I’m sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office in Smalltown, U.S.A., where I’ve been staying for a day short of two weeks, my longest visit in…well, as far back as I can remember. It’s not a vacation, alas. My seventy-eight-year-old mother fell and cracked her pelvis two months ago, and I’m looking after her while my brother arranges for home health care. (He and his wife, who live two blocks away, both have nine-to-five jobs that keep them busy all day.) Mrs. T was here as well, but she had to return to New York last Friday, and since then I’ve been on duty more or less continuously.
Being a full-time caregiver is a new and instructive experience for me. My mother can get around her house with the aid of a walker, but she’s not yet accustomed to using it regularly, and after spending a long and busy lifetime taking care of herself and others, she’s no more used to being inactive. Left to her own devices, she’d be on her feet at least half the time–she is, like me, a chronic picture-straightener–and I doubt she’d be using her walker more than sporadically, either. Thus I spend my days and nights with one ear cocked for trouble, serving by turns as resident picture-straightener, cook, dishwasher, secretary, chauffeur, conversationalist, physical therapist, dispenser of drugs, and maker of endless cups of weak decaffeinated coffee, each one flavored with three heaping spoonfuls of cappuccino mix.
Every aspect of my daily routine was transformed two weeks ago, from my bedtime (I now retire at ten instead of one) to my eating habits (Smalltown is the kind of place where Diet Dr. Pepper is considered a health food). I repeat the same droningly familiar refrains dozens of times each day: Step all the way into the walker, Mom. Don’t stoop over to pick up that piece of carpet fuzz. I’ll do it. We don’t want you to fall again. Please don’t carry that cup of hot coffee yourself–let me do it for you. I write in hurried snatches, read at odd intervals, and spend my evenings watching old movies with my mother. So far we’ve seen Brute Force, Detective Story, Harry and Tonto, Murphy’s Romance, Saboteur, The Westerner, and all four parts of Lonesome Dove. I get my news from Katie Couric, not the Web. Last month I flew to Milwaukee to see Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, a trilogy of plays which includes among its characters a lonely young woman named Annie who lives at home with her invalid mother and looks after her around the clock. Suffice it to say that I understand Annie a lot better now than I did when I wrote my review.
I took the precaution of writing and filing nine pieces prior to leaving for Smalltown so that I wouldn’t have to make any deadlines during my stay. Now that I’m here, I know how wise a precaution that was. My MacBook doesn’t do dialup, so twice a day I park in the lot of a nearby strip mall and hastily download my e-mail, mooching off the wireless signal of an unwitting business establishment. I’ve been able to get a modest amount of work done–I actually managed to eke out two thousand words of my Louis Armstrong biography in the past couple of days–but it’s as hard for me to concentrate as it is for me to sleep, knowing as I do that my first duty is and must always be to my mother, not my muse.
The hardest part of being a caregiver is that you’re never off duty, even when someone relieves you for a brief and blessed interval. On Monday my mother’s cleaning woman–whose name, appropriately enough, is Angel–spelled me for two hours so that I could buy groceries and run a few necessary errands. I listened to Leopold Stokowski’s recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis on the car stereo as I made my rounds. It was the first piece of classical music I’d heard in a week, and I soaked up its austere harmonies as though I were a bone-dry sponge dropped in a sinkful of warm water. Before returning home I paused at Hardee’s for a mid-afternoon sandwich, gulping down a few pages of Anthony Powell’s Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant as I ate. I was more than glad to be on my own, but I was feeling anxious by the time I dropped off my tray, and scurried home as quickly as I could, hoping that nothing had gone wrong in my absence.
It helps that my mother is a brave and good-hearted woman who is facing her unhappy plight with more pluck than I could possibly muster in similar circumstances. She even manages to find a fair amount of humor in the fact that her memory has been thrown out of whack by the powerful medications that she must take in order to endure the pain caused by her injury. A few nights ago I asked her what movie she wanted to see, and she replied, “I think I’d like to see…oh, you know…the ugly little man with an accent.” That was the best she could do. Fifteen minutes later I finally figured out that the accent was Irish, the man was Barry Fitzgerald, and the movie was The Naked City. We had a good laugh over that one.
It helps, too, that I know I’ll be flying back to Mrs. T and my normal life a few days from now. Manhattan has started to seem like a dream to me, a distant land visible only through the dense fog of memory. Come Sunday, though, I’ll be going to Broadway previews, writing columns, hanging out with friends, and sleeping soundly each night, secure in the knowledge that any unexpected noises I hear will be coming from the street below instead of the bedroom across the hall. Insofar as anyone’s time is his own, mine will be mine once more.
I am, it seems, a creature of urban habit, and I didn’t foresee how disconcerting it would be to replant my roots in the half-remembered soil of the town where I grew up. You can’t buy sushi or seltzer or a Saturday Wall Street Journal in Smalltown. I saw more TV commercials last week than I’d seen in all of the preceding eleven months. Nobody here cooks with garlic. I miss New York–badly. Yet I have no doubt that as soon as I board the plane to LaGuardia, I’ll be wondering whether my mother is carrying her own coffee when nobody’s looking.