Don’t Forget To Brush
By Cappy Hall Rearick
My ultra-independent mother died a good many years ago. Until she got sick, Mama would have eaten dirt rather than ask anybody for help. Imagine my surprise when she called me to housesit for her while she was in the hospital and asked if I might stay on for a while afterwards. Her cancer diagnosis was not good.
I was happy to be at home again, but the days were long with nothing to do until she was discharged. That's why I decided to organize her house. Lord knows it needed it. I threw out half-empty cold cream jars in the bathroom, old dusting powder boxes and hundreds of rusty Bobbie-pins. She never used up an entire bottle of shampoo, but neither did she throw away the little dab always left in the bottom until it was the consistency of lard.
When I finally brought her home from the hospital, her bed was turned down and ready. I had made it up myself with freshly starched, sweet-smelling sheets. Her pillows were fluffed. It was a Southern summer day, hot outside but cool indoors thanks to the blessing of air conditioning. I helped her into her gown and in no time she was sleeping as one can only do in one’s own bed.
What a perfect time to clean out the kitchen cabinets, the Martha Stewart side of me suggested.
Besides being a clutter bug, Mama was a sucker for gadgets. She had QVC on speed dial and the number of her credit card was posted in their VIP file. She had many sets of cookware so old that they were sticky with baked-on grease. There were enough can openers in her kitchen to lift off a space shuttle.
I sat down on the floor and began to sort through drawers crammed with gadgets, many of which seemed to have no purpose whatsoever. A niggling voice intruded from time to time telling me to stop what I was doing. It implied that my time would be better spent reading a magazine or taking a long walk. But I ignored that voice. After all, what I was doing was necessary, important.
I so wish now that I had listened.
Mama ate hardly a mouthful of scrambled eggs and only sipped at her coffee the next morning.
“Heartburn,” she said and headed toward the bathroom to freshen up.
“Do you need my help with anything, Mama?”
“I’ll be just fine,” she called over her shoulder. “My teeth feel like they haven’t seen a toothbrush in over a year. I can't wait to brush them.”
After she assured me she could manage on her own, I put the uneaten scrambled eggs in the garbage disposal and filled the dishpan with sudsy water. Less than two minutes later, she called for me to come.
Fearing the worst, I took off down the hall on legs that felt like I was wearing hip boots filled with mud. I imagined blood all over the bathroom and Mama on the floor helpless and scared to death.
When I reached the bathroom, the door was standing open. There was no blood and my mother was not lying on the floor unconscious. Grasping the rim of the sink for balance, she stared at me with a perplexed expression on her pallid face.
“What is it? Are you alright?”
“I can’t find my toothbrushes.” She looked as though she had wandered into Oz and didn't know how to click her heels and go home again.
“Right there.” I pointed toward the sink. “Hanging in the holder.”
While cleaning the bathroom the day before, I had carefully examined all of her six toothbrushes. Most of them were pretty shot. That’s just like Mama, I had thought as I tossed five of the over-the-hill brushes into the trash.
“I don’t see but one of them,” she said, clearly exasperated. “Where are the rest?”
“Are you talking about those old toothbrushes? Those ratty looking ones you have had since FDR was President?”
In no mood for my brand of humor, she made a face. “What did you do with them,” she asked.
“I threw them out, Mama. I know how you hate to clean, so I got rid of them for you.” I paused, beginning to feel seriously uncomfortable about the whole thing. “Were you saving them for some reason?”
Mama fixed me with a look that I will never forget. “I’m not dead yet,” she said.
My heart plummeted. I opened my mouth to explain that I was only trying to help but the words got stuck in my throat. The look she gave me had ripped out my heart and those three words of hers stomped it to pieces.
After what seemed like a long time, I repeated, “What were you saving them for, Mama?”
She shook her head. “I don’t like using the same one every time I brush my teeth. Now, it looks like the only one left is that new one and it’s not even broken in.”
She let out a heavy sigh before slipping past me and climbing back in bed on her own, as if to say she wanted or needed no assistance from me.
She must surely have felt her life slipping away just then, out of her control. Not only had cancer invaded her body, seized her energy, health and longevity, but even the idea of cancer had snatched away her smallest possessions.
The idea of cancer and that she was going to die soon was at the root of my so-called good intentions. At some level I had know it. Worst of all, she knew it right away. By ignoring that niggling voice in my head, I forced my mother to look at her mortality before she was ready to do so on her own.
I lied to myself with all that phony baloney business about keeping busy. In actuality, I was trying to get a jump on things. I knew I would be the one responsible for sorting through all of her QVC purchases and I would be the one to call Goodwill.
Now, every time I brush my teeth, I am reminded of my callous disregard for her rights of propriety. I wish I could undo my over-zealous plan to organize her personal space; the shame of it burns my soul anew each time I squeeze a tube of Tartar Control Crest.
However, like my mother before me, I am now a proud collector of toothbrushes. Four different colors and shapes hang side-by-side in the holder above my bathroom sink. I double-dog dare anybody to throw one of them away before the final “Amen” is said, before the last shovel of dirt has been heaped upon my eternal resting place.
If I have learned anything, it is that a person’s stuff, no matter how insignificant it may seem to me, is worthy of my respect.