Tag Archives: Caregiving

Thievery

Thievery

My father was always a suspicious type, never trusting anyone about anything.  When we were growing up, he constantly warned us about the people we associated with, the places we went, the activities we got involved with.  The world as he saw it was full of treacheries, both deliberate and accidental.  His paranoia embarrassed me; it was too eccentric, and too self-centered.  It annoyed me that he felt so large in the scheme of things that he assumed the rest of the world was always thinking about him and how to take advantage of him.  

After we all left home, my father bought 50 acres out in the countryside and built his dream house.  His driveway was almost a mile long and wound through huge live oaks and uncleared scrub.  The clearing where he placed his house was ringed by live oaks, with clear pasture beyond.  It was an idyllic natural setting, as quiet and peaceful as one could imagine.  The first floor of his house was almost all floor to ceiling glass, so from the inside one could see all the surrounding nature.  By the same token, one could easily see in from the outside; an amazing degree of exposure for a man so mistrusting.  Thankfully, there was no one out there to see in, not for miles.

All the same, my father always left some cash on his kitchen counter so that if upon returning home he looked in the window and saw that the money was gone, he would know that someone had broken in.  For thirty years that money lay there.  Every time I saw it, it irritated me.   He didn’t ever seem afraid of anything, and he was usually armed, so his constant expectation of villainy seemed more about his disdain for Fate.  If somehow, somewhere he had a date with an inevitable thief,  he was going to be prepared when the guy showed up.

Maybe this all began when he was a fighter pilot in WWII.  People were truly gunning for him then.  A certain reasoned paranoia was wise for a soldier, and it kept him alive, no doubt.   He escaped being robbed of his life then, and perhaps decided at that young age that non-trust of others was a useful survival skill.  That was what he tried to teach us, anyway.

Maybe it was amplified by my mother’s death at age forty-four.  She was driving to the beauty parlor and another car pulled out from a side street right in front of her.  The braking distance was too short and my mother’s car slammed into the front end of the other car.  My mother died 10 days later from the internal injuries she suffered.  The other driver walked away.  That was a grand larceny if there ever was one.

After that my father had years of failed relationships with other women.  He was handsome, successful, elegant, and superficially a true Southern gentlemen in his treatment of women, and the girlfriends came in a steady stream.  They also inevitably left.  He drove them crazy.  He was always suspicious of where they went and what they did.  If they went to the store to get something, he would time their absence, and if the drive took longer than he had previously clocked it (I’m not kidding), they would be interrogated upon return.  One could say that he was afraid they might rob him of his trust, but since he never trusted anyone, they had no chance.  

To my knowledge my father was never robbed in the sense that he always anticipated, so his paranoia was really prescience, a foreknowledge of what was to come.   At some early age he got a glance through the folds of time, and saw thievery in his future.  It should have come as no surprise then, when sometime in his seventies, dementia and psychosis began stealthily taking his mind away from him.  He is now eighty-six and the robbery has been severe.  At first it was just short term memory and a few words here and there, but now it has been everything.  His career, his dream home, the ability to drive and manage his financial affairs, all life long pleasures, personal independence – all gone.  He can no longer read, or even watch television.  He needs full time help to take care of him, so his much cherished privacy is gone.  He has to be fed and also wears a diaper, so even his most basic dignities have been stolen.  In lucid moments he tells me he wants to die because he has nothing left, but his ability to do that on his own is missing, too.  The only thing the thief hasn’t taken is his perfectly healthy heart, which goes on beating and shackling him to his emptied out existence.  The scale of this heist absolutely justified a life long fear of being robbed.

Caretaking comes with it’s own kind of thievery, so he was actually right to warn me all along.  First I was robbed of my father as I knew him, then over the years I have lost sleep, time, personal and professional opportunities, health, and friends.  Fatigue and depression are my constant companions, and they leave little time for anything else.  I feel like I’ve lost my identity as an artist.  People no longer ask me about upcoming exhibits or what I’m working on; they ask me how my father is.  My identity as a caretaker is not a good fit, either.  I feel vague and uncentered most of the time, not to mention scared, angry, frustrated, sad, and resentful, depending on the moment.  Despite years of my father’s warnings, I never believed him and so I was unprepared for this.  He was the one always guarded, and yet it ultimately did him no good.  The thief slipped up on him undetected and leisurely set to work, so why should I, the non-vigilant, have been spared?

Both my father’s anxiety about thievery, and my outrage, are ridiculous, of course. Our lives are only loaned to us at birth – we know we have to give them back someday. Because of that, all of our stuff, large and small, tangible and intangible, is also only on loan. We don’t get to take any of it with us. Neither do the thieves. So what’s the problem?

