There is blood leaking out of my washing machine.
For the last eight months, my mother has had bullous pemphigoid. "Bullous" means blistering; "pemphigoid" means bubble-like. Together it means that her immune system is attacking her skin, causing outbreaks of blisters all over her body. There are dozens of them on her hands, her legs, her feet.
It started with a single sore the size of a nickel. At first, I thought it was from the strap of the soft boots she wears to cushion the skin on the bottom of her feet. When the sore didn't heal, the staff at the nursing home where she has lived since her strokes told me it was probably an autoimmune disease. I found a professor of autoimmune dermatology and made an appointment. He took one look at her and said "It's bullous pemphigoid."
Some people take oral steroids to fight bullous pemphigoid. For my mother, that's too risky because of all the other medications she must take. So every morning, the nurses apply steroid cream to each of the lesions and cover them with gauze and tape. In the evening, they slowly remove the dressings, apply more steroid cream and put on new gauze and tape. The process takes almost an hour each time.
Some of the blisters are filled with water. They look like delicate bubbles blown from a child's toy bubble pipe. When the disease first appeared, I almost brushed one of them away with my hand, thinking it was a soap bubble that had landed on her arm by accident.
Other blisters are large and filled with blood and because she is on anticoagulants, they bleed a lot when they burst. Thankfully, she has been spared the mouth and eye blisters which are common with this disease.
Since she developed bullous pemphigoid, my mother's clothes have been saturated with blood. A four-inch diameter stain on the thigh of her pants, a long red line on her sleeve, an angry Rorschach blot on her belly. Sometimes it looks like she's been stabbed.
Her clothes are also flaked with skin. Until the dermatology professor told the nurses to try nonstick dressings, they used regular bandages and every time they removed the gauze, part of her skin would also come off. Even now, large pieces of scabbed skin stick to her clothes and wind up in the laundry hamper.
When the nurse's aide helps my mother get dressed each morning, pulling on her pants causes the blisters to burst. Three weeks ago, the aide asked me to bring in some of my mother's dresses. She doesn't own any except for formalwear, so I went to Kmart and bought her 10 housedresses. I got them on sale, 10 for 199 dollars. They have five metal snaps up the front and this makes the nurse's aide happy. Less pulling pants up her legs, fewer burst blisters.
The dresses look like something a 1940's housewife would wear while polishing the linoleum. Shirley Booth in "Come Back, Little Sheba," maybe. But they are not unredeemably ugly. They are aqua or yellow or pale green and have delicate stripes. My favorite one has small pink roses. It makes it harder to see the blood.
The nursing home has a laundry where they wash the residents' clothes. It is dark and humid and they use a detergent with a heavy floral scent that makes me gag. And the thought of my mother's clothes being washed with everyone else's makes my stomach turn and flip like the spin cycle of the communal machine itself.
I tried taking the housedresses to two different laundries near my house, but neither was willing to work with blood-saturated clothes.
So, every 10 days, I empty out the hamper in my mother's room and bring her housedresses home. I keep a box of extra-large Hefty bags in her closet so there is something to carry them home in.
I take the Hefty bag with her housedresses out of the car and wait for the elevator in my building. The clothes smell of blood and ointment and skin. When the door opens and the elevator is empty, I feel a little relieved and then a little ashamed of myself.
I carry the bag into my laundry room. I have already assembled there the equipment and potions I will need. I put on a pair of latex gloves, coat the stains with Spray and Wash and briskly rub the fabric. The fingers of my gloves turn a deep red.
I put the housedresses in the washing machine and measure out the Tide High Efficiency to line 3 in the cap ("for extra-tough loads"). I think of a medical program I saw on TV which said that tens of thousands of bacteria can survive the wash and rinse cycles, so I add half a cup of Clorox color-safe bleach. As I swing the washing machine door shut, I remember my mother teaching me how to do laundry before I left for college. She said the only way to get clothes truly clean is by using hot water. I set the machine on the longest cycle with the hottest water possible. It will take three hours to wash and dry.
I throw the used Hefty bag into my kitchen garbage can along with the latex gloves. I look back at the counter where I sprayed the housedresses and at the floor of the laundry room where the stained clothing sat in a pile. I put on a fresh pair of gloves, get some Bounty and Mr. Clean Lemon Scent and wipe up the dried blood and pieces of skin.
I throw the second pair of gloves in the garbage and take the whole bag out to the trash chute in the hall.
I come back in and wash my hands and forearms, remembering to sing "Happy Birthday to You" twice through, just like the nurses taught me, to make sure it is a long enough and thorough enough wash.
An hour later, I check on the washing machine's progress. Watching the clothes twist and turn in the soapy lather gives me a certain peace. I imagine the disease being washed away.
But my machine has a small, capricious leak which every now and then lets a little water dribble out. Today there is a thin stream of reddish liquid making its way down from the drum to the base of the machine.
My mother's blood is leaking out of my washing machine.
I put on another pair of gloves, pick up more Bounty and Mr. Clean Lemon Scent and wipe up the leak.
Two hours pass and the wash cycle is done. I open the machine, take out the 10 housedresses and place them in the dryer. After 55 minutes, the dryer buzzes. I take out the clothes and fold and stack them. I place them in a clean Hefty bag to bring back to the nursing home tomorrow morning.
As I lift the bag off the table, a smell emerges. I pause for a moment and inhale it. The smell is a pleasant one. It is a mixture of Tide High Efficiency, the warmth of the dryer and the unmistakable scent of my mother, this time clean and light, still enmeshed in the fibers of the fabric.