“Hey honey, can you grab the top of that there and just pull it down for me? I just can’t reach back there and do it myself anymore.”
I had just come from the shower and was naked except for the towel wrapped around me when the old woman on the bench by my gym locker turned and asked for my help putting on her bra.
I am not a person who willingly touches others with these few exceptions:
- my children
- my husband
- my dog
- my friends who are huggers who know I am not a hugger but hug me anyway
- my mom when I am going on a long trip
I am struck though by how readily we’ll do something we don’t think we’ll do when a person asks us to do it. Sometimes our bodies remember we’re human even if our brains work overtime to forget.
Example: I was walking my dog in a parade last weekend when the route took us by a bunch of residents of a local group home that cares for people on the outside: poor, mentally ill, unstably homed. They were thrilled with our dogs and patted them and patted them. In the hubbub I looked up to see one toothless old fellow, blistered and filthy. With a giant smile on his face he stuck his hand out for me to shake. I enthusiastically shook it. He liked my dog and so do I and I was pleased to connect with him over this shared interest. Immediately afterwards the germaphobe in me started daydreaming of tuberculosis and flu and the hand sanitizer in my car. But I floated on the pleasure of that small connection anyway. Shaking the hand of a grubby old guy does not make me a good person not even in that moment though there are assholes that would suggest it does. I’m a different brand of asshole and I know this. It doesn’t make me a good person, but it does make me human and I was grateful for the reminder.
I swim at the Y in the mornings, which is the most popular time for the old ladies and cardiac patients. I am always the youngest person by at least twenty years. These old girlfriends chat about their grandchildren and their husbands and their churches. They all seem to know each other and they laugh and appear to generally enjoy themselves. I have come to know them in various states of undress and redress. Their hair products and their undergarments and their lotion routines. They weigh themselves and tut-tut to each other about diets and pounds, seventy-year-old women who grew up understanding that their worth was a function of how much space they take up. YOU’RE PERFECT, I want to shout, but I don’t. I just hope I don’t care that much when I’m seventy though I know I probably will.
I am not a good swimmer but I do it anyway because I read somewhere that exercise is important. My husband is a good swimmer and he gives me workouts that I never do. An important component of a swim workout is a thing called an “interval.” An interval is when you have a certain amount of time to swim a specific distance. If you swim that distance quickly enough you’ll have time left over to rest before you have to do it again. Swim fast and you have more time to rest. Swim slow and you never get a break. I had finished my slow laps and had a nice hot shower and had just opened my locker when the old woman asked me for help.
I told her “Sure thing!” without hesitation like I’d been dying for her to ask me to help her with her bra. I unbunched the gray cotton that was stuck around her shoulders and pulled it down her still-wet back until it fell into a more comfortable place. “Oh goodness, thank you.” she sighed in relief. “That’s just so tricky to do anymore.” I resisted the urge to answer “My pleasure.” which is an automatic phrase for me and which in that instant I did not wholly mean.
We live our lives in the intervals, those spaces between the furious pace of our laps, those moments of in between when our labors are paused for a moment. My children are getting older, there is gray in my hair, we never realize how young we are until we are no longer that young. One day we’ll all be the woman in the Y who needs just a moment of our time. I hope when my day comes there’s a human there to help.