Like my father, I have a strong heart, physically, and hopefully, emotionally.  Someday when this thief is gone, I hope I will be able to find myself in the ransacked mess that he has left behind.   My father’s only hope is that he will just finish the job.

An Awkard Stage

My sister recently sent me some old family photographs she had come across.  There was one of me, taken when I was twelve or thirteen.  It is a horrible picture.  I look like an adolescent alien trying to emerge from inside an angular bursting-at-the-seams child, with bulging elbows and knees and nose and teeth.  I had new heavy-hardware braces then, and a criminally bad haircut with short bangs.  I have never looked good in bangs.  It was one of those captured-in-time photographs that you can’t burn fast enough.  My sister had stuck a note on it which jokingly read, “an awkward stage!”, which should win her a prize for the understatement of the century.

The pictures of my awkward stages in life greatly outnumber pictures of me where I look fairly put together.  I always liked to think i just wasn’t photogenic, but now that I think about it, my life has been a steady stream of awkward stages.

Once when I was complaining about having to have my picture taken for a magazine article and knowing˙ it would be unflattering, a friend told me how to fix that.  He said to look straight into the camera and think “I am really good at what I do”, and the picture would turn out great.  Damned if it didn’t work.   That made it clear that what had been photographed all along was not my face, but my deep seated insecurities about, oh, everything.  If I think back through the rogues gallery of my most unflattering images, I recognize that unfortunate look in each one of them.  The most flattering images I recall I realize were taken when I was relaxed and happy and feeling like I was really good at whatever I was doing.  So now when someone points a camera at me, I try to hold the same thought – I am really good at what I do.  Sometimes it works, but it’s not easy to quickly rodeo all my features under that umbrella, and so, often as not, another awkward stage goes on record.

The silly thing is, I am good at much of what I do.  I have a successful career as an artist, I have a happy and fun marriage of almost 30 years, I have good health, I keep (with some help) a passably clean and organized home, I am a good public speaker, I am practical, punctual, economical, and reliable.  You would think I would be able to take a good picture any old time, but insecure waters run deep.

When I shared this reflection with my sister of the unasked for old photographs, she said, “Oh, you’re just insecure about taking another bad picture!”  Maybe she’s right, because that would certainly be enough.

My husband never took good pictures of anyone or anything until digital cameras came along.  Now that he can see what’s in the frame before he shoots, heads are no longer lopped off and things are aligned as nature intended them.  This is a good thing, except for the fact that he is smitten with his success and is constantly either pointing his camera or his phone at me and anyone else within range. For a while all his pictures of me captured a witheringly annoyed and thus highly unflattering look, so I continued to fulfill my own prophecy.

The camera always took great pictures of my father.  One, he is very handsome, and two, he never doubted that he was excellent at whatever he was doing.  That meant he was always right about everything, which has often been awkward for the rest of us, but never for him.

My father is going through an awkward stage now.   For a decorated WWII fighter pilot with two engineering degrees and three successful careers, dementia is about as awkward as it gets.  Sometimes that awkwardness shows in photos of him now, but not always; for the most part he still thinks he is good at what he is doing.  He knows, however, that he is not doing so well at growing older, and the insecurity that that fosters shows.  He makes choices which don’t serve his best interests, but he can’t see that, so when the results are not good, he is confused and hurt.  In his mind, he is still always right.  I try to keep him believing that, because having lost so much of his former self, the worst thing he can lose right now is his self confidence.  It is all he has left to sustain him through this awkward stage.

Give and Take

Single words are delicious morsels of information.  They are rich with history and meaning.  Despite differences of perspective or language, a word can communicate across vast spaces of time and culture.  We know a lot about things because of the words that make up the intricate embroidery of their descriptions.  There is plenty to be known outside of language, of course, but if we experience or learn something non-verbally, chances are the first thing we do is put that experience into words so we can turn right around and tell someone else about it.  And how we do just that!  It is no accident that humans are the only creatures associated with the verb to blather.

It is always important not to confuse the word with the thing it represents.  A word doesn’t ultimately define that to which it is attached, and so names of things are conveniences, not truths.  Still, words are very important.  Not only for how they sound, but also for how they let us sound off.  Equally important is how words make us feel, above and beyond what they might actually mean.

So, several words have come under my scrutiny lately.  They have been coming up a lot in my life, and they are making me feel things which I want to tell someone about.  Please indulge me as I blather.

The words are give, take, and care.  As words and as verbs,  give and care have a lot in common.  They both imply things like altruism, empathy, and sympathy.  Whichever order you put them in, give care or care give,  they sound nice.  To take seems like the odd man out here, almost connoting the opposite of the other two.  However, when you combine give and take, you get the benevolent idea of parity, of sharing.  When you combine care and take, you get an action that is kindly in an especially deliberate way.  When you switch the order to take care, you get a blessing.

