For one memorable year, perhaps ninth grade, my best friend and I were candy stripers on the nursing care floor in the neighboring town’s hospital. Wearing our pink- and white-striped pinafores over white blouses, and under the scrutiny of Sister Perpetua, we made beds with hospital corners, fed patients, read to them, and made conversation. My childhood dream was to follow in my aunt’s footsteps and be a nurse someday, but between the candy striper gig with old people and despising my high school chemistry teacher, the dream did a fast fade.
Then one college summer, home from the University of Washington and in need of a summer job, and with candy striper on my resume, I worked as a nurse’s aid at a nursing home. I delivered meals, fed some of the residents, cleaned up messes of all kinds, while wearing a short, sexy white uniform dress. If I wasn’t sure about working with old people before, that summer clinched it, particularly after letting a patient I wasn’t supposed to move by myself slip to the floor.
I had many jobs over the thirty-six years I lived “abroad” (in the Southeast), my favorite being mother to my two children. At age forty, I completed a master’s degree in school counseling, but being the wanderer that I am, did not make it a career. What I really wanted to do was write; you know, in a turret. Instead of becoming a best-selling novelist, I started a blog about restoring the overrun garden at the renovated house I bought—that incidentally was the same age I was. The garden and the blog moved me through grief over ended relationships and faraway children. I learned to fly solo and loved it. And I loved public writing and making connections.
In 2012, on my 60th birthday, I finally went “home,” back to the western corner of the country. My mother, living alone in the family home at ninety-six, needed more support and my nearby sister was doing more than her share. It was a good temporary landing place for me. I would live with her for a year, I decided. It didn’t turn out that way. Of course it didn’t.
The garden gone, I started a new blog. Writing my experiences in mother care—often irreverently—saved my sanity. Readers who responded to my posts gave me purpose and kept me writing down the story (which is the name of my post-mother-care blog, about my Pacific Northwest adventuring). I didn’t plan to write a book about it; I was going to write a book about the garden! I’ve stopped making distant plans.
My mother is gone now, for long enough that I don’t still hear her phantom footfalls in the hall or see her slumped sleeping in her recliner. At least not too often. My daughter’s family, who lived with me during the isolation of the pandemic and eight-month school closure, is back in their own home. My memoir is finished and will be published later this year. It’s time for my wandering soul to do a new thing. I feel a desire and a responsibility to pass on what wisdom I gained, as I learned from those who had been down this path before me. Exchanging gifts, it’s what we do.
I don’t have a medical degree, I’m not a professional caregiver, I’m not a “caregiver type” on personality inventories. My degrees in psychology and counseling may have counted for something, but helping a stranger is very different from caring for a family member, especially one fraught with not-uncommon mother-daughter unresolved tension. I don’t have answers—we all have different care recipients with different issues—but I am an expert on my experience. And maybe what I learned (some of it after death) will help you walk through yours—or at least save your sanity.
I acknowledge that I live on the ancestral lands of the People of the Sands (Chi-ke-lis,) who thrived along the Upper and Lower Chehalis River, until the encroachment of white settlers forced them to give up their ancestral lands.