Reading Between the Tiles – The Gift

A time-lapse portrait of an elderly couple reveals itself through the half-open doorway; each vertical slice shakily, achingly, shuffling to the next.

Shoulder blade so sharp I’m sure it’ll spring right out; followed by ribs so malleable I can count the beat of her heart; then a cheek submerging below the surface and next an arm flailing to find the edge of the bath. Her body had been carved and stitched up in new ways. One orifice sealed and a foreign opening fashioned to deal with each new day’s crap. I don’t know whether to stare at the wonder of a procedure to stave off the ravages of cancer or if I should avert my gaze.

Body so fragile I’m waiting for the stitches of her wounds to float on the water while her tissue thin skin dissolves away.

I look at one more frame before turning away: that of my father, visibly relieved and sitting on the toilet seat beside the tub. My presence, should either of them slip, is no longer required. At eighty six years old, I didn’t think Mum would survive the major surgery. With my ninety year old father in heart failure, I didn’t think he’d have the strength to steady her. I am wrong on both counts. Tonight she’ll lay with him again, her skin pink, wrinkly and warm.

‘Any questions’, said the surgeon two weeks earlier.

‘Will I be able to bath?’ was all Mum asked.

Like a splash of cold water to my face, my attention was drawn away from the complex to the simple – the rhythms and rituals of every day. I’d wanted to know how her central line would be fitted and what pain relief would be used in Intensive Care, after all I’d had this operation myself four years prior so felt protective for her recovery and thought I knew best. 

‘Hush’ Mum cautioned me. Those issues were to stay in the realm of the doctors and nursing staff. 

‘Fool’

I uttered … 

… to myself 

… of myself

‘FOOL’, again. The letters F and the L fall away like scales from my eyes and I’m looking right into the word where the OO becomes new binoculars through which to view my parents. How had I not seen the writing on the wall, the love letter resting on the grouting lines between the bathroom tiles?

Well-attuned to my Dad’s oblique way of avoiding emotional language I heard his ‘I won’t have to run Mum’s bath tonight’ as code for ‘I’m missing her and worried she may not make it through the operation’.

“What is it with Dad and bathrooms?” I’d asked my sister in exasperation two years earlier and even wrote a blog about it here. Supposedly humorous there’s a somewhat mocking and dismissive under-tone. I’ve since dismantled this narrative, backwards from the disarray of a disappointing bathroom renovation, to their early days. It’s been like prying tiles off an old bathroom wall, and I’m completely humbled by a new realisation.

I’d been illiterate to my parent’s love, did not have the language to describe it, even now there is a fumbling for words. But it’s occurred to me that ‘Will I be able to bath again?’ and ‘I won’t have to run her bath tonight’ are lines from the same love letter.

Drawing his wife a bath each night, in a room he had built, is Dad’s gift. And in the steamy silence of the bathroom she accepts it.

This is part one of my series ‘Reading Between the Tiles’. Part two is here. And part three here. It’s about the unconventional love letter my father, awkward with words, wrote to my mum and how she let it wash over her. I share in my previous post why I write memoir and in this post the ethics of working on such a project and how it even came about.

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