I’m Nate Marshall and this is The Slowdown.
In my family, like many, caregiving is a solemn duty. When I was a child, my grandfather cared for his father at the end of his life while he lived through the slow decline that is Alzheimer’s disease. These were some of my earliest memories of my grandfather: him helping his father in and out of the car when they came to family events, or helping his father eat or dress or bathe when I got to spend the night at their home. It is one of the things that most stuck with me about both men, this tender relationship between two already old men.
My maternal grandmother used to say, “once a man and twice a child.” When she was in her last, many months of chemotherapy and ultimate decline, my middle sister moved out of our house while still a teenager to live with my grandmother across the park and help care for her.
The last many years until early 2021 my grandfather was cared for by a whole team of family, both blood and bond. As he experienced that same hard sickness of Alzheimer’s that impacted his own father, he was cared for by a combination of my mother, eldest sister, nephew, godmother, brother-in-law, and a whole host of us, including myself, in shifts and cameos.
Care work is hard. It is often thankless. Home health care workers are among the lowest paid parts of the workforce in the United States. Care work is often rewarding but it is just as often complex. Care work rarely finds us when we’re most prepared for it. Today’s poem gives us a glimpse into that tender complexity of care work.
by Maya Marshall
An old man is haunted by his living mother. She wanders her house outside or fully inside of her mind. A bleach-clean nightgown. Looking for lost money, her dead mother. Calling his name what should I do? In her ninth decade, what’s a mother to do but echo? There’s sweetness in rot. Like the oranges K— brought for Christmas: bright and hardening by January—wrinkled, shriveling, still moist inside. The breast and pure white brassiere. Her skin and diaper. It’s clean where her lost breasts have gone. Who will take care of this man who blushes to dress his mother?
"Caregiving" by Maya Marshall, from ALL THE BLOOD INVOLVED IN LOVE copyright © 2022 Maya Marshall. Used by permission of Haymarket Books.