“When you are depressed,” she said, “and when grieved, take a shower.” I stared at her, dumbfounded. This is the advice people pay for? “I know it sounds silly, but think about it. Don’t you feel, when you are really down sometimes, like you don’t need a shower? But that’s when you need it most. When I’m down, I tend to wear the same thing, tend not to care how I look, to be out of touch with what my body needs. When you feel that way, shower.”
I recall this strange, straightforward advice from my friend the professional herbalist, as I catalog the last few days. Did I shower yesterday? No. But probably the day before. I can’t remember. And if I didn’t shower, I didn’t look at the calendar to see what day to change the patch, and yes, I forgot to replace it yesterday, and no, that’s not good. Missing two days might cause headaches. Writing on next week’s calendar, Friday, patch, don’t forget.
And then I shower.
I toss the favorite turtleneck over my head—not the same favorite turtleneck as yesterday, nor the same favorite jeans, though it’s a temptation, a yearning to wear them for a second day, or maybe a third. Someday I’ll explore where that compulsion comes from. Not today. Today, I simply need to look like “I tried.” I bring down the necklace of Indian corn hanging from my dresser mirror to add just the right touch of whimsy, the sentiment about my children and the colors of nature in autumn. It’s more everyday than dressy. And it reminds me of a dear friend who moved away, after we strung these necklaces for her son’s sixth birthday party. Just a year ago.
I unwrap this week’s patch—it looks exactly like a repair patch for an inflatable children’s pool, or an air mattress. I peel half of the adhesive and press it onto my left hip for the count of ten, then peel the other half, smooth in place and press for another ten. It’s a form of prayer, a no-more-migraines prayer, a thanks-for-no-more-migraines prayer. I am officially repaired for another week.
It’s not, this grief, so much about the loss of my friend Eugene—though that is a loss, a huge loss in the overall fabric of my life. Eug was Ellen’s best friend, and very close to the Schraders. We didn’t have that kind of “always current” friendship; we had instead a we-don’t-need-to-be-current friendship, and I was comfortable with that. The grief is not over the issue of mortality—the shortness of life has been pointed out before.
And it’s not the curve of the widow’s shoulders, the bent arch drawn by her vertebrae in the black dress, though that picture will haunt me, along with the numbness of her hands hanging limply at her sides.
My grief is spurred instead by a moment six weeks before his death. It begins with the way she looked at him as he defied doctor’s orders by trying to stand, in his hospital room. She looked like a woman scolding an angel for flapping its wings, love written all over her at the same time she was exasperated and nearly desperate. “They need your compliance if you want to come home, and you want to come home. Sit. And wait. We all need you to come home.” This grief that breaks my heart is the next moment as he collapsed onto the bed, shaking, grinning and proud of himself for flaunting authority. She lifted his foot and placed it on her lap, exasperation melted, and the cup of her palm slid under the achilles tendon to his heel, removing his running shoes one by one and thus effectively preventing any further foolhardiness—without the stability of those shoes, he would not dare try again. His foot may have been recovering from paralysis, but his eyes looked at the golden crown of her hair. He knew her adoration, spilling out from the cup of her hand. Enough tenderness to create the universe all over again, if she had the power to do so, the power to change anything. His health was already hopeless. He didn’t know it, but she knew.
The grief then? I thought, watching that generous hand cupped, I cannot possibly do what she is doing, live through what she is living through. I can’t even do the simple things my life needs doing, behave lovingly towards the people who need me. I need to be a better person.
Her adoration was so pure, even in the midst of fear and exasperation. I am not selfless, have never been selfless. My caution is that selflessness holds a dangerous edge for women, an edge that leans toward self-erasure, and I’m unwilling to try it on for any longer than necessary. Self-mindfulness, I aspire to, but not selflessness. And adoration? Adoration overflows for my children, unstoppable adoration that surprised me when I first gave birth, because I do love my husband, but I do not adore any adult, not like that. I’m afraid my cupped palm overflows with the exasperation, only, the frustration, irritation, weariness. Rationally, I think my husband probably deserves that rich substance, as much as any good husband, but that impulse reserves itself for my children. I wonder if that’s typical. I wonder if Eugene’s wife’s adoration flowed simply from his nearing death—somehow I doubt that, but perhaps I am giving her the benefit of my self-doubt. Is my love less? Or is their love merely intensified? Perhaps it’s the latter answer, but still I wonder, just as I did when I was an awkward twelve-year-old, if I am simply defective. I give a great deal. My giving is not effortless.
Do I love like that? Do I even have the capacity, beyond those little ones I gave birth to?
I am writing at my kitchen table after my shower. I write through breakfast, over my coffee and I can’t recall what errand pulls me into the bedroom. Earrings, the ones with a touch of orange to match the corn necklace. And there is the mirror—how long since I bothered to wear more than under-eye-concealer? Mascara, then, and a tinted lip balm.
“The shower is not about being clean,” said my herbalist friend. “It’s about circulation, removing the dead skin and dust, helping your skin renew and breathe, the steam releasing the tension in your lungs.”
“I have to adjust to this,” I protested. “I shower like a committed environmentalist, a short shower every other day, unless it’s summer and I’ve sweat a lot. My hair dries out if I wash it too often.”
“That’s what hair conditioner is for. Shower long. Pour a pot of boiling water into the plugged sink first, so there is plenty of steam. Add a few drops of lavender so you breathe more deeply. Your hair holds in the pollen, dust, allergens. It’s not about clean—your scalp needs to breathe. Shed some deadness. Try it and see, first thing when you feel blue. See if it helps.” We discussed a dozen other good options that day, but showering is cheap and easy, requires no expertise and no shopping.
I look in the mirror once again. If I am dressed and accessorized, I might as well circulate right out the door. Maybe I’ll shake off some dead skin. I might well be defective—if so, it’s something to pray about, but I pray best while moving. I grab my bag, my keys, and go.