In 'Ladysitting,' Lorene Cary Chronicles The End Of Her Grandmother's Life
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we're going to have a conversation that few of us want to have but most of us eventually will have to have. It's about caring for an aging relative who is in decline. Author Lorene Cary has been there, and she's written about it beautifully, honestly and hilariously in her new memoir "Ladysitting: My Year With Nana At The End Of Her Century." And Lorene Cary's with us now on the line from Philadelphia.
Lorene, thanks so much for talking to us.
LORENE CARY: Thank you.
MARTIN: And, of course, I do have to get some business out of the way. You and I know each other. We both attended the same high school - St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H. We were both among the early classes of girls and not white people in what had been an all-male and all-white school. And you wrote about your experiences there in your classic memoir "Black Ice" - so just, you know, wanted to disclose all that. But most of the work that people will know you for is fiction. I mean, even though, as I said, "Black Ice" is a classic - it's taught in many schools around the country. But most of your work is fiction, and you haven't returned really to memoir. And I wondered what made you want to write this book.
CARY: Well, I needed to write about this in the same way I needed to write about the St. Paul's School experience. It changed my life. It turned it upside down. There was so much love inside. It's like a Scotch egg, you know, with love under this crust of confusion and rage and mistakes. And my only way to understand that is to write it.
MARTIN: How'd you come up with ladysitting (ph)? I love it.
CARY: That was the word we used in our house for staying with Nana. My grandmother would sometimes say, I guess you have to get somebody to babysit me. We'd say, no, no, Nana. We're going to get somebody to ladysit you. And it was sort of the way we could acknowledge - like, you had to acknowledge her vulnerability but not in a way that was hurtful or made her feel even more vulnerable.
MARTIN: Well, it's an elegant solution to that. That's kind of what the book is about - is how...
MARTIN: ...To navigate these tricky moments where the relationship changes. And so, first of all, tell us about Nana. And what was your relationship like with her before your relationship had to change?
CARY: My relationship with her in my childhood was charmed and golden. She was indulgent. She bought me a record player when I was 3 and let me play anything I wanted, gave me ball gowns to dress in and ice cream. And it was lovely.
MARTIN: But Nana was no joke, right?
CARY: No. No. So there was that Nana. There was also the Nana I saw at the office, which was where she took care of a little parcel of falling-down apartments in South Philly. She would do things there I had never seen before. She had a very cold kind of ceramic voice she used with people. And when I would question her about - God, how could you, like, not let that person have an exterminator? And she'd say, honey, that's business. This is business.
MARTIN: So then we get to the sticky part where - you know, going to Nana's had been this magical experience when you were growing up. And then, of course, it shifts to where you're visiting her to help take care of her. But then this tricky moment comes when you realize it just can't continue. And this is the moment that so many people confront, where they realize that, you know, whatever - you're trying to maintain the person's dignity. You're trying to maintain them where they want to be, and it just isn't working. Can you just talk about what that moment was like for you? When did that come?
CARY: She had figured out all of her workarounds. Being in the house alone - I was never comfortable with that. You know, locking the door for someone who cannot get up and down the steps without help or does it alone slowly, doing it on her bottom up a whole flight of stairs - that feels terrible, too. She had one infection. She couldn't shake it. She was going down, down, down. And when we took her to the hospital simply to get antibiotics intravenously, the social worker then said, where's she going home to? And the answer was a two-story neocolonial house in suburban New Jersey. Answer - no. What's your plan B?
And there was no plan B because my Nana had planned on dying like her father died. She always said it in this - what I call this perfect death haiku that I'll probably get wrong. But she always said, he washed his teeth and went to bed. And then, the next morning, he didn't get up. And that's what Nana wanted. She wanted full functioning and then go to bed and die in your sleep.
MARTIN: Which would have been fine, except that that's not the way it was going down, right?
CARY: And it's not the way for most people, really.
MARTIN: You know, I was thinking about this - that so many people who write about this phase of life, either they focus on how terrible it is because, like, they want you to know this is terrible...
MARTIN: You know what I mean? You know? Or they - it's, like, I learned so many life lessons. You know, it's like this - like, you know what I mean? And it's almost as if both of those ideas can't coexist in the same...
MARTIN: ...Day even. And that's one of the things about your book. I mean, you write about, like, both things - both the way it's terrible and the ways it's, like, hilarious and enriching. Could you talk a little bit about that?
CARY: There was a moment close to the end, when Nana wasn't getting enough oxygen. She was getting more afraid. The one person she always recognized was me. And the one voice she always recognized was my husband's. She had had a fight with the nurse. She had believed that the lady who took care of my grandfather and then took care of her - she started thinking that that woman wanted to kill her. And she wouldn't have her back - threw us into complete turmoil.
Now we had to figure out something else - nursing. I stayed home. I stayed in her room. And this particular day, I went off to work. Our other very fine nurse was with us, called me five minutes after I left and said, your grandmother's upset. You have to come in. My grandmother didn't recognize me. She grabbed my hand and twisted them and held on, and she kept looking at me. She didn't believe I was me. It's as if some demon were coming impersonating me to get her. And I said, I got to get her a cup of coffee or something so that her chemistry will flip, and she'll flip back into herself. When I brought that coffee up, my grandmother said to me, oh, Lorene, you've had a cold. Why don't you take some of that coffee first?
MARTIN: Oh, no.
CARY: And I realized that she was checking to make sure it wasn't poisoned. It's the first time I ever lost it. And I found myself just talking through my teeth, saying, you know what? I don't give mind games, and I don't take them. You can take this coffee and drink it or you can throw it in the pot. And then she said to me, oh, honey. It was like she had to hear me at the edge of my capacity to believe it was me. And then she said, oh, honey, the fix I'm in, I can't trust the Lord Jesus Christ right now.
CARY: I said, Nana, the fix you're in, you really can't trust anybody else (laughter). Like, this - it's not a fix.
MARTIN: It's so hard, yeah...
CARY: But - yeah.
MARTIN: ...To not be recognized. I know this is one of the things that many people say, is not being recognized by their family members. It's just the worst feeling in the world.
CARY: Yeah. And in our case, it wasn't permanent. I mean, I can't imagine the feeling of people for whom this is a constant.
MARTIN: It's interesting that - because that's actually what I wanted to talk about. Besides mentioning that she was hilarious, like, in her own way - like, the situation did become hilarious. I was thinking particularly about the time when - because you're - as the rector's wife, you'd help out with coffee hour...
MARTIN: ...And how she was always trying to, like, sneak the food and, like, get you to leave some...
CARY: No, hold back.
MARTIN: Don't - yeah, hold some back for the family.
CARY: Hold some back. Don't put that whole cake out there.
CARY: Hold some for the family.
MARTIN: And you'd be like, I can't set out a pie or a cake missing a quarter, Nana.
CARY: (Laughter) And she said...
MARTIN: Can't do that.
CARY: No, but then - you know, and then somebody would come up - I think it was Carlene, who was our nurse, came up with the idea. Well, cut it into slices. And then you can lay out the slices - like, all this so that we can keep from doing the - like, that's why they give you a rectory - so that you could serve the church. Like, give it up.
MARTIN: (Laughter) That's hilarious. What do you think you got out of writing this book? And what do you hope other people get out of reading your book?
CARY: I think I got back the experience. In "Law And Order," you always see the crazy criminals take trophies, and they put them in a box and cement them down in the basement. I think I do that with grief. I think we - I put the fun things in there, and then I lock it up. I wanted all of this back. You know, I wanted the laughter. I wanted her. I wanted those years with my family. I wanted access to them again. And I wanted to do it while keeping company with all kinds of other people who are isolated by the very nature of caregiving. I wanted that back in my life, available to me.
MARTIN: We've been speaking with Lorene Cary. Her latest book is "Ladysitting: My Year With Nana At The End Of Her Century." And Lorene was kind enough to join us from the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches.
Lorene, thank you so much for talking to us.
CARY: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.