Friday, January 14, 2011

Departures

I have been intimate with a lot of skin in my life. My first clinical assignment as a student nurse was on a medical floor. I was instructed to bathe the patient. The patient was a ninety year old man who weighed maybe ninety pounds. He could not talk, didn't open his eyes, and had gnarled hands that were folded together. I was baffled. I was prepared to talk, to connect, to yibber yabber as is my want. I was not sure how to elicit his permission or interest.

Perplexed I returned to my nursing instructor for some sage advice. She told me sometimes doing is the best instructor- just take in everything you need for a bath and as you do it, tell him what you are doing. So I did. That was one tough learning experience. I was scared. I'd say at that point in my life I had only touched a few people beyond drawing soap bubble pictures on my cousin's back, and I had never bathed another human body. It was an intimate and yet necessary task.

I could see by the dull sheen of his skin that others had wiped his skin, but no one had scrubbed the dead skin off, cleaned the folds of his underarms and groin area, washed his feet, or cleaned his nails. His body odor was so strong that I had to fight a wave or two of nausea and the impulse to run. I rubbed off every dead skin particle with a wash cloth saturated with soap and hot water. I polished him until his skin shone, and then I slathered him with lotion. I shaved his face. I applied deodorant to his armpits. I changed his bed linens and gown. Then I wondered how a nurse could do this job since this one patient had taken me three hours to clean. Afterward, I went across the street to the mall as if on auto pilot, I say this because I could not stop myself and I could not say where I was going. I walked into Victoria Secrets and bought a bottle of lotion that smelled of flowers and natural oils. I needed something beautiful to smell after that bath.

I went on to bathe many others in my nursing career. I worked on a surgical trauma unit where we took care of patients on ventilators, with head injuries, and even harder for me emotionally, patients with quadriplegia- usually young men, all of whom tended to stay for weeks, sometimes months. We bathed most of the patients on the night shift, and I worked the nightshift. Shiny glowing skin was the hallmark of Nurse Kim. My patients smelled good or they got a bath. The nursing aides would poke fun of me  as I was one of the few nurse who insisted on bathing my patients not that I ever turned down help, but I had a standard. Skin is the largest organ of our body. The glow of the bath never lasted long- you'd be surprised at how quickly a bed and a person get dirty staying in bed all day.

That was a long time ago for me. These near four years in Japan have been about home- cooking, cleaning, and kiddos mostly. I continue to have a special fondness for bathing- now it is in a hot bath or onsen. I love the way the Japanese take a bath. First, is the way the bath is set up. The bathrooms, even at home, have a shower outside of the tub. You sit on a low stool and wash yourself. You scrub up, rinse off, and wash your hair all outside of the tub or shower as you know it as a westerner. Once you are sparkly clean- that shiny skin that says you rubbed off all of the dead skin cells, you get to soak in the nice hot water. It is a beautiful thing. The Japanese are quite modest so it seems to me, but all of this bathing and soaking is often done in an open setting usually with your family members. I have never felt uncomfortable being naked around all of the strangers, but oh I have loved all of that hot water.

I love love stories. I like to know how couples met. I like sappy romance movies. It is comfort for me even when it is formulaic. I will watch a romance and never lose hope that it could turn out to be good story. Sometimes I like the costumes (A Room with a View), sometimes I like the squeaky bed sounds (Delicatessen), sometimes the cinematography and humor (Amelie), sometimes I like the story of falling in love with a place (Local Hero), and sometimes I like the failure of love (Raise the Red Lantern). I have often liked foreign films.

Yesterday I watched a movie that touched me in these two surprising areas- the memory of bathing many human bodies and of love. Departures is a Japanese film that struck this memory cord with a bang. The film is richer for having lived here too. I could understand only the customary greetings and comments that are daily used in Japanese so I read the subtitles. The relationships and how they are portrayed seemed so right on. My Japanese mama friends, when they have talked of troubles in their relationships, have always commented that they just ignore their husbands for weeks at a time. (If I am upset you hear about it especially if you are my husband. He'd probably like it if I ignored him.) The film captures some of this overlooking or ignoring things in relationships- it seems very much alive and well here. There is a lot of the being positive attitude that I see here shown in the film in the main relationship which made me wonder if I had never lived here how I would look on it. The real beauty for me though, was the protagonists experience with cleaning all of those bodies, preparing them for their departure through the last threshold of this life. It is done with much love and sincerity. We could all learn something from watching our loved ones being prepared in such a way. I particularly loved the teenage granddaughters who insisted their obaachan or grandmother would want to depart this life wearing thigh high knit socks under her kimono; and through their giggles you knew their grandmother would have- she had giggled a lot with them. It was a quiet and moving film, worthy of one's time.

A friend of ours recently died as a result of a horseback riding accident. She was someone I thought I would have time to catch up with again when we returned to the states-all those plans that we put on hold as we pursue new adventures.

Life is such a rough road- I think that is why I crave more beauty in my day. Beauty, as depicted in "American Beauty" as in the wrinkled hands of my great grandmother, the plastic bag floating on the wind, a touching song, a meaningful poem, an act of kindness, a show of respect. Those kinds of beauty seem more important to me now as they touch a dark, deep place within me that after a long fast need to be nourished.

Departures in our lives make us aware of our own shortcomings and short time. I want to drink in beauty with all of its ugliness as it is what is real and nourishing to me. Cleaning the skin sets the stage for the departure in the film, but in cleaning it, and in being present, love is released. Now for a hot soak.