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Sometimes the person you dread letting in can bring unexpected joy
Illustration by Gracia Lam
I am lying in bed reading the paper. It is dusk and still warm out. The windows are open, and I can feel the early night air. In the other room my husband’s nebulizer machine is making its regular whooshing noise. He is having a breathing treatment before dinner. I smell tantalizingly spicy aromas coming from the kitchen and hear the TV on low. Occasionally there is a gust of laughter as Joey, the cook—he’s not really the cook per se, but more on that in a moment—talks to our new puppy. Joey calls him the howler monkey. He says he remembers those animals from his native Belize and that this small rescue dog, with his simian forehead and tiny brown eyes, looks just like one. “Come here, little howler,” he says, followed by the nicest, gentlest laugh in the world. We hired him in a minute as a caretaker. I had resisted having help. For 40 years I have lived with one man, a deep, romantic, tumultuous marriage.
I was loath to give that closeness up, to let anyone else in, even as it became increasingly obvious that I was overwhelmed. For three years since my husband, Karl, had been diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, one that compounded his ongoing pulmonary disease and made every breath an audible fight, I had been the nurse, driver, cheerleader, and all-around helpmate. I had done well for a long stretch—at least I thought so. Finally my nerves were shot. I wandered the house remonstrating with the Fates, with my own inadequacies. I lost my stuff: keys, documents, bills. I went around in baggy sweatpants, no mascara, reading glasses perched on my head, usually two pairs at a time, sometimes three. If they were up there, I reasoned, I couldn’t lose them. But I was losing it.
My sister said Karl and I needed help. My stepsons agreed. My friends, ditto. Yet how do you look for someone to care for the man you have loved beyond all reason and who is now fading before your eyes? That is a private act, isn’t it? Shouldn’t it be? I wanted him to myself. I didn’t want some stranger handling him and bandaging him and washing his hair. That’s mine, that body. Please don’t touch. So my heart kept saying.
I surrendered the day after Karl fell. As I swabbed the blood from his leg and from the floor, I resolved to find someone. I called a friend who has been our accountant for years. She has a fair number of older clients, and I figured she might know somebody. Within a half hour she responded with two names. I wrote them down and eyed them for days. Then I called the second person on the list—Joey—because I liked the sound of his name. A few days later he was in our kitchen talking to me. A few days after that he was working for us. A few days after that, when it became apparent we needed him during the nights as well, he was living with us.
Friends have relayed their problems with caregivers they have hired: tensions and power struggles and things disappearing. Me—I hit the jackpot. I am astonished at Joey’s presence when I walk in the house after running an errand. Ah, there is someone here. It’s Joey, with his round face and warm voice. He is with Karl, helping him with his medications or treatments (I don’t need to rush in and do it or worry that a certain prescription has run out or that Karl has fallen while I was at the market). Or Joey is outside playing with the dogs, throwing their balls and laughing, always laughing. I had forgotten that sound in particular, as Karl has been mostly silent in the last year. He does not have the breath to talk much. I have missed the conversations that marked our marriage, the trivial bits of marital banter: what to eat for dinner, what color to paint the living room, where to go on vacation. Now here is this lovely 35-year-old Belizean with a lilt in his voice asking how I am, whether it’s cold outside, and if I want something to eat. He loves the news, and when I stroll in from my work desk, he catches me up on what’s happening. He is trying to teach me his native language. I call my dogs by their new Spanish nicknames: perro callejero for the rescue, perro angel for the big Lab.
For all the joy Joey has unexpectedly brought to us, there is also in him a palpable sadness, and I feel it. He has left behind his country, one he recalls with longing—his childhood with six siblings, fresh food from his grandfather’s farm. He misses the family members he seldom gets to see, and there are tears when he speaks. He says he sometimes wishes he could do it over, that if he had stayed his life would have been calmer. The opportunity was here, though. When he arrived in this country, he stocked shelves at a supermarket and mopped floors. Then his brother-in-law got him a night job at a warehouse, but his knees gave out and he started looking after older patients. His first job was his worst: a mean octogenarian who raved throughout the night. But Joey says he knew he had found his calling.
I ask him whether it feels strange living with other people the way he does with us, ensconced in the middle of another person’s world. He says he has been very lucky, that he has worked mostly for good people and learned to navigate the instant intimacies that come with a situation like ours, the two of us up together in the dark of night when Karl is having a restless or disturbed sleep. “We are a team,” he informs me, and I know he sees my sadness just as I see his.
“I would breathe for him if I could,” I tell Joey as we leave the room where Karl is tossing fitfully. “I know,” he says. “We will get through it.”
On his days off he goes to his apartment near Florence and Vermont in South L.A. He has family nearby—two older sisters and their husbands. There are also nieces and nephews who are having their own children. He is close to them all and brings back tales of their lives, their romances, their new babies, their big dinners of chicken stew, pozole, rice and beans. Food: We are making proper meals again. That was a passion of Karl’s and mine. At day’s end we would actually tussle over who got to make supper. That stopped (another ending) as Karl’s appetite waned and mine along with it. Now Joey has livened things up. One of those naturally gifted cooks, driven by the pleasure of his own palate, he is fixing stuffed poblanos and potatoes mashed with evaporated milk and cheese, gooey and rich. He returns from his time away with a dozen thick handmade tortillas and red achiote paste for his soups.
He is bringing his world into ours, his piece of the city into our neighborhood. We Angelenos tend to live in our own small, isolated enclaves. We visit other sections—as I have over a lifetime here—but only occasionally have a chance, as I do now, to reside in two parts of L.A. at once. That’s the way it feels. At night Joey and I watch the Latin music shows, the women vibrant and shiny in makeup and spangles. He says he will buy me red lipstick when he next goes to Ross Dress for Less, even though I tell him I have never worn it. Time to start, he says with his big smile. There is a kindness in him that is rare—much beyond his professional skills, which are consummate yet seamless, if that makes sense. He looks after Karl with quiet ease; he protects my husband’s pride. “I am blessed,” he says. “I know I have changed people’s lives, and I have been changed.”
I enter my house with a lighter step. To be able to do that again, to walk into a place where there are wonderful smells and chatter that banish the dread, is a bit of magic.