If you live with others, intimacy is inevitable. I mean the bodily kind of intimacy. We make sounds, take up space, and leave trails of one sort or another wherever we go.
It might be the baby brother whose non-stop crying interrupts your sleep; the little sister who tears up your homework; the closed-door argument you can't help but hear; the drunken roommate who throws up next to the bed crying about her boyfriend. The sick child who projectile-vomits onto your face. The friend who squeezes your shoulder as she walks by. Our boundaries are porous.
Growing up in a family gigantic by today's standards, I learned right away about the benefits of a closed door. For a few years I had my own room and I loved closing the door on my family. I imagined that whatever I did behind the door belonged only to me. It was my sanctuary. I even told myself that when I sang along with Cat Stevens, no one could hear me. How tolerant my family was of my own noise-making and God-knows-what else. As the eldest, I thought of myself as the tolerant one. Eldests can be clueless in this way.
It has been lovely -- and also sad -- to reestablish this strange and familiar intimacy as I've spent more time with my family these last few years. When my father was ill, he maintained his privacy and dignity around us children by calling for my mother when he needed help getting to the bathroom or had an accident. During one of our last visits, though, this boundary began to erode. He wasn't feeling well and stayed in his room for the day. We talked for a while and he began to tire. As I was leaving the room, he asked if I would empty the portable urinal. The request came so casually, he might as well have been asking me to hand him the sports section.
I took it to the bathroom and as I poured it out, my first thought was "This is weird. I'm dumping my father's urine." My second thought was, "He changed my diapers. I dump his pee. No difference." Someone will do this for me some day.
When our bodies don't work so well, we rely on each other and the boundaries we've thrown up don't make sense. When my mother's hand surgery meant she couldn't apply polish to her nails, I asked her if she'd like me to do it. She almost cried. "We haven't been this intimate in so long," said the one who nursed me.
When my sisters were visiting a while back, I developed a headache so intense I couldn't open my eyes. I laid myself down on the bed and the sister whose diapers I had changed 25 years ago rubbed my feet, touching me in a way she had never done before.
This weekend, we did some laundry for my father-in-law while visiting him in Indiana. He's very independent -- scarily so. He had a stroke a few years ago and lists to the left like a sinking ship, but is indomitable for now. Still, he needs attention and care. Laundry is one of those things he puts off since it means a trip to the basement. It is a small thing we do when we're there.
With my own dad gone, this chore took on more power than I expected. Standing in the basement and folding his underwear as I took it out of the dryer I saw that he wears the same v-neck Hanes my own dad wore. In fact, I rescued a couple before my mom gave away dad's clothes. I wear them once in awhile around the house and they're a comfort. My father-in-law is the only father I have now, and while we do not have a history of intimacy, to fold his v-necks was as much a mercy to me as a help to him. It was as if I was doing a kindness for my own father who had given me so much.
A kindness I pray I will return in time.