The Third Third

Caretakers: Your New Best Friends

“A-yunn.” Crystal believed my name had two syllables. Like she believed that Jesus Christ had died for her sins, that tanning salons were safer than beaches, and that “them little weenies in a can” constituted a legitimate source of protein for her kids. “A-yunn. I need ta’ talk to you. Right away. Here.” Crystal’s thick east Texas accent crooned country so naturally I expected her to live a Billboard ballad. Which, as far as I could tell, she pretty much did, with her husband, his daughter from his former wife, their son and daughter, her father-in-law who while he sometimes wandered off and on other occasions took to shooting a b.b. gun at passers-by, took charge of the kids while Crystal worked, three dogs, including a “real nice” pit bull (“Y’all jus’ don’ understand, sweetie; they’re real nice dogs if ya’ treat ‘em right, and I know, ‘cuz I used to date the county dog catcher.”). They lived in a house that “done seen better days” which they rented in return for the property’s upkeep and from which they aspired, one day, to move to a brand-new double-wide. Her husband worked for the state highway department, mowing the center medians when the weather was OK – not when it was raining, nor when it was too hot which, in Texas, made for a fairly light schedule. Crystal once upholstered motor boat interiors but now commuted every other week from her place 2 ½ hours away from Dallas to be my father-in-law’s caretaker 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Her resume listed a prison guard as a reference, which gave me pause, but she said, “Oh, Gosh, no, I ain’t never done time. He’s just my neighbor and he cun tell y’all I’m honest.” It was worth it, she told me, to leave her kids with her father-in-law and her husband because the money – even working just two weeks a month -- was so much better than anything she could find at home. We “found” Crystal in that randomly serendipitously way one finds long-term caretakers for a parent whose mind and body both were deteriorating, tapping into an underground network of women within a three-hour radius of Dallas who, like her, had found in-home caretaking a better economic bet than eight hours on their feet at the local Walmart. While my mother-in-law was still alive, we had called the more established agencies for assistance, paid $20 an hour though the caretaker herself received only $8, and stood by helplessly as my mother-in-law fired one after another for their inadequacies, chief among them being Black or obese, but mostly just because they were there and she didn’t want them there because she didn’t want any of it – not the confused and once in a while mean-spirited husband, not the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, not the dismal prognosis, not the end of life as she knew it even though she hadn’t much enjoyed what she had, not the struggle it was to be so Catholic and yet so angry and so afraid, and most of all, not the sense that no one understood what she was really going through. By the time she died – literally and figuratively of a broken heart -- we had exhausted four of the more reputable local agencies and decided to take a different route to procuring the full-time care now needed. I had a list of “loving caretakers” gleaned from recent obituaries. Names only, but a start. I had Dixie’s name and a phone number because Dixie had cared for my brother-in-law’s grandmother about a dozen years ago in Denton. I called friends who had mentioned in passing their responsibilities for a mother or father-in-law. Eventually, through Dixie, who no longer worked as a caretaker but managed a crew of them, we got two names and numbers and set up interviews. One of Dixie’s “girls” decided not to come at the last minute and sent Crystal in her stead. In the conventional workplace, dealing with professionals of almost any sort, the red flags apparent that morning of the interview would be enough to abort a NASCAR race. But there is nothing conventional about 24/7 home health care for a man we dearly loved who was no longer that man. These women would never know the man who insisted his boxers be ironed; they would be changing his diapers. They would never know his deep faith, except in observing that the words to prayers were the last he lost. They were never to know his abiding love for his wife of 54 years though he would ask them, early-on in their tenure, if they knew where “Mother” had gone. They’d never see his perfectionism – the way he’d move an ashtray, or a vase, a quarter inch to the right or to the left on the table, his pique at a child’s spilled milk – because he messed up everything now and spilled his own glasses of juice or water at least once a day. Mostly, I worried, though, that they would never know the commanding integrity of this person because disease was already so eroding his personhood and spirit. In this context, I decided only two qualifications were essential to the job: caring and honesty. And somehow, as we talked about Dad and the work required and they talked about the work they did and why, these first two women – Crystal and her colleague Ronnie – evinced both and their references bore them out. Still, Crystal didn’t look like a caretaker. Ronnie did: at 50 she