No Saints around Here: A Caregiver's Days
Susan Allen Toth
Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2014
256 pp., $16.95
Lisa Ohlen Harris
"For Better or for Worse"
After friends urge Toth again and again to "have a life" outside the caregiving, she tours care facilities. She knows how James dreads these places, but she also knows that as his dementia grows worse, she may not be equipped to continue caring for him. The social centers and exercise rooms of the nursing homes are ghostly quiet. Toth leaves the nursing homes with a sort of muddled clarity:
How would I feel when I saw James strapped into a wheelchair, perhaps sedated, because no one could be with him every minute to make sure he didn't try to stand up and then fall down? Who would take the time to wash his scalp carefully, gently, every day with a medicated shampoo to alleviate an itchy flakiness that Parkinson's has added to his symptoms?
Toth sees clearly what many of us don't. There is no easy way out.
Thanks to a rotation of paid caregivers, Toth does get out for an hour or two most days to write, to go for a bike ride, to hit a thrift store for a bright T-shirt or new pair of jeans. And she is grateful for her small freedoms.
Much as I admire Toth's caregiving and her writing, I found myself consistently annoyed at certain aspects of the book. In several places, Toth (or her editor) has inserted parenthetical cross-references. In a friendship formed over many cups of coffee, stories are repeated—often with a different insight or detail of memory. When an author refers back to an event earlier in the narrative, the reader feels connection, not irritation. Ah, yes, I remember when you managed to get James down two flights of stairs in his wheelchair, I might think. But Toth has to plop the chapter reference in parentheses (See "The Last Christmas"), pulling me out of her literary spell and reminding me this is, ostensibly, a mostly unedited chronicle. The text is set in Clifford Pro, a font with heavy vertical lines that doesn't reflect the grace of the writing and pathos of the content. And yet, these are the flaws of a friend. Over many cups of coffee, I have come to love this little book.
Why do I wish this book were more polished? Toth is the author of half a dozen lovely, well-received memoirs. The woman has chops. No Saints Around Here is more winsome and eloquent than many of the caregiving books I've read over the past six years. Susan Allen Toth doesn't need to make high art out of what is already complete and finished: the fulfillment of her marriage vows:
The days, weeks, and months passed, and somehow we all managed. To my infinite relief, James never had to go into the nursing home he dreaded. One morning soon after his death, I drove to a nearby coffee shop to meet my widowed and former caregiver friend Barb. As we startled the coffee drinkers around us with our vigorous, pumping high fives, we both had tears in our eyes. We had done it.
Lisa Ohlen Harris is the author of The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law's Memoir of Caregiving, published last year by Texas Tech University Press.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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