Caretaking is no job for the weak

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You start out all energy and clumsiness, oblivious to the routine, anticipating unmade demands. You arrange store-bought flowers in gaudy vases. You stack the unopened CDs. You hang up the crisp pajamas your mother will never wear while in hospice.

Soon you’re getting the groove. You squirt the hand sanitizer automatically as you enter the floor. You scope out the kitchen and note the microwave, toaster oven, hot-water dispenser. You forget only a couple of items on her list of stuff from home.

You get to know the staff. They’re friendly and professional, the nurses all young women, the doctors both men. They answer your questions patiently, spelling out the names of all of the drugs, explaining the procedures for palliative care.

You get to know the other caretakers. We bustle in and out of the kitchen and we nod politely, smiling with tired eyes. We bus the trays of food and slice up strawberries and snip the flower stems. Then we bustle back to our patients.

By now you remember she prefers flowers from her garden: daffodils, lilies of the valley, sprigs of rosemary. You risk arrest and public flogging by snipping branches heavy with cherry blossoms in full bloom from the neighborhood park. You know she takes her chai with extra milk. You launder her gowns, restock the towels, arrange the framed photos of the 10 grandchildren just so.

Yet when she wakes up from a morphine haze, she asks, “What am I supposed to do now?” And you don’t have an answer. Because you’re wondering the same thing yourself.