Because of my father’s dementia, I am now officially what the health care industry calls a caregiver. It’s a good enough word; it means good things.  I don’t like it for me, though.  I prefer caretaker.  I know that makes me sound more like a janitor or gardener, but I do all that for my father anyway, so it’s not an incorrect description.  Both titles mean the same thing in this context, so this sounds nitpicky, I know.   Probably no one else cares about this little taxonomical issue except me.  Lord knows my father doesn’t care.  But I do, and if I am going to be burdened with a title on top of everything else, I want it to be right.

Care-giving sounds a little impersonal to me.  Like an obligation.   Like one can be somehow detached from the care itself.  It doesn’t have to be part of you, and won’t be part of you once it is given.  We give things away.  That’s what we say when we want to detach ourselves from our cares – we give them away, toss them, release them.  We give things up for good.  Or we give them a whirl.  We give a shit.  Something gives us the creeps.  The concept of giving can seem so superficial.  Want to give? Just write a check.  We give up.

Care-taking sounds like complete absorption to me.  When you take care, it’s personal.  There is no space between you and your care.  It is a choice, not an obligation, to take care.  You take part in the caring.  You take a stand.  You take your place.  You can take a hike.  When you take action, you do it on purpose and you mean something by it.  If you take ill, it’s serious.  Ditto if you take a fall.  If you are taken by something, it has all of your attention.   If you take a pill, you ingest it into your being.  If you take an object, you take on responsibility for it.  If you take a chance, your whole life can hang in the balance.   A second take can change everything.  I’d rather take someone by the hand than just give them a hand.  Taking is active, involved, personal.  Take a number, and when it’s your turn, you are taken care of.

When I picture a caregiver, I picture someone in a white uniform and thick squeaky shoes. Someone who smells medicine-y.  Someone with an education  certificate and a reasonable car.  Someone who was interviewed and hired.  Someone who was given a job.

When I picture a caretaker, I see someone in practical work clothes with a little grime under their fingernails.  Someone with a set of important keys.  Someone who smells of physical labor, either rigorous or plodding.   Someone who can fix things.  Someone who evolved into the job through hard work and determination.  Someone who takes on challenges.

I’ll concede that caregiver implies an animate recipient of the care being given, like my father, while caretaker connotes care directed towards an inanimate object, like his house.  I think this is just a trick.  Caregiver is a professional term only recently applied to nonprofessionals like me, but caretaker has always represented folks who just rolled up their sleeves and got the job done, no matter who or whatever was on the receiving end.

One cannot define the care giver-taker-doer-provider by way of the recipient, anyway.  As in my father’s case, the animate recipient is just the tiny visible tip of the iceberg that you crash into when you take on this job.  The real treacheries are inanimate and deeply submerged; a lifetime of assumptions (and thus many misconceptions) you have to rodeo and deal with, a minefield of not-very-good choices you have to finesse, and the awkwardness of being stuck in a small lifeboat with someone you thought you knew but who now turns out to be a total stranger.  You become hopelessly entangled in what you thought was a lifeline you were tossing, but which, as often as not, morphs into an anchor chain instead.  Ultimately, the most critical thing the caretaker cares for is not the point person, the parent or whomever, that everyone is focused on.  The real job is to expose and care for all the murky submerged stuff that has buoyed that person up their whole life.  In other words, to best care for the person, you identify and care for all that which constitutes them; their  history and their relationship to it, not yours, thank you very much.  You care for, take care of, that which they care about, the depth and breadth of who they are in their world, however they experience it.  You take care of them, for them.  It’s hard work, but on a good day, you might be tempted to call it a blessing.

I know it’s only semantics, but to me, this is not a job about giving.  It is all about taking.  Taking care, of course, but also taking it on the chin; taking your medicine, the bull by the horns, the last train to Clarksville – or  whatever it takes.

My Hybrid Life

My Hybrid Life

After seeing the Al Gore movie, An Inconvenient Truth, I traded in my car for a hybrid.  I love it.  I love spending half as much as I used to on gas and decreasing my own dependence upon oil.  I love reducing my carbon footprint.  I love being able to squeeze into parking places I never could have before, and sometimes I am even able to create parking spaces where none existed.  Everything about this car is better than any other car I’ve ever owned.  I think the whole idea of hybridism is better – two or more diverse elements combining to become more than the sum of their parts.  My car is a final formal manifestation of what I realize now I’ve preferred all long in all things, the hybrid.  Without thinking within that specific concept, before popular use of the term itself, hybrids have always been appealing to me.

