908 NE 115 St
Seattle, Wa. 98125
CHANGING MARY’S DIAPER
Mary was frail, so weak she could barely get to the potty near her bed without help. When I came into her room to see how she was doing, she was lying, prone in bed, her knees, slightly bent up; her face, a bit ashen from not eating well and sickness, but still with her glowing, smile, so familiar to me. Having given loving care to Mary for the past 10 years, I felt close and endeared to her, somehow even appreciating more the opportunity to help her now that she was less able to do the most basics for herself.
But changing her diaper? How was I going to manage that? My wife, Linda, was out of the house for the day; diaper changing was part of her job, now I was here alone with Mary.
I stood for a few moments, gazing, a bit damp eyed, at her angelic face that had brought so much joy to our family. I wondered if she was going to die soon. She had been sick off and on for the past couple of years, her body becoming weaker, with one function after another shutting down. Now, here I was alone in the house, her diaper probably wet, maybe more. I couldn’t let her just lie there.
I naturally thought of our three children whose diapers I had frequently changed, considering how many countless times my hands had been in the toilet rinsing them out before they went into the machine. But here Mary was; a woman, an elder ─ a spiritual elder, who had come to live with us for a few weeks: now, ten years. I was definitely feeling a bit uncomfortable as I prepared myself to help her.
It always amazed Linda and I how Mary was referred to us by someone we didn’t even know, as having a good home for those needing assistance. We had only begun this personal care home business a few weeks earlier, but yet, the social worker came with Mary from the hospital feeling assured her contact was right.
The social worker had told us over the phone that Mary needed speech therapy at the local hospital for a few weeks, maybe a month or so at the most, then Mary would return to her employers, where she was a nanny for their two children. She was only 62 at the time and had no paralysis from the stroke, and her only disablement, seemed to be her speech pattern.
For whatever their reason, her employers, who brought Mary with them from Chicago to West Virginia , to be a nanny, never came to see her at the hospital where she went after she had a stroke in their home. Nor did these mysterious people come to see her at our house after she was discharged from the hospital.
I asked her, “Mary, is your diaper wet?”
She smiled and said, “That’s nice.”
Her radiance and ‘that’s nice’ attitude, shown on all the other guests we cared for in those ten years since she temporarily came to have speech therapy.
I tried, quietly again, “Mary, do you need your diaper changed? Are you uncomfortable?”
She smiled again, nodding her head, but with her weakness it was unclear to me, which way she was nodding; up and down or sideways. Her head actually rolled around, maybe meaning nothing. Be patient Bob, I reminded myself. Be as nice to her as she is to everyone else. “You haven’t been to the potty for a few hours why don’t we take a look and see if you need changed? I was venturing into unfamiliar territory, but was now ready.
I walked tentatively to her bed as she began to pull back her sheets. She needed help: “here, let me help you.” Her nightgown was pulled up to her thighs and I could see how thin she had become in the past year. She was never heavy, but now her body was mostly sagging flesh with bones jutting out. She smiled and nodded thanks.
“Mary, I never changed an adult’s diaper, but you saw me do it with the kids many times so we should make out okay. You don’t mind me helping you, do you? Linda is away for the day and I’m the only one home. She smiled and tried to sit.
“Here Mary, let me help you,” as I put m arm around her back and helped her into a sitting position and then swung her legs around off the bed. Mary was short; her feet almost touched the floor. “Do you need to go to the potty?” She didn’t answer, but tried to push herself onto her feet. “Let me help you up and get you over to the potty.”
When the family didn’t come to see her; actually they never even tried once, to contact her or us, Linda and I discussed what we were supposed to do, and soon, took it all as a sign and understood. We felt we were being gifted. All we had to do was ask her if she wanted to stay with us for her to give us that smile and tell us, “how nice.”
Mary moved with us from West Virginia to Pennsylvania where we expanded our personal care home and took care of seven people. Then, after six years, with three small children, it was impossible to care of everyone so we sold our business and moved to Florida, to be closer my parents. Mary, who, by then, was an intimate part of our family, came with us.
I supported her under her arms and helped position her in front of the potty chair. “Can you stand okay while I take off the diapers? Hold onto my shoulders and I’ll get these off.”
I felt under the plastic to the wet diaper. “Yes, they are wet,” I said to her; “you must have been uncomfortable. Maybe we should hook up a bell like we used to have so you can ring us if you are wet or need something. What do you think?”
I really wasn’t sure if Mary thought of much anymore, but it was familiar talking with her, even if the conversation was now mostly one-sided. And the bell: I remembered we stopped having it hang on the bedpost when she was no longer alert enough to use it.
I managed to get the plastics off and then the Attends were down by her ankles. “You’re going to have to hold on and lift a leg again so I can get the diaper off. She knew the routine and lifted one leg and than the other. This stage was over. Then I carefully helped her sit down on the potty chair.
