For a month this summer, I served as caregiver for my 91-year-old grandm
other. Her short-term CNA departed abruptly, leaving the woman I call ‘Nana’ alone, with congestive heart failure, in a large, drafty house in the midwest.
A heart-health challenge had crashed over me in the spring, also. It demanded —in the way life crises often do—that I interrogate how I was spending my time. The inward glance showed a longing to spend days and weeks with multiple generations of my family.
Nana is an elegant lady. She’ll have you know she’s from Philadelphia, PA, although she’s lived in Northern Indiana for over five decades. Her high cheekbones lend an air of grace. Smoothing skin creme on both hands and elbows is an evening beauty secret. Dabs of Clinque-brand lipgloss punctuate her morning routine.
Her home sits on the shores of Lake Michigan, in a small rust-belt town. She raised five children in the house’s modern rooms—walls of orange, bright blue, gray wood paneling. Growing up, my family would make an annual trek to the lake each summer, for bonfires, sailing, and grilled meals on the deck.
As caregiver, every morning, I would fetch the paper, brew coffee, fix her breakfast—usually Chex and Rice Krispies, with fresh strawberries cut just so and 2% milk. If it was a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, I’d set out her towels, wash cloth, and floor mat to prepare the way for her shower. Every afternoon at 3:30p was Jeopardy! time. Every night the Cubs played, we would park ourselves in front of her TV in the living room and cheer for her favorite players.
I would fix dinner in the evening—some kind of meat, vegetable, and always, always salad with dried cranberries and chopped carrots, no dressing. She would eat slowly, deliberately, as I inhaled my food through force of habit. We would say grace before each evening meal, alternating nights. I tried hard to keep my prayer reverent and Abrahamic enough to not arouse suspicion of my defection from the Catholic church.
Nana would tell me that she loved me, I would kiss her on her head, hair thin, skin papery. I enjoyed checking-in on her periodically throughout the day, asking ‘You need anything, Nan?’ The tasks and rhythm were a welcome and deeply necessary departure from hours spent staring at screens and manipulating words and means in service of marketplace outcomes.
After too many breakneck days in the Financial District of San Francisco, chasing or running from ‘disruption’ and trying (and usually failing, tethered tightly by annual bonuses and impossible rent payments and general anxiety) to keep my head one hair above total thrall of Silicon Valley hegemon, my hours and days and weeks with Nana provided antidote and grounding. A reminder of the expression: Sometimes we give and receive comfort at the same time.
Many people—aunts, uncles, cousins, her friends and fellow parishioners at the local church—thanked me for caring for Nana. Frankly, however, I’m the one who should be thankful. One of the strongest women I know is stooped and can scarcely open a JIF peanut butter jar by herself. In her quiet way, she has reawakened an understanding in me of what true mettle can be made of in this life: reasonable constraints, small pleasures, moments to pause, routine connection to those most dear, and, above all, refusing to cede a strong sense of self, not to mention style and spirit, even as the body betrays.