On Hideous Toe Nails and Moments of Intimacy
3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (John 13:3-7)
At the most painful (so far) moments of accepting my mother’s dementia, of setting aside deep-seated resentments and hurts in order to see her, rather than see through them towards her, I have wondered how any one can be a minister at the same time that such family despair takes place. It has not been an intellectual thought nor has it been fueled by some twisted premise that ministers are supposed to be whole or perfect.
It was feeling, not thought. A series of feelings: more like sensations, gut-rooted and without much filter. The fear isn’t about messiness, it’s about availability. How do you minister to others while in the midst of ministering to one’s own and one’s own self? So far, I have lucked out during this two-year stint I have had as a student minister, but it’s not over yet, and neither is my mother’s journey of need and diminishment. So knock on wood and whisper insh’allah.
This morning, a stranger knocked on my mother’s door. It was a surprise to her but I knew what was coming. A tank of a woman, tattooed and gentle, informed my mother that the courts were being petitioned to grant her son the legal authority to make decisions on her behalf. The stranger gave her the documents, said that she could not offer any legal guidance, and left when I asked her to do so.
My mother was confused by the stranger’s appearance, not to mention the ill-timed arrival of the Meals on Wheels delivery at the same time. I think my mother’s confusion of a stranger at her door, and then in the house, made it all the more difficult for her to understand the content of the documents. So I explained it to her, knowing that I would need to do so again, and again, but not too often, and not too frequently, because even though she cannot understand the rational content, she understands (somewhat) the emotional content.
I explained to her, as I have before, that we have concerns about her memory and judgment, about her safety and her health. I gave her concrete examples. I tried to modulate what I said, not overwhelming her with information, but still ensuring that she was given information. I made sure she knew that she can object – in writing or in person, that I would even drive her to the courthouse and help her raise an objection.
I did this not because I don’t want my brother to become guardian and conservator. On the contrary! He and I are in league on this one. I did this because it has integrity and I want this whole process to have integrity, I want this whole process to honor my mother’s inherent worth and dignity.
And to be befuddledly honest, I found myself doing it also because I thought this might be it. This might be when she stopped playing this twisted game of dementia; this might be the thing that would shift her mind into gear so that she could respond; this would be the shout of “Olley Olley um-come-free” and she would come out of hiding to be the hero of her own story.
Instead, she feels “taken advantage of.” She says it without much oomph. She says it in the passive tense – it’s not an accusation to me or even to my brother. It’s like it’s an old tape, one she inherited from her mother, and her life-long sense of being wronged.
My mother’s toenails are hideous. I’m guessing this is true of many elderly people whose personal hygiene is questionable and whose isolation is severe. The day before yesterday she asked me to care for them. They really require the attention of a professional – not a professional social worker or professional seminarian, but a professional, therapeutic nail technician. But there is not one in my mother’s house and she’s not about to go out. So I guess I get to add a new item to my resumé. Woo-hoo.
I lucked out when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a toenail clipper meant for use with dogs. That is the level of hideous we are talking: thick, fungally-infused, warped, and shockingly long. The dog nail clippers were the only thing that worked. For buffing, instead of your typical emery board, I bought one of those tools used to scuff off dead skin from the heels of middle-aged women.
I could not finish in one day, so I took to the task again late this morning, post visit with the stranger. Doing this brought me into contact not only with her toenails, but with her toes. Between which was some rather nasty, long-standing detritus. My admiration for CNAs (certified nursing assistants) has always been pretty high because I know it’s such a physically taxing job, but it’s grown even more, given what I have experienced these past few days.
I have used the words, “hideous” and “nasty” and accurately so. But I also want to say that this gesture has been one of the most intimate ones I have shared with my mother in the past two-plus decades.
It brought her not only relief, but pleasure. For in addition to cutting her nails and attempting to buff them, I cleaned her feet, soaked them in warm, soapy water, massaged them with my hands and with the washcloth, the edge of which I threaded between each toe, dislodging that nasty sh*t until her feet blushed with cleanliness.
I told her that this is what Jesus did with his followers not long before he was betrayed. She expressed surprise, though my guess is that her Methodist childhood educated her on this topic. That was long ago and clearly, at this point, lost. Beyond her surprise, it did not mean much to her. It’s no longer her idiom. It’s not exactly mine.
Except that I feel that I was a righteous servant today and I think that might help me be a decent minister at some point.