Watering the Plants
Each April, we rearrange our living room so we can fit a coffee table below the sunniest window. On top of this table, we line up containers filled with soil and seeds: three types of tomatoes, four types of winter squash, and a fleet of basil.
I don’t know why I do this. I’m already caring for a young child, helping tend to a father with advanced Alzheimer’s, and supporting an aging mother. Why take on plants?
Six months later, after I’ve spent an hour every morning watering the garden in the ever drier, hotter, harsher Portland summer, I harvest exactly one squash from the five vines that survived.
This is it? I let you live in my living room for two months, I tended to you outside for four more, and this is it? Where is my hearty reward? Shouldn’t I have Instagram-worthy photos of piles of squash and baskets of darling tomatoes?
I visit my dad once a week at his care center. It’s not that different than watering the plants. I assess my dad. Are his eyes bright? Is his hair clean? Do his nails need trimming?
The care he receives will not heal him. He’s not going to get better. The care maintains. There is no reward for this work. So why do we do it?
We care for him because he’s a man in his eighties who can’t care for himself. Do we need any other reason?
I could say he’s earned it by being a good dad, a loyal husband, a hard worker. But that’s not fair. Would we choose not to care for someone less deserving?
Whether it’s caring for an elder, parenting, or growing a garden, it’s all the same: you give them your best without any expectations.
I hope for a bounty of tomatoes. I hope for my dad to be able to talk to me now and then. I hope—so fervently—that my child will grow up to be a stable, healthy, happy adult. But those outcomes can’t be known.
To care is to keep watering the plants. To give it your best every day, hope that it’s enough, then let go until you do it all again tomorrow.
—Trista Cornelius, Portland
In Sickness and In Health
My husband and I have lived for seven years in an independent senior living apartment. Though most of the residents were still active and healthy when we moved in, all of us are declining, physically and mentally, as part of the natural ending of life.
Our staff clean our apartments weekly, cook and serve three meals a day, and help with problems when they’re able. They do not offer health care; a resident can hire his or her caregiver who will come at scheduled times. These professional people care for their patients and often become quite emotionally close to them.
Several couples live here, and we observe how they interact. Some have been married for more than sixty or seventy years. It often happens that the husband or the wife declines more quickly than the mate. This is the time when those marriage vows—“in sickness and in health”—are called in, the promise kept.
Sometimes a woman tries to communicate with her sweetheart who is losing his memory and his hearing. Sometimes the husband has that task. It is repetitive and not easy.
In our dining room, we recently witnessed, at meal after meal, a couple who had been married more than seventy years. Both were on hospice. He was extremely patient. Her hearing aids didn’t work well, so he raised his voice and spoke slowly, enunciating carefully and often repeating a question or answer more than once.
They had both spent their lives together doing good work in whatever community they lived. They contributed financially to institutions that benefit the public. They were appreciated here in our retirement community; we cared about them.
She died quietly in their apartment, and he joined her a few weeks later. We could imagine them caring for each other in another place.
—Shirley Nelson, Florence
“She might pop into the Zoom sometimes,” he said apologetically. And there she was: rosy cheeks, flyaway braid, and tiny white teeth smiling a lopsided grin as she peeked into the side of his screen.
He looked young but spoke confidently, which was rare among my students, most of whom had never been on Zoom or even attended college before. He was so calm I almost didn’t understand what he said next. He told me his whole family had COVID. He was living in a trailer behind the house with his six-year-old sister so she didn’t get sick. She tipped her head onto his shoulder, her love for him shining like the sun after a storm.
He wrote an essay for class about struggling with addiction, about how hard he worked in a recovery program after being charged in a carjacking and incarcerated for over a year. He wrote about helping his sister with remote kindergarten and trying to be a good role model because he wanted her to see him as more than the brother who had been in jail. He wanted her to go to college someday, too.
He also wrote about how his cousin, his best friend, went through the recovery program with him, held him accountable, helped him stay sober. Then he wrote about his cousin’s murder. He was shot outside a convenience store not far from campus.
