I am not a born nurturer. I have killed more plants than I’m willing to admit here, and my obese, mentally ill dog, named Snack, is proof that I can’t raise anything but eyebrows. I’m not particularly good with living things. Computers? Sure. Cellphones? Now that I’m sober, yes. Objectsd’art? So long as they’re also d’plastic . But I would never sign up to do anything professionally where the care and comfort of another human being was involved, and I can say this from experience.
About a year ago I was living in Portland, Oregon. Having recently lost my ill-fitting job at a green technology start-up company, I was destitute. Simon and I split cans of refried beans spread on tortillas for more meals than we could count. Public transportation was a luxury. I was down and out, overqualified for most of the jobs I was applying to, and not experienced enough to score any of the gigs available, most of which were waiting tables and retail. My friend John suggested I submit my resume to his agency. He worked as a home caregiver aid to the disabled, and made good money doing so. He was also 6’3″ and capable of lifting heavy boxes or men in wheelchairs. But I threw my resume into the pile and he put in a good word for yours truly. A week later I was interviewing with a soft-spoken, smiling woman who had an “Angel-a-Day” calendar on her desk and a personal organizer the size of a phone book. She asked me some questions after scanning my stats.
Would I be squeamish about bodily functions or cleaning up urine, feces, blood, or vomit?
Would I be capable of spending the night at a disabled person’s house, making sure they were adequately prepared for sleep and ensuring that they were safe throughout the night?
Would I be mentally and emotionally willing to bathe, clothe, and change the diapers of non-responsive adults?
My stomach was growling, “Sign me up.”
Would I be willing to start safety training next Tuesday?
I left that office with a job but also with an enormous sense of trepidation. I was sickened by the thought of pee, poop, and other human byproducts that didn’t come out of my own little body. I wasn’t very good at one-sided conversation, and I already felt weird about touching someone naked who wouldn’t respond (though my ex definitely prepared me for that sort of situation.) In short, I was too selfish, too stubborn, too wrapped up in myself to step out of my own tenement apartment to help another human being, even if there was a paycheck attached. I couldn’t give CPR. And even though my desperation and hunger would have led me into emergency training that following Tuesday, Simon and I scored two tiny writing projects within that stretch of days which allowed me to chicken out gracefully, and instead of becoming a home health care provider I became an only-slightly-less-starving professional copywriter. I still have an aversion to pee and poop.
Becoming a personal and home health aid requires more than a strong stomach. You need to be vaccinated against TB and a whole slew of other disease-causing uglies. A criminal background check, credit check, and valid driver’s license (along with a spotless driving record) are usually required to even secure a place in an organization. If you’re looking to become certified with the National Association for Home Care and Hospice (NAHC) you need to take a 75-hour course, followed by a competency test that assesses seventeen different skills. Oh, and there’s a written exam, too, along with observation by a registered nurse. Regardless of how dedicated you are to advancing in the field, you need extensive safety, emergency, and on-the-job training. Moreover, you have to be suited for this kind of work. High-maintenance whiners need not apply.
I bring this up only to illustrate how time can alter circumstances and perception. When I used to see a screaming infant in public I would say that I was going to go into the nearest restroom and rip out my reproductive tract. My mother would chastise me with a knowing smile and the statement, “It’s different when it’s yours.” Although I still would rather pass a watermelon through my cervix than a wailing, smelling baby, I think that my mother’s wisdom applies to my present situation. It’s different when you’re caring for your loved one. There are some jobs you simply won’t turn down.
The things that frightened me about taking care of the crippled in Portland disappear when faced with the reality of returning to New York to help my mom out as she goes through chemo. And even though she’s still nearly as feisty and able-bodied as before we were informed about the two-ring cancer circus going on behind the not-so-big top of her 4’11” frame, I want to take care of her.
There’s a lot of this that I’m neither qualified nor prepared for. I’ve never studied how to cook, and the extent of my nutritional awareness stems from a college course I showed up to drunk, when I showed up at all. I suck at making a bed, and often over-soap the laundry. I don’t know how to take a pulse, other than not using my thumb, and I rely on copious notes and instructions in order to dose my daily multivitamin. I am not emotionally stable, level-headed, or capable of working “hard” on anything that doesn’t include a QWERTY keyboard or manual stimulation. I probably more closely resemble Florence Mills than Florence Nightingale. But I love the shit out of my mother.
I know how to make her laugh, and I know what kind of food her dogs eat, what kind of flowers she likes, and what kind of material she enjoys reading. (James Patterson. Ridiculous mystery novels. Gourmet Magazine. This blog.) I can fluff pillows, make milkshakes, and trade snarky comments about how hot Chris Meloni from SVU is. With all of that in store, maybe she should be the one taking a CPR course. As for me, I’m joining the ranks of those rockin’ two jobs, and I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and get started.
Drop me a line: AinsleyDrew at the gmail one. Thanks to those of you who donate.
If you’d like to become a personal or home care aid, check out the government’s 2008-2009 Occupational Outlook Handbook.