Washing Mum

18 February 2015 Deborah Wardle

Washing Mum

Deborah Wardle, Ed#411, July 2012

Finding a way to farewell, and honour, a mother.

After nearly a year in hospital and a nursing-home, Mum’s body had folded up, clenched taut. She was going through the opposite to what happens when a fern frond unfolds into life; to what happens to babies. Life as a smoker, medical practitioner and mother of six children had taken its toll.

She lay curled up under the white sheets of a hospital bed, breathing coarsely. Her hands tightly gripped her own thumbs, her arms clasped her chest, her knees bent up to her swollen tummy in a protective pose. Her head was supported on hillocks of pillows (yet she was still not comfortable). She lost speech, her tongue refusing to function for swallowing or communication. Her eyes would occasionally pass messages of her misery to the world. “Peripheral cardiovascular failure,” the doctor reported. Meaning insufficient blood circulation to her peripheries, including limbs and brain.

I greeted her with a smile or a kiss. Near the end there would be no reply, no sound, but I would feel a wave of rage rise from her, almost enough to slap me in the face: “Get me out of here, I hate this.” She hated her captivity so much. Humiliation and torment slithered around her, twisting her body, wringing life from her limbs. Enduring years of anguish and anger over her gradual loss of physical competence and capability had left her with little tolerance. I felt heavy to be healthy and mobile in her company. I was able to walk out the door.

Mum finally took a stand and refused to eat food for three weeks. Whether it was a conscious decision or a neurological breakdown I will never know. Twelve days before she died she had not been able to swallow fluids. The nurses and doctors said that nil by mouth for such a long time was exceptional. Her innate, tenacious hold on life, even when unconscious, was awe-inspiring. I could feel her life force strong, yet fading. Within her shell was anchored a strong heart – perhaps yearning for her brood, perhaps longing for her home where she had been queen. Observing her silent struggle with the forces of life and death was gruelling, yet uplifting.

A pervasive odour of decay slunk around her bed, even stronger than the smell of urine that pervades nursing-home corridors. My sister and I tried to expel the stealthy, circling beast by saying the Memorari, Mum’s favourite prayer. Though not religious, the words comforted us with their familiarity. I don’t know what she heard and it did not make the smell go away.

Mum’s breath was rasping and intermittent, searching for oxygen. Her eyes would open widely for a moment, as if surprised, then beseeching, then they would close again for a while. Sleep and consciousness were hard to distinguish. The effect of increasing doses of morphine meant her perception of life vaporised. The intent of such medication was to calm distress. It also meant that she was falsely gone from us ahead of her own time. Her spirit railed against this loss. She was ‘comfortable’ and nursable. Yet through this she retained a familiar presence: her own quintessential life force was palpable to me, her daughter.


MY brother and I had left her bedside for a late-night coffee in the dimly lit visitors’ room just down the corridor. It was the changeover of the family roster, my turn to sit with her through the night.

A nurse found us. “Your mother has breathed her last breath.”

Predictably, Mum would not enter the long sleep with any of her six children present. Fairness at all cost. It was 9.30pm on 27 April, five days after her 73rd birthday. Later, we found it was the anniversary of her baptism date. She would have liked the symmetry, the balance this gave to her spiritual life.

Her hospital room was still and, finally, quiet. I kissed her, touched her face, smoothed her hair. Mum rested on her pillows, angular and almost unrecognisably thin, soft hued and calm. There was a close press of angels’ wings as they went about their business of gathering this worthy soul. My brother and I embraced and cried. When my sister arrived, less than half an hour later, she flung open the window and the rich spirit of Mum’s life slipped from the room. The space changed, the air moved, stillness and decay shifted.

We three siblings held each other, raw and abandoned, in our first moments of being motherless. We sobbed in swells and troughs. Relief also bathed us in these waves. Her excruciating journey had ended at last; her persistence had abated.

After a while, a nurse came in and asked us to choose the clothes we wanted Mum to wear. “Wear for what?” Defensiveness sprung from somewhere. Other family members would see her body prior to the funeral, and she would be cremated in these clothes. Okay, a faded hospital nightie would not do. We chose a comfortable windcheater and slacks. She would not have made this choice, as they did not match well, but that was the best available from her odd selection of clothes kept at the hospital. The emotional warping of the moment made decision-making weird.

