The Caregiver by Caroline Johnson
Holy Cow! Press, 2018; 88 pp.
Reviewed by Gail Goepfert
After viewing Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed at the Chicago History Museum, Caroline Johnson’s speaker addresses her father in the poem “The Last Bed” with these lines: “And who will deliver your Emancipation / Proclamation? Will I be holding your cold, / frail hand when you decide to leave this land?” It’s a poignant moment in her book, The Caregiver, a portrait of parents struggling to live with what dignity remains as their bodies and minds fail them in a host of ways—her father suffering from Multiple System Atrophy, and her mother from Alzheimer’s. It’s also a vivid gallery of a daughter’s self-portrait as caregiver.
Johnson’s portrait poems illustrate the shape-shifting required of this sometimes thankless and always challenging role. In the poem “Donut Holes,” she portrays an inventive mother who uses a medicine bottle to punch holes in biscuits. Later in the poem, a shift occurs:
My mother is a giant donut hole that has separated from its sticky surface. Her eyes, crater-like, look beyond the kitchen, a broken lightbulb goes off and she gives a delirious grin. ‘Nina,’ she speaks to her childhood dog. ‘You’ve come back!”
In “Glasses,” as the speaker is tucking her parents into bed, relating a story about a puffin she saw in Alaska, her mother asks, “Is that where we’re going?/ [she asks.] ‘To Alaska?’” The speaker reflects, “Who am I to tell her / she doesn’t have wings.” It’s no surprise when the poem, “Alzheimer’s Dream” begins, “You’re a stranger to me now, / though I’ve known you all my life.”
I found the poems about the father even more moving. Here we witness this former bomber pilot, accountant, husband, and father of four slowly being reduced to piloting a wheelchair and a hospital bed. “You lean your life / against a pillow. . . ,” Johnson observes. The speaker recalls an early conversation with her father and his theory about death in “Gliding.”
You called it the black hole theory.
We all disappear, you said.
That’s all. Nothing. Nada.
You dolphin down away from
darkness. A seagull arches
over water, his wings stretched
to get the most wind. He glides.
We glide. It is all about lift you say.
She pleads at the end of the poem, “Father, stay / airborne. Stay part of the Milky Way / Don’t leave me. Keep drifting, / for what are we but gulls gliding?”
The tug on the caregiver between wanting to return to one’s life and needing to stay with the sick and the dying is never more clear than in the poem, “A Good Day.” “I wanted to leave. I had done my time—spent hours with the nurse and his caregiver. . . But he was having a good day.” She promises to bring cake next time, but when she leaves, she finds herself driving to the Jewel for chocolate cake, the idea of which had perked up her father. She returns to spoon-feed him a slice. As she’s leaving, he points to her shirt bearing an image of Edvard Munch’s, The Scream, and she thinks he’s said something about it. When she asks him to repeat what he said, he points at her shirt again and says just one word—heart. Such is the rich reward of her return.
In her poem, “MSA,” Johnson amasses images to paint her father’s condition, a neurological disorder similar to Parkinson’s. As these evocative lines wash over us, it’s as if we, too, are slow-dancing into her father’s last sleep:
a broken kite in a hospital bed. It’s the
slurred speech, the slow grin of gargoyles
dancing into the grotesque, the cry of ravens
slowly marching into divine slumber.”
The titular poem of the book beautifully sketches the caregiver’s tasks. In this poem, Johnson watches the Lithuanian woman who helps care for her father and later reflects on what she’s learned:
You must come closer, you must hang up your jacket,
be prepared to spend hours listening to his slurred
speech, help feed him applesauce with vitamins,
raise and lower his bed, monitor his erratic heartbeat.
Remember what he has given up—his Buick LeSabre,
his cane, his walker, then finally his wheelchair—to get
to where he now lives, a bed with guard rails.
Returning home, she finds a sleeping husband and is moved to “. . . slowly rub lotion,. / onto [her] husband’s chapped heels, then cover his ice-cold feet.”
Finally, in the poem, “Hospice,” Johnson leaves the reader with these words of advice:
When you watch someone die
you must sit up close and open
your heart to pronounce each vowel
When you watch your father die
remember it is a privilege
to stroke his stone cheek . . .
You must try not to be
so important, you must wave
when he decides to leave.
I can’t imagine a book more suitable and rewarding than The Caregiver for those who are, have been, or will be caregivers, but also for those who may one day need care. With a sure hand, Johnson guides us on this sometimes stumbling, always courageous walk through a gallery of aging, pathos, compassion, and love.
Gail Goepfert, an associate editor at RHINO Poetry, is a Midwest poet, photographer and teacher. Her first chapbook, A Mind on Pain, was published in 2015. Tapping Roots was released in 2018 from Kelsay Books, and a second book, Get Up Said the World appears in 2019 from Červená Barva. Recent or forthcoming publications include Kudzu House, Stone Boat, Postcard, Poems and Prose Magazine, Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and Beloit Poetry Journal.