99 Problems

Published on May 15th, 2017 | by Maria Massei-Rosato


Bath Time Operating Instructions: 4 months to 74 years

“You need to watch Anthony.” I yell downstairs as Tony arrives home from work. “I’m going to my mom’s house to give her a bath.”

“Why can’t her aide do it?”

“Because you know my mom.”  I grab my jacket and I’m headed for the door.

“Why don’t you wait until the morning?”

“Because tomorrow is my first Mother’s Day and she’s gonna want to hold the baby and I’m not going to let her until she bathes.”

“If her aide can’t do it, how do you think you will?”  I slam the door on his words.

If time could be marked like a summer solstice, the eve of my first Mother’s Day is the day my mom’s Alzheimer’s turned from curse to blessing. We planned a family barbecue and I was quite sure she would kiss and cuddle my 4-month old son wearing that gray and black speckle patterned sweater that she wore day after day. It was her Linus’ blanket.

“Maria, I can’t get your momma in the bath,” her aide called a few days ago.  I’m a bit taken back when she continues, “your momma, she’s strong” because all I see is a 95 pound, 5 foot nothing, matched against a woman who looks like she trained with the Russian weightlifting team. As I drive the twenty minutes to my mom’s house, I try to imagine how I will be able to accomplish what her aide cannot.

Just before I arrive I develop a sketchy plan: I think if I can get her upstairs to pick-out clothes for the big day tomorrow—her first Mother’s Day as a grandmother and mine as a mom—and then make a comment about the dirty-appearance of her swollen arm— a side-effect of radiation treatment twenty years ago in which the skin expands and contracts so often it is like an overripe orange with discolored patches—she will want to wash the dirt off. For outward appearances, had always mattered to Mom. Once, while she was still lucid, she even made me wash her feet after I had called an ambulance because she was experiencing chest pain, so that she could have clean feet for the EMT. It was a ridiculous scene – I’m trying to help her out of bed and bring her downstairs to meet the ambulance, and she’s begging me “Please, please my feet look so dirty, what will the doctors think?”  So, I did my best Mary Magdalene and complied.

Photo by Wayne Stadler / Creative Commons License

“Hey Mom, I’m home.”

“I tried, but your momma, she stubborn.”  Galina greets me at the door.  “Do you want, I stay to help?”

I exude confidence and I assure her I could do it myself, although I am definitely not sure, but I imagine, worst case scenario, I will make the sweater disappear.

“Mom, guess what?  It’s Mother’s Day tomorrow.”

“That’s nice.” Mom says as she continues watching the spinning wheel; when it stops, Vanna turns a letter. Then I turn the television off.


“Let’s go upstairs and pick out some clothes.”

“What clothes?”

“For tomorrow.”

I start up the stairs, hoping she will follow.  She does.  The dementia has its upside since she has already forgotten that I abruptly interrupted her as she watched her favorite T.V. show.

“Try this one.”  I reach into her closet and pick out a blue and white blouse.


“I want to see if it fits.”

“You’re crazy, you know that.”

But she takes her shirt off and now my plan begins to take shape.

“Oh Mom, look at your arm.”  She stares at the darker shade which begins at her elbow and extends to her shoulder.

“How did that happen?”  She looks at her pale stomach and ponders the disparity.

“Let’s try a bath.”  And just like that, she follows me into the bathroom.

While I scrub, I try to distract her with conversation: “Ma, do you know the baby is getting so big. He smiles now. Wait till you see him.”

“Really? Is she walking yet? Mom confused Anthony’s sex so often that I stopped correcting her.

“No. She’s only four months old.”

“That’s nice.”

As our conversation continues in circles, I think about how her mind’s ability to comprehend and retain information contracts while my son’s expands.

The bath is nearing an end, but I still must wash her hair. I take a deep breath, perhaps anticipating her reaction, and pour a cup of water over her head.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO ME?” She shrieks a desperate cry swinging wildly. Her arm makes contact at my temple, knocking my eyeglasses to the floor. I am stunned.  Growing up, she was not a hitting parent.  Wearing glasses since I was five years old has been my lifeline – I can’t see an “E” on an eye-chart without them and so the fact that my mother would strike me at my most vulnerable point sears a level of hurt greater than any physical pain. As time is washing over me I wonder how we got her. Then, the mute button of my mind turns off and I hear her screaming. I realize I need to act quickly: find the glasses, shampoo, more water and she’s done.

Her tears merge with water dripping from her limp hair as she continues to holler “YOU SON OF A BITCH. I AM YOUR MOTHER. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH AND THIS IS WHAT YOU DO TO ME?”

“You can bathe him tonight. I’m exhausted,” Tony yells from the bedroom when he hears me walk in the front door. I roll my eyes, but I don’t say a word.  I drag myself up the stairs to find my son in his crib.  I take a moment to give him a hug as I lift and carry him into the bathroom.  I am on autopilot, running water, placing him in his plastic tub lying inside the bigger one, handing him a rubber ducky to keep him occupied. I begin soaping his forearm and then autopilot shuts off.  Anthony is looking at me with his deep blue eyes, deep because they seem to reflect something more than an infant is capable of knowing.

“Just a little while ago, I was bathing your Grandma.”

I fill a cup with water and place my hand just above his forehead to protect his face and as I pour the water over his head, Anthony grins.  He loves taking a bath.  It’s then I realize I missed this step.

“I forgot to cover her forehead. Rookie mistake.” I admit to my son.

I place my hand just above his forehead for the final rinse and as the water falls, my mind clears for an image: I see the bath scene with my mom, but this time I see a gathering of angels working beside me, helping to lift Mom into the tub, moving soapy washcloths in circular patterns, whispering sweet thoughts into Mom’s ear and instructions into mine.

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About the Author

Maria Massei-Rosato holds an M.F.A in creative non-fiction from The New School and a B.S. from New York University. She has taught poetry workshops for adults and children with developmental disabilities and currently teaches a yoga/writing workshop at Sewall House in Maine. Her most recent work has appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine, Brain, Child Magazine, Boomer Lit Mag, and Tell Us A Story.  She has completed a memoir, which was selected as a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition and she completed a screenplay, a tale of two journeys: cycling across the country and caring for her mom through a debilitating illness. It conveys what she learned along the way: Life requires strength in the face of adversity, patience when confronted with a challenge, and faith when all seems lost.

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