With the change of shift, the night-duty nurses arrived at the door.

“We’ve come to wash and change your mother.”

One was squat and dark haired; the other was tall and thin with a grey pallor. They appeared to me as horror movie characters – perhaps distant cousins to the Addams Family. Perhaps all night-duty staff develop black rings around their eyes and ghost-like skin. This time it was protectiveness that reared up in me. These startling strangers would not be left alone with my mother. Her fragile body in this alien place at this ungodly hour. My siblings left to find comfort with their respective spouses.

I wanted to stay longer with my mum.

At first, the washing of a dead body seemed so unnecessary at a pragmatic level. “This is just what happens here,” one of the nurses explained.

The Addams Family cousins obviously did not expect me to stay and looked tense. I gently stood my ground. The duties of a daughter were clear and all powerful to me. I told them I wanted to wash my own mother.

The kinder, shorter nurse warily agreed for me to stay. She brought water in a green plastic bowl, a washer and a towel, and instructed me in bathing my mother’s body. The tall one left to go about her duties. I wished I had a beautiful earthen bowl and a lavender-scented cloth for honouring this ageless family ceremony, this rite. Initially, the worn-out washer seemed so prosaic, then it did not matter. There were smells of aged motherhood, death’s breath, familiar Mum and sterile hospitals all at once. This body had carried us in her womb, had birthed us, breastfed us, held us in her arms, jiggled us on her knees, smacked us with her hands, smiled at us with her beautiful face. She had brushed our hair; I had brushed hers. She had washed our bodies in the bath, a wet washer sloshed over our faces, head of hair, forehead bare, eye winker, tom tinker

I was a little awkward at first. Her body had not left the bed for months and felt frail, light. Instinct helped me recognise the significance of this final ritual, which could have so easily been missed. Hospital routines tend to exclude meaningful connections.

I washed her face, I uncurled her hands. Her thumbnails had made red indentations on her middle finger; her palms were wrinkled from months of clenching. Then, what had worried and puzzled me for a while, her legs. They had been bent up, curled close to her body for weeks. Would they straighten out now? In the relief of death her limbs finally did not need to be tight and huddled against the struggle. Tenderly, I straightened them. Her scrawny hips and pubic area, bone and scant hair, shocked me again. This was not the full-hipped woman rushing from the shower to her bedroom to change.

We now worked together smoothly, gently rolling her from one side to the other, to wash and dry her back and sides. I felt nauseous when black sputum oozed from her mouth, perhaps a legacy of nicotine. Her spine protruded beneath silken skin. Small patches of zinc cream smeared the bedsores on her non-existent buttocks. I removed the colourless nightie and put on the striking green and blue clothes we had chosen. Colours of the night had faded to muted greys and camel browns. Of Mum’s magnificent life, all that remained was a husk.

Then I sat with her, a sentinel. The now soft-hearted nurse left for other tasks of the night. The eerie night-time noises of hospitals emerged: trolleys and trays, snores and the occasional call from a frail voice. I kept vigil and swam in memories and images of Mum’s younger self, remembering the soft cuddles she gave me.

I just loved my mum.

The richness of paradox filled me. Washing Mum has been a transgression from the hiding of death’s precious rituals. I could have been squeamish, seen her death as gruesome. Yet through this simple rite of hands in water, touching my mum, I had as much started healing a healthy grief, as much as cleansing the worldly trappings from her. I found beginnings rather than endings. I prepared her earthly frame so that her life force may go to wherever it is meant to go. It was an honour to have completed a cycle: as she washed me at my birth, so I had washed her at her death.

Hours later, her life force remained flickering in me. Tired, full up, I reluctantly left her and drove home along quiet 4am streets. I felt replete, lighthearted, relieved to have stayed to work among the angels.


» Deborah Wardle is a regional freelance writer who loves seeing a kookaburra’s smile and a robin’s red breast on frosty mornings. She is completing a Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at Melbourne University.

This story appears in Ed#411 of The Big Issue magazine.