When he stopped coming to class, I felt we had both been set adrift. The certainty in his voice and the light on his face amid a sea of blank screens and a daily barrage of bad news had anchored me, and his absence severed the fragile connection I hadn’t realized I needed.
I emailed him, more than once, but never heard back. I filled out a concern form, but I worry I should have done more. Over a year later, I keep thinking about signs I should have noticed, words I should have said.
I have to hope he knew that I cared, despite the distance of distance learning. I hope the story that ended when he left my class is just the beginning of another story, one in which he’s not trapped behind a computer screen, isolated in a trailer. In this story, he’s out in the wide open world, carrying his calmness with him, taking care.
—Amanda Knopf Rauhauser, Salem
In the Absence of Care
As living, breathing humans, we all want equitable access to health care. It's not too much to ask, but people of color frequently face medical discrimination, whether deliberate or unintentional on the part of the practitioner. Regardless of the purpose, it is something that needs to be addressed in our health care system. A horrifying stereotype among Blacks is that we feel pain less than White folks, or worse, not at all.
While it may seem like an eternity to most, I still have a memory in my brain from seven years ago that hurts me as if it happened yesterday. After experiencing what I thought were false labor pains the day before, I awoke in excruciating pain the next morning. It wasn't until I went to the bathroom and saw the blood that I finally realized I was going to lose this baby. We went to the hospital even though, in our hearts, we knew it was too late.
When we arrived, I was taken to a room and then felt as if I had been forgotten. Nobody was doing anything to alleviate the pain as it worsened. I had to lie there and be strong, but I failed at that. When my screams of anguish became intolerable, a nurse barged in and snarled at me, "Can you keep it down? The other patients can hear you." She then immediately left and was gone before I could utter a single word back.
I felt so let down by my body for doing this to me, but worse than the failure in myself was the moment of heartlessness I felt from this nurse: shrugged aside when experiencing labor pains and feeling despondent, knowing my child will die once out of my womb. But how dare I bother the other patients in the hospital with my anguish and heartache? Black women are supposed to be stronger than this, right? I had to get through this painful ordeal quietly and suffer losing my child before meeting them because I’m a “strong Black woman.”
My memories will be haunted by the lack of care and sensitivity. We Black women deserve more in our hour of need. We deserve to have our sufferings and feelings affirmed rather than being viewed as a burden because of false stereotypes.
—Krystal Overvig, Toledo
I am legally blind. I like to tell people that I see just enough to get myself into trouble. It's true. I see color and contrast in a small portion of the eye. I wasn't born like this, and though most people assume it is because of diabetes, it isn't. The irony is that I can make most people believe I can see. Why would I do this? Because today's world is not so different as yesterday's, and people take advantage of people who cannot see. I get ripped off at stores a lot.
I have two primary caretakers: my husband and my twelve-year-old granddaughter. My granddaughter doesn't know that six years ago she saved me. I was falling a lot, and spectators would make fun of me. One day I fell while wearing my church dress. The dress flew up over my head like a parachute. Several passersby thought it was very humorous. To my horror I began to cry. I couldn't help it, and I couldn't stop. It was so frustrating!
Taking my hand, my granddaughter said, "Grandma, don't cry. When you fall down, jump right up and yell, 'Ha-dah.'"
She was too little to know it was supposed to be ta-dah. But her theory worked. Whenever I fell and there were people watching, I would jump up and yell, "Ha-dah." After a while, it no longer mattered to me if someone was watching. She gave me a sense of humor about something that really upset me, and that sense of humor has served me well.
My other care provider is my husband, who always looks very chivalrous as he hurries around the car to help me disembark. I hold his elbow, like women did a hundred years ago, and if I slip, he helps me keep my composure intact. He has learned to allow me to do the things I can do (which actually is quite a lot) but to be near enough to offer an elbow, or be on the lookout for the inattentive driver whose car comes too close.
The moral of the story is simple. Being cared for is neither a burden nor a privilege. It is a partnership. It is teamwork. My family understands that I am a human being who still needs to feel at least somewhat independent, and I gracefully accept their help when I need it.