Thirty years ago, I chose my first hybrid – my husband.  I grew up as a Southern, white, middle class Protestant in a homogeneous community of pretty much the same description.  The boys I grew up with and dated were very sweet, but ultimately, all too similar and not very interesting.  My  husband is half Jewish, half Irish Catholic from New York City, and the first Yankee to marry into the family.  He was like an exotic alien when I met him; thrilling in a weird way, like a kindly two-headed visitor from a far away galaxy.  I remember my older sister commenting after meeting him, that “he‘s nice, but he sure is different from all of us.”  He is indeed one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  And different not only from us, but, as I eventually found out, even from his own family.  He gets along with everyone, miraculously survived the seventies fairly uncompromised, and he never gets sick, not even a cold or a hangnail.  The double cultures of guilt he should have inherited from both sides of his gene pool canceled themselves out,  and he is an emotionally efficient and happy person.   He has absolutely no neurotic footprint.

My next hybrid was a dog.  I had always owned purebreds, and when this cutely unattractive puppy of indeterminate heritage showed up on my doorstep, my only thought was to find him a good home.  When that didn’t happen after a few days, I stopped looking.  There was something different about this puppy, something I had never experienced with purebreds.  That something turned out to be the smartest, funniest, sweetest, most poetic dog I have ever known.  And the healthiest.  He could climb anything, open anything, catch anything, and eat anything with no ill effect.  Unlike my purebreds, he did not come with allergies or attitude.  He never did get pretty, but he possessed breathtaking canine efficiency of every stripe.  I have had nothing but highly functional hybrid dogs ever since.

Twenty-five years ago, my art began to morph into hybridism.  What began as “oil on canvas” is now mostly not.  Technically, my work is known by the common term “mixed media”, but what’s uncommon about it is that much of those media aren’t even normal artists’ materials.  Although I still use oil paints and canvas in many of my pieces, “domestic detritus” better describes what I work with, and there is a deliberate  recycling component to my process.  I’ll never forget an artist friend lamenting, upon seeing my first hybrid work, that I “used to be such a good painter”.  I guess I moved away from traditional media and application because they just weren’t giving me enough creative mileage.

I now live in an outrageously hybrid neighborhood.  It was once a white, middle-class neighborhood, and yet when we moved in fifteen years ago it was aging towards run down rentals and crack houses.  Thankfully, it has since evolved into a better neighborhood of you-name-it.  It is hard to imagine a richer mix of race, nationality, age, income bracket, sexual orientation, and lifestyle.  We have multimillion dollar homes across the street from modest blue-collar ones.  We have low-income apartments, historic garden homes, and at least one suspiciously meth-like house.  We have a local policeman, a Buddhist cell, and several cat ladies.  We even have an older couple living in a parked RV.  We have people with walkers and electric wheelchairs, and kids on skateboards.  We have mockingbirds and parrots.  Many of us walk, with and without dogs, and when we pass each other we all smile and greet each other.  We know each other and each other’s dogs by name.  Even the people in the neighborhood who only drive wave and smile as they go by.  I believe everyone means it, too.  It is a disparately beautiful neighborhood, both physically and culturally; a community far greater than ever for the sum of it’s current parts.  It’s a great place to park oneself.

It is encouraging that I am also living in an increasingly hybrid country.  If my limited but positive experience with mixing it up holds consistent, then I think we can all look forward to a country that is less attitudinal for being as diverse and inclusive as it can be.  A country where people are not allergic to each other.  This is, after all, the kind of footprint our country was meant to have, wasn’t it?

Considering  all this, I guess it was inevitable that I eventually become a hybrid myself.  For fifty plus years, I have been father’s child, and now I am also his parent.  This isn’t what any of us would have wanted, but I have to admit that it’s improving me in ways I never anticipated.  Because my father has dementia, I am finally learning about living in the moment.  I have espoused that for years, but it was all naive new-age rhetoric; I had no clue what it really meant until now.  Living in the moment is not easy when my mind still wants to go in any direction it likes, but my father has shown me how to achieve that simple focus, and indeed it is lovely.  Because my father’s food tastes run to the basics now, a protein and two vegetables for dinner, I am preparing and eating less yummy but healthier meals.  I find I don’t miss the cream sauces that much, and I’ve lost that nagging ten pounds I hated.  I am getting more exercise, too, some from running up and down the stairs more often, and some from taking him out for a bike ride everyday.  I have developed absolutely profound patience; who knew I had that in me?  I have learned that there is more than the normal 24-hour-clock kind of time to live by, and I think some of the other kinds are just as good, if not better.  I am much more energy efficient these days, having no time for apathy or frustration, only for caring and kindness.   As a hybrid I am getting much better consciousness mileage than ever before.  I like to think I have dramatically reduced my selfishness footprint.