My name's John. I am a writer (mid-40s) living with my parents on the Wirral. My dad has had a few things to deal with over the past few years (involving various trips to hospital, operations, etc) thelast of which was a stroke he had a couple of years back, and my mother has been dealing with increased mobility problems over the past couple of years. She now uses a zimmer frame pretty much all the time, and it's well over a year since the last time I got her out for a drive around (she has had a couple of falls in the past couple of years but luckily didn't break anything on either occasion).
I was asked to write a piece a little while back about how being a carer affected my writing. The piece was not used (I'm not actually sure the publication I wrote it for actually materialised either, which is often the way with new publications). But a few people in similar situations seemed to identify with it, so I guess it makes as good an introduction as any:
It never fails to intrigue me just how much of my life has been lived in the gaps between all those things I am actually supposed to care about.
There are bullet points you're supposed to point to, where people can see your achievements as a productive member of the human race. But me? I tend to point to blank spaces, in the hope that those people who truly matter to me can see the treasures hidden there.
I guess that's one of the ironies of the word "carer" - when you become one, it can lead you to seriously reassess what it is you actually care about, and how you choose to define your place in the world.
I have made my fair share of conventional moves along the way, gathered a few respectable academic qualifications, but most of my real achievements as a human being have been very small, intimate ones. If I have learned anything along the way, it is that this world really is best tackled one soul at a time.
That's what caring for somebody is about - reshaping the world through small victories. At the end of the day, after all, these are the victories that linger in the soul, while the other stuff gets framed, hung on the wall or scribbled into the history books.
Being a carer teaches you that the most heroic things you can do for somebody are often the most dispiriting. They don't tend to leave you feeling much like a hero. Instead, you usually wind up feeling pretty shabby all round. You'll almost certainly end up feeling exhausted at times - sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, frequently both - and the wellsprings of anger you'll discover inside yourself can be quite astonishing.
Even worse, the anger will usually rise to the surface when somebody thinks they're being desperately helpful.
In a perfect world, of course, people will understand this. They'll be able to figure out that you might not have been too thrilled to hear their pearls of wisdom after spending a day sitting in the hospital waiting to see if your mother has broken something after a nasty fall, or helping somebody make a much-prized trip to the bathroom so that they can savour a little bit of dignity and save you from emptying a commode again, or dealing one of several dismal scenarios best left to to the darker stretches of the imagination.
Another thing the caring experience teaches you, if you hadn't figured it out beforehand, is that strength is often defined by your ability to stick around and deal with an awful situation - not because you wouldn't dearly love to walk away from it, but because you know that somebody you deeply care about is in no position to escape with you. Nobody likes having their power taken away, and it can be horrendous watching that happen to someone else, seeing a piece of their identity get pulled from under them like a treacherous rug. Perhaps they aren't able to take a shoe off, or stand up long enough to put a skirt on, or take that short walk to the bathroom they handled so well yesterday -
or perhaps somebody seems to have turned all the microphones off just when they figured out what it was they really wanted to say.
These themes of hidden strength and vulnerability have often run through my work. In many ways, they have very much determined my chosen path as a writer, my tendency to give stories away, to write pieces for people on a one-to-one basis. To make a meaningful connection with another person's soul is as good as it gets.
Sometimes, that person is my mother, who says that one of the things that keeps her going is the joy of reading some new piece of mine each day, of seeing where the sentences have taken me.
For now, she is my storybook.