From How You Were Born
Toronto’s Kate Cayley is a playwright who has served as artistic director for the Stranger Theatre company and playwright-in-residence at the Tarragon Theatre. Her experience in the theatre perhaps goes some ways toward explaining her facility for pace and the modulation of emotion in her prose fiction, nowhere more apparent than in her shattering story of old age and looming mortality, “Long Term Care.”
The story focuses on three adult children of a ninety-year-old widower who can no longer take care of himself at home, forcing the children to place him in a supervised facility. The central protagonist is Elisabeth, a daughter in her forties who is saddled with the lion’s share of caregiving for her father because her siblings, Max and Britta, “each had their own families, children, a web of irrefutable obligations that she did not have.”
Elisabeth’s father is a German Jew, a former philosophy professor, and a Holocaust survivor. It should be clear just from these details that Caylely is not an author motivated to keep the emotional stakes low. Indeed, the pervading subtext in “Long Term Care” involves poking at the corrosive irony of surviving one of the 20th century’s worst atrocities only to wind up, at the end of one’s life, metaphorically imprisoned in a care facility and within one’s own deteriorating body.
When Elisabeth expresses remorse at the thought that her father must make the association between being in the home and being in Buchenwald, her siblings react in horror, “as if Elisabeth had said something obscene.” And surely there is something obscene in the thought that, by voluntarily agreeing to have their father placed in a hospice, they in any way behaved as the Nazis did. What is undeniable, however, is that the association is present in their father’s confused and weakened mind when he hears one of the doctors speak German to him. “Her father had shrunk down in the bed and tried to pull away when approached. He made noises, small noises that had no sense.” He lashes out at the doctor, throwing a potted plant at him.
Anyone’s life by the time they reach ninety will be a mosaic of memories and experiences, but few could be so indelible as to have survived Buchenwald. Elisabeth’s father was an adult with a wife and a family before the war; no mention is made of what happened to them, but given his present circumstances it is to be assumed that they were all killed. He was forty-five when Elisabeth was born and the only thing he will tell her about his time in the camps is that the American soldier who liberated them gave him a cigarette. “The soldier was young, he said, younger than he, wanting to feel generous, to put at ease these people who would never be at ease again.”
The camp experience has haunted him ever since. As a professor, he studied German philosophy – Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, and so on – presumably in an attempt to come to some kind of understanding about the suffering he and his fellow Jews endured during the war. His daughter, meanwhile, spends her time rummaging through old boxes in her parents’ house, piecing together scattered bits from her father’s past, and regularly visiting him in his room at the long term care home.
Cayley’s story is narrated in the close third person. As a result, what we understand about Elisabeth’s father is filtered through her consciousness and subject to her own reactions and interpretations. Elisabeth is like practically any caregiver: uncertain about what the best course of action is regarding her elderly parent and desperate to make sure he is as comfortable as possible in his final days. After her father suffers a series of minor strokes, one of the nurses tells her, “He’ll be just fine.” Elisabeth’s response – “Yes. Thanks.” – is redolent with disbelief and the deflection of a kind of thoughtless platitude.
As ever in the situations in which an adult child must undertake the care of an elderly parent, the traditional family roles are reversed, with Elisabeth finding herself in the position of the decision maker and her father in the subservient role. Though some things do not change in the power dynamic – Elisabeth admits never having known how to speak to her father and feeling cowed by his lack of pity – there is an extra burden of responsibility placed on her shoulders thanks to his inability any longer to provide for the basic necessities of life.
There is irony here as well. Elisabeth is a kindergarten teacher whose profession involves tending to children; she spends her time away from work tending to a father who has been rendered by age and illness into a dependent state that strongly resembles that of a child. Elisabeth’s sister is a therapist who is unable to comprehend how her father’s reactions to his new situation might be embedded in his past experience. (“He was the saddest man I ever met,” Elisabeth recalls her mother saying.) And though they sincerely praise Elisabeth’s efforts in caring for their ailing father, neither Britta nor Max is impelled to take much action in that regard.
And there is the ever-present questioning about what the best course of action might be. Are the children doing the right thing by taking away their father’s freedom or are they simply motivated by a desire to make their own lives less complicated? Though the doubts never leave Elisabeth alone – as the last line of the story makes abundantly clear – they retreat at least long enough for her to come to a small epiphany about her role in her father’s care, and the nature of mortality itself. “It was pointless, egotistical even, to enter the game and then wish for different rules,” she thinks. “Dying must be managed, like everything else.”