At one point in Pennsylvania Mary had become very sick; so sick she couldn’t do anything; remaining in bed, barely eating, but not complaining about any pain. Linda and I agonized for two days in wanting to do the right thing for Mary, but didn’t want to do anything that would be contrary to Mary’s wishes of, “the least treatment the better.” In the few years she was living with us, Mary had appreciated our personal care philosophy based on holistic treatment and how our three children were birthed at home with midwives. But here we were now, totally responsible for her and needed to weigh our personal philosophy versus what was best for Mary.
We finally contacted a hospice nurse we knew who referred us to a doctor, who, she told us, would be the least of the doctors in that small town, who would want to put her in a hospital if it wasn’t urgently needed.
Back home after the doctor’s visit, we gave her beef broth, from friends who raised their own beef, and so she wouldn’t get bedsores, we put a sheepskin under her from another friend who raised sheep. The next day, feeling a bit better, we told Mary the children wanted to be in the room with her and she nodded a smile. We brought them quietly into her room to visit. In a young children’s way, we allowed them to gently, crawl under the bed, even allowing Rebecca, only a year old, to rest along side of her, which put a slight smile back onto Mary’s her face. During that week of healing, we also allowed the children to play quietly on the floor besides her bed, while spiritual music, Mary loved, played quietly in the room. It was as touching of a human interaction as I had ever experienced.
In a week or so, she was up and back, resuming her informal assignment of house parent to the more disabled folks we helped out. She really didn’t do anything to help any of them, but sort of kept an eye on things when we were busy maintaining the house or were out with the children for a walk.
I helped lower her onto the potty chair and told her, “Mary, I’ll wait right outside by the door so you have privacy.” She smiled. I thought about what I had just said, smiling to myself. Here I was helping her out of a diaper, as intimate of a human interaction as there can be, but feeling there should be some privacy attached to her sitting on the plastic potty chair. I also wondered about the loss of self-esteem as some one became infirm and needed this kind of help from others. I didn’t think she paid too much attention to that kind of stuff, but privacy on the potty, in this circumstance, seemed to be a social given.
I gave her a few minutes until I heard the tinkle in the bucket. I poked my head in the room, “are you done Mary?” She smiled as she was trying to stand. “No wait Mary, let me give you paper to wipe yourself.” As I handed her the paper I realized I should have done that before I left the room. I told her again, “I’ll go out of the room while you clean yourself and than I’ll get you a washcloth to wipe your hands.”
When I came back into the room she was half way on her bed and half on the floor. Just hanging on. “Mary, what are you trying to do? Here let me help you onto the bed.” She smiled and nodded as I helped her into a sitting position. “Here’s a washcloth,” which she took and diligently cleaned each finger, her palms, than the backs of her hands. She handed me the washcloth and started to turn herself around into a lying position.
“Wait, Mary, I have to get a dry diaper on you.” I wasn’t sure if it was easier to get it on if she was lying down or sitting. I thought of how I had seen Linda do it and realized I didn’t pay much attention when it was being done. With the babies they were almost always lying down, so I told her I’d help her lay down. I put my arms around her, lifting her legs onto the bed and she was in position. I took the Attends out of the box, looked at them and laughed quietly to myself, as I realized I had no idea which way they went.
Maybe I should have paid attention when Linda changed Mary. Maybe there should be a nurse; maybe I should be a nurse. I’m not a nurse. How come I’m here changing the diaper of a 73-year-old woman? Come on get serious, she’s been a friend, a surrogate grandmother to our kids, almost like an angel in our home. She has been a gift being a resident angel. I briefly thought of the words of the Shaker song, “'Tis a Gift to be Simple,” the words rising on their own, as a reminder to me of Mary’s simplicity and how I loved that part of my own nature. So if I think of Mary as an angel, what am I doing helping change her diaper. Am I worthy to do this for an angel? No time to ponder philosophical meanderings, she’s on the bed, nightgown up to her knees waiting for help.
“Okay Mary, I think it goes this way. No, maybe this way,” as I held the diaper in front of me turning it around a few times. It reminded me of the first time I used disposable diapers on the kids. Did it matter which way? Mary reached for the diaper and turned it into position trying to raise herself a bit. “Here let me lift you and get this under you.” She made it easy and soon it was on, and then the plastic over it and we were done.
“We did it Mary. Are you comfortable?” She smiled. “Do you need anything else? Are you hungry?” She smiled again and said, “How nice.”
It wasn’t too long after my special time with Mary that she had another stroke resulting in brain a hemorrhage. The doctors told us that any invasive, heroic, surgery was chancy. From what we discussed with Mary previously, we knew it would have been her decision to not have anything done. We asked the staff on the Intensive Care Unit to let us know when her time was close. Within two days we received a call from the hospital that it was getting her time. Linda and I retrieved our two sons’, Jacob and Gabriel out of grammar school, and with four year old Rebecca, we were all by her beside when she took her last breath; grateful that the hospital staff had brought Mary from the ICU into a private room allowing our children to be there with us.
As we stood there with our tears, I remembered three years earlier, how lovingly the children were, crawling in and out and around her bed, as we told them Mary was very, very sick. She loved their presence so close to her. Unknowingly, the children were doing a children’s healing dance, now, sharing a timeless moment with her as she left this plane.