Together we keep them all guessing—is she really blind? I'll never tell!
—Nakima Geimausaddle, Gilchrist
I slept on the lumpy futon in my son’s apartment to keep him from harming himself. When he moved back home, I hid sharp knives and ropes, all medications. Once, I called the police to intervene, calculating even that risk. Ashamed, Chris stared at me, his eyes craters of pain. Were my actions motivated by care or fear?
In deep depressive periods, Chris had abandoned jobs, plagued by night terrors and unable to get up. I state this truthfully, but is it an enabling explanation masquerading as care? Trying to support an adult child with mental illness requires constant reassessment. What terrible fury ravaged him? Did my caring exacerbate symptoms or excuse him from trying harder? I loved him desperately despite his rage at life. Yet the depth of the invisible illness that strangled him lay somewhere beyond my best efforts.
During these times, we also cooked together, a fig glaze on chicken thighs with orzo and broccoli, our favorite. We groused about the ridiculous number of blue pieces in our pandemic puzzle of a lakeside panorama. In the garden, we shoveled rich soil deep into divots for young hydrangeas. Working with living, growing plants had seemed healing. But he didn’t see them bloom.
Where is the manual on how to care for your adult child, manuals like those I read as a young mother—Your Two-Year-Old, Your Pre-Schooler, Your Sensitive Child? Care becomes much more complicated when your sensitive child is a sensitive, despairing adult. I wanted to carry hope for the two of us, trying to graft my hope onto his own rootstock, binding and sealing it in place, with optimism that a new path would unfurl. “You think so?” he often asked with a wry smile, testing my confidence. “I do,” I always answered. “A different path can be a good path.” Was this care or an unsuccessful bluff: who was I trying to convince? The line blurs when you love someone.
His last day on earth we ate brunch together outside at a local coffee house. This was care. We played tennis on park courts; he finished with an ace. This was care. The four of us watched a family movie together, his pick, maybe his care for us. Much later he walked back to the park alone, in the dark, with pills and a blanket, where my love and care couldn’t reach.
—Sara Salvi, Portland
Each morning begins the same way. I’m gently prodded out of bed by Clementine, who’s been up for hours. She bounces down the stairs on tangerine brindled paws to her nearly full bowl. She just wants me to notice, to remain attentive to her future needs. I top her off as a courtesy, and she lowers her tiny jowls, purring, into the kibble.
Lupita waits in the kitchen, a white specter of longing, soft brow furrowed with worry that this might be the day I forget about her breakfast. How could I ever forget? She dances from paw to paw, smiling and wagging, as the nuggets ping into her bowl.
Outside I open the coop, and Queenie, Cookie, Alice, and Adelaide charge my ankles. They wait, heads cocked, dinosaur eyes bright, staring up at me. I lower naked palms full of dried corn and am rewarded with the feel of sturdy beaks on my skin, the resilient heat of feathers under my hand.
I listen at the beehive. The cold, quiet exterior belies the stirring of new life within. I tip the cover and tuck in a dollop of honey to bridge the season.
Inside I make coffee, hot and strong. I froth milk into soft clouds. I scramble eggs in sizzling butter. I sauté brilliant green chard, sprinkle goat cheese, drizzle morita chile. I set a plate and cup in front of Brendan, and then I feed myself.
These bodies, large and small, human and not, take for granted the food I provide. But I never fail to appreciate the gift of their expectation.
Dad never liked my cooking. My focaccia smelled like an electrical fire. My chicken piccata he called pigeon. He’d never liked salmon, he said, if I served fish. When I grilled steak, I overcooked it. We both loved clams. I wish he’d ever tasted my cioppino.
When I was younger, my father made me angry; later, only sad. But now he is gone, and nothing more can be said about any of that.
Instead I understand that being allowed to love the way we’re able to love is the gift. We say, please take this and enjoy it. We say, I made this for you. All we need to hear is thank you, it’s wonderful, what a beautiful thing you made. And in that moment, we are fed.
—Eileen Garvin, Hood River
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