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Original Essays

Seeing Instead of Watching

by Lauren Kessler
I like to watch.

It's what writers, and especially reporters, train themselves to do. Observe the human condition. Nora Ephron, when she used to write magazine articles, called herself "a wallflower at the orgy," the one on the sidelines, uninvolved, watching, analyzing. It's a comfortable, detached, safe position. It makes you feel knowing and in control. I've written a lot of stories from the position of the watcher. But I think that, at least sometimes, being the wallflower can stand in the way of discovering and telling a truly compelling story. I know it stood in my way.

I had been working on a magazine piece about Alzheimer's. My mother had died from Alzheimer's a few years before, and I had faced her illness and death with a combination of fear and detachment, a stunned observer, emotions shut down. I knew that big, awful events like this were supposed to be at least instructive if not life-altering. I knew I should have learned something from the experience. But I hadn't. And so, writer that I was, I had decided to write about the disease. In the course of doing the story, I was going to buckle down and learn important life lessons. I was going to make up for being a distant daughter. This Alzheimer's magazine story was to be redemptive.

So I spent time, a great deal of time, at an Alzheimer's care facility observing other people's mothers, and I wrote about it. It was a decent effort — the L.A. Times published it as a cover story in the Sunday magazine — but I didn't feel sufficiently wiser after writing it. I had reached an impasse, and I figured out why. It was the distance I was keeping — that same distance I had kept from my mother when she was ill — the shield I was holding in front of myself. It was my detached position as observer. If I was to come to terms with this disease, if I was to learn whatever it was I needed to learn, if I was to embrace the story, I had stop hiding behind my reporter's notebook

And, so, I hired on at a place that I'll call Maplewood (I've changed the name to protect the privacy of the people who live there), a "memory care" facility. I took a job as a minimum-wage, bottom-of-the-rung caregiver, a Resident Assistant. I would take care of other people's mothers the way strangers had taken care of my mother. I would, in an eight-hour shift, single-handedly tend to a dozen women and men, showering, dressing, toileting, and feeding them, doing their laundry, taking them to and from activities, talking to them, calming them. I figured I would last for maybe two weeks.

As it turned out, I stayed for more than four months.

I wore a cheap polyester uniform shirt, an unflattering dusky maroon color, two sizes too big, and a magnetic name tag. I scraped my long hair back into a ponytail. For the first two months, I worked day shift, awakening at 5 a.m. to drive cross-town in time to clock in at 6:30. Then I tried swing shift, reporting for work mid-day and getting home past 11 p.m. Most days I walked the equivalent of four to five miles on the job. Most days I worked up a sweat.

The people I cared for were ill, but they were not their illness. The world they inhabited — dreamy, fragmented, often wordless, sometimes confusing — was far more vivid, more alive, more deeply human than I could ever have imagined. I became part of their lives: Jane, energetic, gregarious, the social center of the unit; Eloise, elegant, alternately dreamy and contentious; Marianne, who created an alternate reality for herself and lived in it happily and comfortably; Frances, the almost-centenarian whose senses were more alive than anyone I'd ever met; Hayes, who ping-ponged between clueless oblivion and witty repartee; Jack and Caroline, the lovebirds.

I worked with some amazing people, saintly, caring, kind women, most of whom were third-generation working poor; big, pillowy women who were grandmothers at forty, who worked fulltime and still qualified for Section 8 housing and food stamps. It was a grueling job, emotionally and physically. It was also the best job I've ever had, the most important.

Yes, I was a reporter on a story. And yes, I did scribble in a little notebook I kept in the pocket of my half-apron next to my supply of latex gloves. But two hours into my first day at work, I became, wholeheartedly, what I was hired to be: a caregiver. I wasn't playing at the job. You can't play at a job like that. I wasn't going through the motions so I could get material for a book. I was immersed, embedded, no longer a wallflower, no longer a watcher. There was no distance now between me and the story. I lived it, and in doing so, I discovered it.

The story that came from this immersion was my book, Dancing with Rose: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer's. The lessons I learned about what is left when you think nothing remains, about communicating after words fail, about meaningful life lived in the moment, about patience and kindness and how hard some people have to work for so little money will always remain with me.

It's clear what happened: When I stopped watching, I started seeing. spacer

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