Washing You

by Doris Ferleger

file000817035727Your bent elbow juts out. It is stiff and light and feels easily crushable against my hip as I walk around you. My body jerks away. I circle you at a distance of eighteen inches plus eighteen inches, the distance of each of our auras. Though maybe the dead have no aura. I walk around you slowly seven times like our wedding blessing circling, our thirty-year recommitment circling. Though now there are no witnesses.

I pull up a chair beside you. You lie on this cement slab. I drape the lower part of your body with our teal king-size sheet. Your two long pelvic bones jut out from the teal sheet that once covered our feathery lovemaking, our illnesses, our kindnesses, our meannesses, our secrets, our revelations, our forgivenesses.

I move to the floor. I sleep, I wake, as I did in the ER once, twice, three times, four. I don’t touch you for twenty-two hours. I tell myself it’s so your spirit feels free to leave without being tempted to stay, and it is required by Jewish law to watch over the dead for twenty-four hours, though you said it would be unnecessary, as your spirit would fly off quick because you didn’t want to be cold. Because you laughed.

But really, I stay beside you without touching you to rest myself in silence, as in your last days, as in our years together, how we each sought peace and quiet inside ourselves. Was that what brought us together? And kept us together? A need for the quiet places in the woods, in the house, the quiet we created together, meditating, writing, the quiet trees, the quiet lovemaking, the quiet son we raised, the quiet stars, the quiet that I now face alone, no, not face, but rather enter.

The quiet place of dressing you. But first I must wash you according to Jewish law. But I do not know the particulars of how to wash, and refuse to look them up. As we had our own laws, you had your own laws of body. Your own body now mine to wash.

Your chest is where I begin. It is the safest place, the quietest place. The place I loved most. The sparseness of hair, the light feathers of hair, the grayed hair, the white hair, the rib cage where birds fly in and out now, and your armpits, where you loved to smell your own scent, as if it were made of white Anguillan lilies.

I turn it upside down, the bottle of amber-colored liquid soap whose smell you hated. And squeeze its thick ambrosia into my hand. It is an act of rebellion. I am already angry that you are bones and ribs and cold and not alive to say, I can’t believe you’re being so disrespectful. I watch the amber pearls swimming or settling inside the bottle of liquid soap called God’s Nectar. I used to remove the cap, put my nose to the opening, smell privately in the bathroom, and open the windows so you wouldn’t know.

But now, I am being small and spiteful. So I stop. I have to use a soap you would approve of. I must act mindfully. With compassion. But I don’t easily and quickly close the cap to God’s Nectar. I sit with the forbidden scent and with the oncoming scent of death and without the scent of our sex, and with my own abandoned body sitting scentless. Finally I place the cap back on the soap bottle, walk to the window, open it to air out the room from the heady floral aroma that reminds me of our differences, our ways around those differences. How you hated our floral curtains but let them hang for the first ten years until you proclaimed, No more flowers.

I am getting afraid of the smell of death the three funeral parlor men told me about. They told me you would start to smell a different way than the living and I wouldn’t want to smell that smell. So I think I had better start to wash you fast. But, no. Slow was always our way. Slow, slow, moving my fingers against your chest hairs reminds me of your slow lick around and across my nipples, your slow-moving palm over my belly, your fingers, tongue, down toward my pubic hairs, down, slow, down slow.

But I must stay focused on your corpse as it is, as it is, as it is. I will not dress you in the blue and black and purple striped shirt, nor the orange and yellow and white striped summer one, or any of the black sweaters or the black cashmere sports jacket. I take the oatmeal-colored bar of soap from your shower shelf, make my hands lather up soap that has no smell, or maybe just a hint of almonds, as you loved to eat almonds, unsalted, unroasted, and almond butter on rice cakes.

Every rib I move my hand across makes me think of our son, who waits his turn to wash you. He’s agreed to wait outside the door. But for now it is just you and me and this slab in the middle of this room. I am staying only here with your chest. Did my mother ever tell you how she dressed my father in his winter coat? She didn’t want him to be cold underground. Even though she didn’t believe in an afterlife.

I am doing this slow washing with my hands, then with a washcloth. The way I used to bring a warm wet washcloth into our bed and wipe between your legs after our lovemaking.

Your ribs feel like a horizontal staircase of speed bumps on a road that leads to your face, where I do not look. Under the ribs, your heart. Your heart. A dead person needs no heart, I say to myself. The living don’t get to decide what to remember. How you used to put my head, my ear to your groin, where your heart beat too fast in those last years, too loud and too fast, a racehorse speed. You used to ride your bike up the Continental Divide, down and up the hills of Valley Green, over the cobblestones in Brussels on Rue Rodenbach, where we lived in those med school years, where you taught me to ride, ran alongside me, holding fast to the wide padded seat of the shiny green bike until you let go and I thought you were still holding tight. And I loved you for holding tight, but more for letting go when you felt I was ready.

I think about the fact that I am separate from you. I imagine you already with our fathers and with the rabbis who can teach you what you need to learn that the rabbis here couldn’t. Your shell that you left here to be washed and buried, I wash.

And if I stay with just your chest, I am grateful to get to do this for you. They say that throwing dirt on a Jew’s grave is the greatest mitzvah, as he can’t return the favor, the good deed. And this washing, I am grateful to do for you, though I feel something close to anger that you will not do this for me. You were always better with untimely bodies than I. With your patients’ bodies, their throat cancers, their breast cancers, their scars, their bad lungs.

And you loved bodies easier than I did, our son’s belly button healing, his circumcision healing, his first steps walking on sturdy, wobbling legs. His falling, his rising up. You were always more confident than I about the rising up. I am trying to emulate that confidence.

And you so loved being in your own body, winding your long lean legs around your own neck, dancing across the wood floors of the studio, regal, handsome, graceful, your chest spread open like a wildflower field. And you so struggled being in your own body, as all kinds of unspoken troubles claimed it until the tumor in your brain left no prisoners, spread like kudzu into the essential brain matter, as doctors call it, crazed tendrils of tumor cells that could not be cut out.

I stop washing. I put the washcloth down. How will I know when I am done?

Who will wash me? Who will wash me? How slow, how slow?

Category: Fiction, Memoir, Short Story