The Caregiver: Poems, Caroline Johnson
By Lennart Lundh
Caroline Johnson's The Caregiver takes the reader hand-in hand through the landscape of a loved one's terminal illness and death, not once, but twice, illuminating the overlapping journeys of her father and mother from her own positions as adult child, caregiver, and sister traveler. Following a brief foreword to provide helpful backstory and (auto)biography, the full weight of Johnson's words is borne by an introductory poem and three sections of varying length. Without exception, the poems gifted to the reader are conversational in nature, part of an important but never pedantic dialogue between all parties. There is no hiding behind vague symbols or secret handshakes, and Johnson proves her mastery of the wordsmith's task by always ensuring that this discussion is primary, form never overwhelming function.
As introduction, "Sunsets" outlines the tensions, minutiae, and love in the transitional ground between the plains of home and family and the treacherous grounds of lives ending. "He says he's looking for his glasses, another / thing for me 'to bitch about.'" "I cook them frozen pizza and clean / after them." Finally, it warns us of what's to come with the image of "the red flag / blowing . . . like a ghost." This, ultimately, is what the collection and the reality behind it are about in perfect summation.
The twenty poems in the first section focus on the poet and her father. True to her nature as caretaker-child, he is never far from her thoughts; even during a moment as mundane as seeing a turtle cross a bike trail, she writes in "Crossing" that, "I thought of you, dear father, / moving across unstable ground . . ." If there are losses for both to deal with -- surrendering car keys, moving from cane to walker, walker to wheel chair and hospital bed -- there are moments that stabilize the spinning world -- watching a Bond thriller together in "James", recalling family moments and stories from the poet's childhood in "Becoming Erudite":
You told me
to close my eyes, but I remember
peeking at a blinking Christmas light.
Your voice was smooth, intoxicating
like the vodka tonic on the side table.
And, running through the lives of the parties to this trip across impossible mountains and seemingly unfordable rivers, lying beneath the hours of loving attention to another's pains and needs above one's own, there's an understanding of the inevitable, best declared in "Gliding," where Johnson muses, "Yet I know it's going to end. / You are going to die. I am going / to die."
In the second section, running parallel for a time to the father's battle with irreversible neurological disorders, we hear of the poet's caregiving for her mother, suffering from advancing (and ultimately fatal) dementia. The seventeen poems here reflect the same essential struggles and joys faced with her father's decline, as in "Shut-Ins", which closes with, "So I walk, my legs weak, // . . . into the dark night and towards Mrs. Smith, / my first lesson in kindness.", or "Alzheimer's Dream", which begins, "You're a stranger to me now, / though I've known you all my life." There is also, in these poems, a sense of deeper affection -- an emotion different from love or devotion -- between these two adult women than between adult daughter and father, an attitude which doesn't demean the latter, but seems simply normal and adds a less painful note to the reality of their situation. Again from "Alzheimer's Dream":
Let's try not to remember,
have a drink to forget
that we ever once met a lifetime ago
when I called you mother
and needed you so.
From its epigram, one might expect the final section to be given over to grief, and if it were rooted in the Five Stages such works would not be out of place. I suspect, however, that after twelve years as caregiver, Johnson's grief has largely been processed by the time her parents walk on. The closing thirteen poems are, instead, much more, and more fittingly, memento mori and gathered loose ends. The opening piece, "What Got Him Here," considers that question, while "Changing Lanes" reviews the mother's wake and fittingly says, "My mom's heart is not tiny." "Ode to My Father's Nursing Home" describes the patients as much as the place, returning to the earlier image of humans in their final years as turtles who "only want to escape their habitat, / tuck their limbs inside dark shells, and go home." And, finally, "Der Schrei -- for Mother and Father (after Allen Ginsberg)", with its howled scream and its lamentations of life's cruelties, takes a calming breath and recalls: "I'm with you in Plainfield, and I don't blame you for trying to escape. / . . . pick me up, and we take off into the starry night."
As poet and reader, I appreciate and applaud the well-executed craft of Caroline's unblinking recollections. As an old man, with both parents and in-laws in their Nineties and all of us inevitably declining at varying velocities, I find The Caregiver to be honest, both a painful and relieving read. Those who have walked these paths will find reason in the fifty-one poems here to both smile and cry, and I believe will find their time with another traveler amply rewarded. Those who have not yet set out will do well to remember Johnson's words when they need guidance one day.
Lennart Lundh is a poet, short-fictionist, historian, and photographer. His work has appeared internationally since 1965.