The tub fills inch by inch,
as I kneel beside it, trail my fingers
in the bright braid of water.
Mom perches on the toilet seat,
entranced by the ritual until
she realizes the bath’s for her.
Oh no, she says, drawing her
three layers of shirts to her chest,
crossing her arms and legs.
Oh no, I couldn’t, she repeats,
brow furrowing, that look I now
recognize like an approaching squall.
I abandon reason, the hygiene argument,
promise a Hershey’s bar, if she will just,
please, take off her clothes. Oh no,
she repeats, her voice rising.
Meanwhile, the water is cooling.
I strip off my clothes, step into it,
let the warm water take me
completely, slipping down until
only my face shines up, a moon mask.
Mom stays with me, interested now
in this turn of events. I sit up.
Will you wash my back, Mom?
So much gone, but let this
still be there. She bends over
to dip the washcloth in the still
warm water, squeezes it,
lets it dribble down my back,
leans over to rub the butter pat
of soap, swiping each armpit,
then rinses off the suds with long
practiced strokes. I turn around
to thank her, catch her smiling,
lips pursed, humming,
still a mother with a daughter
whose back needs washing.
Holly J. Hughes is the editor of the award-winning anthology, Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease, published by Kent State University Press and the author of Boxing the Compass, published by Floating Bridge Press. Nominated for several Pushcart prizes, her poems and essays have appeared in many anthologies. The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World, a collaboration with essayist Brenda Miller, is forthcoming from Skinner House Press. A graduate of Pacific Lutheran University’s MFA program, she has taught writing workshops at Fishtrap, North Cascades Institute, Edmonds Write on the Sound, Rainier Writers Workshop and Field’s End, among others.