Doing ‘The Washing Machine’ With My 84-Year-Old Mother

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How a ridiculous dance — several, actually — kept us connected through Covid.

Essay by Erika Shimahara, New York Times, May 7 2021

Brian Rea

When I see my mother on the screen holding her hot-pink, one-pound dumbbells, I start playing “Circle of Life” by the singer she calls “Elton Johns.” We begin with shoulder rolls followed by arm circles, basic side steps and — her favorite — forward punches.

She’s wearing my brother’s cycling windbreaker from his college days nearly three decades ago. It was always large but now swallows her like a trash bag.

Only a year ago, my stocky, 84-year-old mother could hike with me up steep San Francisco hills. But since the pandemic hit, she has shriveled, become wobbly on her feet, even fallen a few times. Now, on the screen in her billowing chinos, she’s trying to exercise with me, but her moves are sluggish.

Suppressing my anguish, I shout above the music, “Can you lift your leg higher, Ma?”

Before coronavirus, she and I took walks every weekend to a coffee shop or to Lafayette Park, where dogs played and locals practiced tai chi against the backdrop of San Francisco Bay. But it had been a year since my parents’ assisted living facility went on lockdown, meaning it had been a year since she and I had seen each other in person.

For the first months, I would call many times a day to check in. “Ma, are you OK?” “Are you washing your hands?” I would implore her to keep her mind and body active: “If you don’t keep moving, you will become a vegetable!” “Watch the news!”

Around Thanksgiving, when it was clear we wouldn’t be able to gather for the holidays, we started to meet on FaceTime to exercise, which we refer to in her native Japanese as “taiso.” I quickly discovered that I couldn’t just call and expect her to click the button on her computer to connect us. The process required step-by-step instructions, reminders and intricate planning.

Well before the pandemic, I had installed a “mommy cam” in my parents’ apartment at the facility to keep an eye on them. My father, who is 85, has dementia and is unable to walk on his own, and I worry about my mother too. Now I make sure to check out the video feed before calling to see if she is napping, doing laundry or tending to my ailing father.

If she’s free, I call and say, “Hi Ma! When shall we do taiso?” and remind her to find her reading glasses so when the computer fires up, she can see to press the correct options on the screen. The camera allows me to see that she’s at her computer, but not what’s on the screen.

“Ma, what do you see?” I ask. “A black screen? Something green that says FaceTime?”

“FaceTime? What button?”

The first few weeks I had to repeat instructions five or six times. As I raised my voice, my gentle and even-tempered mother would moan. Imagining messages from my work colleagues accumulating in another window, my heart rate would rise.

“Can’t you see it?” I would say, knowing I was demanding things that she was losing the capacity to do and that I would regret lashing out.

On the days we connect quickly, I savor the victory: “Good job, Ma! Got it on the first try!”

She appears on my screen in turquoise reading glasses that make her eyes cartoonishly large. Her tied-back hair is a cap of white atop a layer of dyed black, a reminder of how long it’s been since she’s been able to visit the salon.

Her desktop computer used to be her happy place. For hours she would email with friends or draft her next tanka, a genre of Japanese poetry. Before going to bed, she would send my brother and me emails, wishing us a restful slumber, though we might have just spoken by phone. Even as adult children visiting her long after we had moved out, she used to take pleasure in tucking us in, asking if we were warm enough. Now, she does this for my father.

It only took a few months of lockdown for her to lose all interest in her computer. When we started taiso, I had to remind her where the power button was.

Now that we have been at this for months, she needs less guidance. On good days, we can get through six or seven songs without the Wi-Fi freezing up or the staff interrupting or my father needing attention.

We don’t talk much during taiso. I model a move and she follows. We start with slow tunes and shed our weights for faster music. I lure her with “Circle of Life.” She sways with arms above her head.

“This is a sad song,” she says, “but I like it. Is Elton Johns still alive?” And then, “Look, this arm doesn’t go up as high.”

Sometimes she embellishes my moves, fluttering her fingers like a silly ballerina. When she is in a particularly good mood, she will wave her arms toward the ceiling, demanding a faster song.

“Ma,” I say. “Can you do your washing machine imitation?” She used to be a masterful mimic. Without hesitation, she will jiggle her trunk sideways, hands flailing at her sides, deadpan. No doubt, she still has it. “We’ll be doing that move,” I say, “so pay attention.” During the chorus of Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever,” I shout, “Washing machine!” and we shake our torsos in agitate mode.

In December, as we pumped our arms to “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” I remembered being a teenager and belting out that song with high school friends. I was dropped into my childhood bedroom — the peach-colored carpet, the walls plastered with Springsteen and Nike posters: “Just Do It.”

Back then, while the radio played in our New Jersey home, Ma might have been folding laundry on the couch, deep-frying battered veggies in crackling oil for tempura, or sprinkling cinnamon on coffee cakes she had baked.

Now, she is plodding in place with tiny pink weights, watching me with such focus that I have to hold back tears.

I see many stories in my mother’s face: her childhood in a shattered Japan during World War II; the youngest and only girl of four siblings; losing her beloved mother to illness when she was 10; doing factory work in America to support my father’s teaching career at Rutgers; getting taunted by co-workers for her accent and for eating rice balls for lunch.

The lines around her eyes speak of the many years she was up at 5:30 a.m. for her 90-minute commute into Manhattan where she was an office assistant. In the evening, her work continued at home, with hours of cooking, housework and parenting.

When I worked in the city after college, she and I commuted together from home and occasionally met for lunch, eating our rice balls on a window bench at the World Financial Center. On special occasions, we treated ourselves to the lunch buffet at the Hilton, where we ate until our skirts felt like girdles.

Now her furrowed brow betrays the constant worry she has about my father, who has difficulty communicating his needs. Or her accumulated confusion from the long isolation: “I don’t know what’s going on anymore,” she says. “When will this be over?” But in this moment of taiso, her face says: “I’m with you. I can do this.”

I seize the moment. “Ma, can you still do your sea lion imitation?”

She starts, elbows glued to her ribs while her hands sloppily slap together and her head bobs.

“Yes!” I say, and we’re both laughing.

At the end of a good session, she settles into her chair with arms splayed, closes her eyes and smiles.

“Great job, Ma!” I say, but what I want to do is hold her.

Taiso does not always go well. When my mother is depressed or confused, or when I am frustrated by her struggles with technology, we grimace our way through the motions or we skip it. But I make the effort almost every day, with the hope of reviving a part of my mother that I fear we are losing. Taiso doesn’t replace our conversations or rid me of my ever-present paranoia, but it does give us a momentary reprieve, a kind of virtual sanctuary.

If it weren’t for Covid, I never would have learned that my mother and I can have fun together without actually being in the same place. Recently, we have started to work her sea lion moves into the beginning of Madonna’s “Open Your Heart.” She is the mama sea lion, and I am the baby, and we are connected no matter what.

We slap our hands together. “Am I doing it right?” I say, and she nods.

For a year, this was all we had. But this Mother’s Day, we’ll finally have so much more. A day together. In person.

Erika Shimahara is an education administrator at the Stanford School of Medicine.

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