had tightly permed, prematurely gray hair, a solemn generally unsmiling demeanor, eye glasses on her well-worn, make-up free face, back problems, a Buick, and a number of brightly colored cotton knit outfits covering a stocky, slightly overweight body. She was soft-spoken, addressed my father-in-law as “Mr. \___\___\___” and kept meticulous records of expenses and Dad’s daily schedule, including meals, medicine, showers and bathroom productivity. Crystal, on the other hand, had a wild mane of curly hair dyed black, wore copious amounts of eye shadow and lipstick, favored the jeans and tank tops of the one-time rodeo queen and barrel racer she had been 25 pounds or so ago, drove a pick-up, and called Dad “Sweetie” from Day One. Well, she called everyone “Sweetie,” and found it a very hard habit to break when Dad announced one day – very clearly – that he didn’t want her to call him “Sweetie” anymore. She was 34. Her notes were written in the same slap-dash way she moved throughout the house, but they were, at my request, equally thorough. I believe both women were angels. They loved my father-in-law and lavished him with care, keeping him clean, shaven, well-dressed, well-fed, comfortable and safe without regard for the diminished state of his existence. They even accommodated his senile, incontinent, overfed Yorkshire terrier. And they called for counsel and advice whenever things went ever so slightly off course, not trusting their judgment any more than I did. They weren’t hired to think or decide; they were hired to care. I didn’t know what I would do without them. So I was concerned when Crystal said we needed to talk and could I come over “right soon.” Most medical and household decisions could be discussed by phone, or when I regularly (though never entirely predictably) stopped by. This message suggested to me that she was going to quit. I grew nauseous at the thought. As I drove the mile from my house to Dad’s, I wondered what leverage I had, what I might use to sweeten the pot. Crystal met me at the door. “A-yunn.” “Hi Crystal. What’s up?” “There’s a goddamn warrant out for my arrest.” Whoa! This was like nothing – absolutely nothing – I had ever heard or experienced before. Not only did I have no warning, I had no preparation. I had always thought my liberal arts education was pretty good; I could talk with just about anyone about just about anything. My journalistic training had always worked well, too; I could always think of a question to ask and I listened well. But we were way beyond cocktail party chatter and PTA politics. I could feel my brain scanning its crevices in a desperate hunt for words to say. The search was not successful. I fell back into parenting mode: “Can you tell me about it?” I confess I can’t remember the details. Couldn’t remember the details five minutes after she told me. It was all so foreign, so way out of my league. And I was still more scared that Crystal was quitting than that she packed a gun when she was at home (never in Dallas) and might have been involved in some long-smoldering quarrel between her husband and the erstwhile boyfriend, the dog catcher who was apparently somewhat overzealous in using his power to issue warrants for arrest, when all he was, according to Crystal was “pissed and jealous, so he’s lyin’ sayin’ we starved our dogs ‘cuz they wuz barkin’.” There was a legitimate reason they “wuz barkin’,” but I can’t remember what it was. The uncle who had been killed recently drilling post holes for the fence (“He jus’ fell down in there in the hole and got chew up”) figured into it somehow, but I think only because Crystal had to go home for his funeral and may have run into the dog catcher then. I don’t know.  “What do you need, Crystal? How can we help you?” We were still standing at the open front door, the relentless Texas sun beating back the $750 a month air conditioning in the doorway, the crape myrtle droppings melting into stains on the tiled steps. It occurred to me that when he was well, Dad would have noticed both and demanded something be done. What he might have demanded about Crystal was also pretty clear to me, but I wasn’t going there. Crystal hadn’t said she was going to quit and I wasn’t about to give her the opportunity. I just hoped she wouldn’t ask for legal help from my husband; the skills of his high-end corporate practice would be useless on the dog catcher’s turf. “Just some time off. I gotta’ go home. And some ca-yash for the sheriff. $275. ‘Course I’ll pay you back.” “’Course,” I responded as all of us, my husband and our kids and I were wont to do. When we talked with Crystal, we talked like Crystal. We hoped she didn’t notice. I said I’d get the cash and asked her to call her caretaking partner to see if she could come in a few days early. She’d already done that and Ronnie was coming in this evening she told me. All she needed was permission to go and someone to watch Dad for a few hours. That could be arranged.  I’d dodged the bullet. This time. If you have caretaker stories to share, including reliable resources, please add them in a comment, below. Also you may find the experiences of bloggers on the New York Times new blog, The New Old Age to be illuminating. Check it out at
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