Caretaking 101

One of the fun, exciting things I do to make money lately is “caretaking.” Caretaking is another word for getting a glimpse into your own potential future if you aren’t both careful and lucky. I have three clients, all little old men in their eighties.

I am due to pick up Little Old Man #1 at 2:15 to take him to a doctor’s appointment at 2:45. George is a widower with one child, a woman in her fifties who lives several states away. At 1:40 my phone rings. “Why aren’t you here yet?” he wants to know. “I can’t be late.” I could remind him that we agreed I’d be there half an hour before his scheduled appointment. I could tell him, “It takes ten minutes to drive there. We’ll be early as it is.” But I don’t, because it doesn’t matter what I say. I know, I’ve said it all.

“Just hurry up and get here,” he says, and hangs up.

When I get there, I knock as usual. “Come in,” he calls, and his tone is full of doubt, as if to suggest he’s not expecting anyone. When I walk in, the scent of Old Sour rushes over to greet me. “How are you, George?” I say, and he shrugs his shoulders. “Can’t complain,” he says. He stands up and grabs hold of his walker, and we head out. On the way to the doctor’s office he demonstrates that he can, indeed, complain. “You should see the crap they served us for lunch and tried to pass off as beef stew. I couldn’t eat a bite of it! And last night they tried to give me fish, even though I’ve told the office again and again that I don’t eat anything that comes out of the ocean. Did you know it’s supposed to start raining again by the end of the week? Goddamn rain, it makes my shoulder hurt twice as bad as usual…” And so it goes. I nod my head in sympathy and utter “bummer” every now and then.

We’re back at his apartment in less than an hour. “How about a shower?” I ask enthusiastically. He shakes his head vigorously, dismissing the idea. “Not enough time,” he says. “I don’t want to be late for dinner.” Dinner is served promptly at 6:00. It is now just past 3:00. I’ve tried to reason with this objection in the past. “It only take half an hour to shower and get changed,” I’ve told him, and, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be fresh and clean?” But, beyond logic or cajoling, George just crosses his arms across his huge stomach and stares at me, his lips pressed tightly together. What can you say to that? So today I don’t waste my breath. “Is there anything else I can do for you today?” I ask instead. “Any bills that need to be paid? Any laundry to be washed, or appointments scheduled?” He gives his standard reply. “Not at the present moment.”

I gather up my stuff. “I guess I’ll be going then,” I say, and turn to leave. Then George clears his throat and says, “You’re getting paid for two hours but you’ve only been here for an hour and fifteen minutes,” he tells me. This is true. “You still owe me forty-five minutes.”

I sigh and put my handbag back down on the floor. George lives on a fixed income, as he reminds me on a regular basis. He can’t afford to pay for something he’s not getting. “George,” I say. “What do you want me to do? I offered to help you shower, but you’re not interested in that. And you have nothing else you want my help with.”

He just stares at me in silence for a moment and I am suddenly claustrophobic in this tiny room with its windows sealed shut and old newspapers stacked up on the bureau and the sour pungent smell of old unclean man permeating the air. I want to leave, and I want to leave now. But I know if I just walk out like this he’ll call my boss and complain, which he probably does anyway, but I don’t want to give him any ammunition. I need this job right now, until something better comes along. I turn toward him and suddenly it dawns on me what he really wants.

“Would you like me to sit here and keep you company for awhile before dinner, George?” I ask. “You could do that,” he says. I sit in the chair next to his recliner and for a minute we’re both quiet. Then George says, “Did I ever tell you about the time I found that little girl who was lost in the mountains?” “No,” I lie. “What happened?” He leans back in the armchair and smiles for the first time since I got there. “Well, it was like this…”

As I sit there and listen, I think that of all the little things I can do for him to make George’s life easier – driving him places, errands, laundry, helping him shower and dress, for example – what he really values and needs most from me are these little moments of relief from loneliness and the constant knowledge he lives with that his body is failing him even as his mind refuses to give up. This is really why I am here. And it is at once both the least and the most I can do.

4 Responses to “Caretaking 101”

  1. This is a great piece!
    Has you all over the place emotionally, not to mention a sly ending..

  2. Gracias B., you know me so well (from one sly-ender to another)

  3. I loved this, lady. I want more!

  4. Thanks, ML. I’ll see what I can do…

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