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By Janna Payne, Geez Magazine, The privilege issue, Issue 24, Winter 2011
“Run in, grab gloves, shield your eyes, give a quick scrub and write down anything odd you observe” were the instructions the first time I bathed someone with an intellectual disability. It wasn’t good enough because I recognized myself in the tub. I realized I wouldn’t want to be bathed by a too-good-to-make-eye-contact caregiver emphasizing my role as cared-for.
As an assistant at L’Arche Daybreak, bathing holds spiritual significance, and the instructions are different. I am advised to create a welcoming atmosphere, light candles, put on classical music and adapt gentle caresses for Heather, the woman in the tub. But again, I am not satisfied when I see myself in her place. As a 6’3” 160-lb feminist who loves super-efficient showers, I know I wouldn’t want anyone making a sacrament of me, mistaking my frame for Christ’s or emphasizing the delicate/passive parts of my body without seeing my glory first.
I have wrestled with the tension between assigning too much or not enough meaning to the art of bathing while contemplating how I can provide feminist person-centered care as a part of a collective organization.
With these tensions in mind, I enter into relationship with Heather and gradually start to see her in the tub. Seeing Heather comes with an invitation to forfeit my role of meaning-maker and honour her capacity to name her own body, formulate her own experience and decide how powerful, assertive or sexy she will be.
Seeing Heather also comes with an invitation to be present—not to my lofty concepts of a generalized Other– but to Heather and the sound of her hand swishing to the time to the music, to the soothing aroma of the herbal shampoo, to the light streaming in the tinted window and, finally, to the subtle movement of her arm to the side of the tub, signalling when she is ready to get out. Signalling me to see.
Thanks be to Heather.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Geez magazine (geezmagazine.org).
Janna Payne is a Master of Divinity student and live-in assistant at L’Arche Daybreak (Richmond Hill, ON), where assistants and core members (individuals with intellectual disabilities) create home. She can be reached at email@example.com