My grandmother Susan Lee died this morning. She was 84. She was born as Susan McArdle into a farming family in the area around the village of Katesbridge in County Down, in the north of Ireland, on the road between Banbridge and Newcastle. As an adolescent, she left her family and her home in the countryside to go to Oranges Academy in the hard city of Belfast, where she learned to be a midwife. She came to the United States in 1960, first to Chicago, and then to Boston, and then to Connecticut. She was a profanely tough woman, and one of the most fiercely independent people I have ever come across. Ireland — and specifically when I was next going there — was one of her favorite topics of conversation. It was the last thing we talked about this past Sunday. She wanted me to tell her how much money I would need before going home for Christmas. That is always the term used by Irish immigrants, home. Ireland was very obviously still home for her.
Part of her independence and toughness meant that she could occasionally be resistant, fiercely so, to things that would help her. Very few people could tell her what to do. She could hold a grudge. For the last 6 months or so, she had been living in the Portland Care and Rehabilitation Centre, being cared for by the kind, gentle, patient elder care workers there. They were mostly women of color, unlike my grandmother. They were mostly immigrants, like my grandmother.
Over the past 6 months, I have been spending an hour with her for 2 or 3 nights a week, and in turn being in the company of the women that cared for her and other elderly residents at the facility. The strength and dignity these workers exuded was awe-some to me. Awesome in the old sense.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that Corey Long — who used a homemade flamethrower to defend an elderly comrade and himself from white supremacists in Charlottesville this past summer — is an elder care worker.
After my grandmother’s death today, I understand with new clarity the ferocity of a picket line I stood on a few times a week in the summer of 2010. My friend Danny and I ran a crew of canvassers for a local advocacy group headquartered in the Parkville neighborhood of Hartford. For an hour most days, the 6 or 7 of us would go over to walk the line with the 1199 Healthcare workers striking at the Park Place Health Center in Hartford. We felt happy to be there, and the workers were mostly happy for the solidarity and tolerated us. The strikers were mostly women from the Caribbean, their shouts at scabs accented with a cadences of the places they came from. Maybe Hartford was home to them. Maybe they still felt that their islands were home, the way my grandmother felt about her own island.
In addition to old union songs, they sang Jamaican gospel songs on the picket line, refashioned to their strike. The one I remember is an Otis Wright tune:
It soon be done, with troubles and trials
When I get home, on the other side.
I’m gonna shake my hand with the elders
Tell all the people good morning,
Sit down beside my Jesus
I’m gonna sit down and rest a little while
In their version the striking elder care workers replaced the name of Jesus with “residents:” Sit down beside my residents, I’m gonna sit down and rest a little while. The original song is of course about death. These women were fighting to be with their residents, fighting to be beside them in the last days and months of their lives. The work of an elder care worker is something to behold. It is not like other work.
My aunt Susanne and my mother Sonya spent a great deal more time at the Portland Care and Rehabilitation Centre than I did. They both work in health care. Susanne is an oncology social worker, focusing on helping those living with cancer find and access the care they need. She works and labors around slow and painful death on a regular basis. I was born while my mother was in medical school in Belfast in the 1980s. She did her residency in the trauma wards of Troubles-era Belfast hospitals, treating cops and IRA men who had shot each other, while British soldiers stood in the hallways outside, frisking her going to and from hospital beds. Today in America, she treats the mentally ill in a free market libertarian paradise of a state, New Hampshire, that criminally under funds the treatment of those living mental illness, in the midst of an opiate crisis. My grandmother, my mother, and my aunt have all worked to alleviate suffering in their careers. For their work they have been comparatively well paid.
The industry that looks after the sick does not pay elder care workers well. The average wage nationwide is slightly higher than $10 an hour. There are few professionals that we put such trust in as those that look after our elderly. They are a rare category of worker in whom we vest our emotional well being. That the nationwide average wage is 2/3rds of a living wage is shameful. My uncle Patrick worked as an elder care worker for a time. It was hell on his back, lifting, stooping, scrubbing, spending the last months of people’s lives with them. He also was not paid enough.
I believe that I will never forget the (mostly) women that cared for my grandmother toward the end of her life. Through their work, they allowed me to be close to my grandmother, allowed me and my family to be good to her. She hadn’t always allowed us to be. My grandmother had a sharp tongue. She could call people names. The care workers who looked after her dealt with this as they prepared and served her food, cleaned and bathed her, helped her use the bathroom. In her death, they gave me the number to call for a priest, and then for a funeral home.
Among my grandmother’s people, people of a certain generation, country people, there is an Irish folk spirituality. There is a belief that when someone dies, a window in the room must be opened. The soul must be allowed to escape. After my grandmother’s death today, my family and I shuffled about in the hallway outside the room where my grandmother’s body was, bumping into souls coming and going. I am sure we made the jobs of the workers there a little more difficult with our clumsy, tearful presence. A kitchen worker appeared with a pot of coffee and pastries. I asked her what her name was and I instantly forgot it.
When you encounter grace in the world, it can lay you out. Grace makes itself apparent in the simple elegance of coffee in the hallway. A health care aide called Melissa — with a thick, swampy North Carolina accent that will always stick in my mind — was grace to me today. In my grandmother’s confusion of the previous weeks, she would occasionally think Melissa was Susanne or Sonya, and call out to them by name. I would nervously correct her. “That’s Melissa, Nana. She works here,” I would plead. My grandmother would get frustrated with me. “That’s okay, Michael, you don’t need to correct her,” Melissa would tell me. This happened perhaps a dozen times. Grace was Melissa giving up her name for my grandmother’s comfort. Melissa hugged me today as I cried.
Elder care workers do this work for a fraction of what they should. Those who look after the sick are made of rare stuff. As they constantly emit a tenderness, a grace, an elegance to those under their care, today I must send some back. Love and solidarity to all the elder care workers, nurses, nurses aides, phlebotomists, nursing home cooks. Love to those who work to allow people’s souls to escape the troubles and trials of this world, who work to allow families’ souls to find each other.