The Spare Room

This
book
is about aspects of taking care of a dying person
that I mostly didn’t do with Bonnie.

The main character (Helen) lives near Melbourne, and has a
close friend (Nicola)
with cancer
who lives in Sidney but has found a “clinic” in Melbourne that she
believes will cure her cancer. So she moves in with Helen for the
three weeks the treatment will take.

During those three weeks, Helen has to do a lot of physical
nursing, deal with Nicola’s denying that she is dying, and deal
with Nicola’s refusal to realize that this clinic treatment
she’s getting isn’t going to do any good and she has to go to
real doctors for real treatments.

The writing is good, and the discussion of the issues of how to
deal with a dying person is perceptive. But in the most amazing
paragraph, Helen describes how Nicola organizes her own home care after
Helen finally convinces her that she can’t do it all:

I didn’t know yet how many times I would fly to Sydney to
play my small part in the remains of her care, or how often,
when I buzzed at Iris’s apartment, the door would be opened by
Harriet from Yass, her round, weather-beaten face sweating and
wild with fatigue, or by Marion the Buddhist, white, composed,
and stoic after a five-day stint without relief. I had not
prepared myself to sleep on the floor beside Clare from Byron,
when Iris, half out of her mind, pulled on a backpack and
fled north, on foot, along the coast of New South Wales.

I coule not imagine the urge to start drinking that would
seize me every time I entered the high, airy rooms of the
apartment and found Nicola enthroned on the sofa where, propped
against its hard padded arm, she woke and slept and laughed and
coughed, commanding the stewing of Chinese herbs, planning brown
rice fasts and drastic alkaline diets, turning her face up each
morning to the sun that streamed in through the uncovered
windows. Nor could I foresee that one day, with her swollen
legs resting on a stack of cushions, she would announce
brightly, “I’ve suddenly realized why I feel so terrible — I
must be anemic.” Or how dull my life at home would seem between
my visits to Sydney, how I would write to her on a postcard: “I
miss you. I’m bored. I’d rather be scrubbing shit off Iris’s
bathroom tiles.” For this too would be required of me: like
otherw who served her, whom I came to love in the intimacy of
our labor. I would have to help carry her to the lavatory,
where I learned to wash her arse as gently as I had washed my
sister’s and my mother’s, and as someday someone will have to
wash mine.

I might have guessed that she would resist the hospice until
the contents of her lungs began to bubble up into her nose and
throat, until everyone around her was deranged with exhaustion,
fury, nad despair. She relented only when Marion said to her,
“Don’t regret the things you haven’t done. That’s the past.
Let it go. Rejoice: you’re our teacher now.”

None of Bonnie’s illness worked out much like that — Bonnie
went into the hospital as soon as it was clear that she couldn’t
take care of herself, and by the time she might have been
denying what was happening, she’d had the stroke that left her
unable to talk. But I do recognize both the urge to drink and
the love and closeness with the other people caring for
Nicola.

This is a short book. At the beginning I wondered if the
one-column review
in the New York Times had told me everything I was
interested in knowing about this book. But it really does get
even more interesting at the end.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=laymusicorg-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0312428170&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

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