized that he was trying to stifle a laugh.
“What the heck are YOU laughing at?” I asked. I still had a bit of fight left in me after all. “That was hysterical,” he said. “I haven’t heard you two go at each other like that in ages.” I immediately flashed back to memories of mom and I haggling loudly over silly things. We agreed on most of the big issues, but whether or not the female newscaster was wearing an outfit that flattered what my mother would call her “shape” or who made the best jarred spaghetti sauce? Fahgetaboutit. John started laughing all over again, and did a spot-on imitation of what he had heard — playing the roles of both Mom and me to perfection. “Let me smell those hands,” he said, imitating me with my telltale pissed off chin-lift. “I would nev-ah touch yaw toothpaste,” he said as Mom, hands on his hips. Despite my embarrassment, I had to start laughing as well. “Shhhh,” I said, as I pushed him toward the great room. And then I went upstairs to my mom, who had predictably and blessedly forgotten that we’d had an argument just minutes before. “I love you, mommy,” I said. “I love you too,” she said. “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
They say that everything happens for a reason, and I often have trouble believing that. But this argument did indeed happen for a reason. My mother and I had been so busy tiptoeing around one another — her trying her best to be a compliant patient, me trying to be the super-efficient and selfless caregiver — that we had forgotten who we actually were. An imperfect mother and daughter, with great love and respect for one another but also with different opinions and feelings that needed to be expressed — even if it ended up with both of us “squaring off” over a tube of toothpaste.
As my father would say, “It’s all water under the bridge.” Yup. We’ve got a lot of that.
What we need right now, however, is more toothpaste to go with it.