How We Care
Guest Post by Shira Leuchter:
Earlier this week I attended a forum on the particular challenges of working in theatre and being a parent. One of the participants, shared that for her, the experience of taking care of others has been consistent from the time she had her first child to now, as she is caring for her grown children and her 90-year old mother. I really appreciated that long-term perspective.
In 2016 I created a performance with my mother, right when she was taking on more responsibility in caring for her own mother who has Alzheimer's. It was about reclaiming memory and making memory tangible, and about opening up our personal stories to other voices and perspectives. It was also about who we formally remember, as a culture, and why we value certain kinds of lives more than others. I used interviews with my daughter, Calla, and my grandmother, who was still able to answer questions then (I even managed to record her singing "Twinkle Twinkle" with my daughter). But for me, it was also about not knowing how to care for my grandmother, and how I was really shirking from that responsibility.
Calla listening to her recording at the Gardner Museum.
Since October, we haven't visited my grandparents much because my daughter started kindergarten and we've been sick for the entire winter. Now that Spring is here and that long stretch of illness is (hopefully) behind us, we visited them on Mother's Day. I wanted to talk to Calla about my grandmother ("big bubbie") before our visit, because I knew her condition had worsened since the fall. I explained that she has trouble remembering things - who she is, where she is - but that she loves us and loves to see us and would love to feel a hug or gentle touch if Calla was so inclined. Calla was warm with my grandmother and performed a series of silly walks. She brought a little stuffed cat over to my grandmother and caressed her arm with the doll fur. My grandmother didn't respond much but kept her eyes fixated on Calla. I had a few strange, kind of profound exchanges with my grandmother and I tried hard to let go of the idea that there would be a 'best' way for me to be present with her. It was a good day.
On the way home, I told my husband that I'd long wanted to read to my grandmother on visits. Calla overheard and liked the idea, and suggested I read to them both. She even had an idea of which book we should start with. When we got home, she pulled out the book*. We hadn't read it in a few weeks. As I started reading it aloud to her, I remembered that it's about a young girl who'd been given an assignment to draw a picture of where she's from. But she can't remember a thing about the island, no matter how hard she tries. The memory is gone. Through the action of the book, she discovers that it doesn't matter if she doesn't remember, the island is in her, it's part of her. Whoa, I thought, what a book choice. I asked Calla why she chose the book. "I liked the picture at the end", she said. Then she insisted that we plan a visit this weekend so we can read the book to my grandmother. Every night at bedtime we share something we liked about the day and something we didn't like. Calla had a lot she'd liked about the day (so many treats at the Assisted Living Facility) but the first thing she said was "spending time with Big Bubbie!".
Calla with her Big Bubbie.
So I'm wondering now if I can reframe some of the way I approach caring - whether it's in a parenting capacity or otherwise - to reflect that this kind of labor can be more joyful than I thought. It's tricky, because care is a particularly gendered/racialized kind of work. It is difficult and undervalued and often completely invisible, and I don't want to suggest that it should be always be joyful or easy. But for me, if I reimagine my idea of caring for my grandmother and consider that it's on the same continuum as the care I provide for my daughter, maybe I can introduce more joy to my encounters with my grandmother, and less anxiety. We'll see how it goes this weekend.
Shira with her Bubbie.
Shira Leuchter is an artist and theatre creator based in Toronto, Canada. Her performance All The Things I've Lost was commissioned by the Gardiner Museum and will have an upcoming tour throughout Canada. She'll premiere a new performance piece, Lost Together, in Toronto this summer.
* A note: I didn't know about Junot Diaz's deeply problematic history with women and writing women when I bought Island Born for Calla. It's a great book, but there are other children's books that may be better to buy right now, if you're looking. Here are some suggestions: