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This short book takes the form of a journal written by Caro Spencer, a retired 76-year old teacher who has suffered a heart attack and has been put in an old folks' home. It is a chronicle of one woman’s attempt to stay sane, engaged, and human in an atmosphere that is devoid of the comforts of home and the associations and artifacts that one builds up over a lifetime. Unmarried and without children Caro’s only link to the outside world is her 80-year old brother and his much younger wife who tried having Caro live with them after her heart attack but the experience proved to be an unhappy one for all involved. A situation Caro later realizes wasn’t so bad.
Although there is a blazing streak of defiance and an occasional description of joy, As We Are Now is devastatingly sad. Caro’s journal not only describes the poor living conditions that lack humanity but it also reflects the gradual slip of Caro’s mental state. The small joys she experiences during visits from the local Methodist minister and his high school age daughter are more than swallowed up by the Caro’s sad living conditions and the hateful treatment shown by Harriet and Rose, the mother-daughter team who run the home.
Perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of Caro’s situation is that after 76 years of living, forging her way as a single woman with a career, and living life in full, she finds herself not only alone and without any of the associations that made up her life, but also effectively stripped of her identity by her keepers. The home is located in a rural area about 100 miles from where she lived so she has very little opportunity for interaction with others. And she finds that the life of her mind, so well developed over the years is not enough to sustain her sanity. She not only misses her house and her books, but more importantly she misses physical sensation. Fresh air and sunlight are sometimes available to her but clean smelling laundry, good food, the smell of flowers all become increasingly harder to come by. The touch of another living thing is what seems most absent in Caro’s life. Pansy, the house cat is one of the few things left to her.
In some ways, As We Are Now is a primer on how to better treat old people facing the end of their life in an institutionalized setting. The basics of physical surroundings and physical care are fairly easy to remedy given a little thought but would probably only add to the already astronomical cost of long term elder care. What is more difficult is figuring out how to interact emotionally and intellectually with old folks that doesn’t make light of their condition with phrases like “Oh, you will outlive us all” or some other nonsensical thing that we say when we don’t know what to say. Caro wants to hear about the lives of others and what is going on in the world, but when it comes to her condition and her inevitable decline, she doesn’t want someone with a false cheery world, she just wants someone to listen and to believe what she says.
She has round golden eyes. I have been told categorically that she must not get up on the bed. But occasionally she manages to sneak in late at night and climb up, first curling into a tight ball, then later, when I stroke her, uncurling to lie full length, upside down, sometimes with one paw over her nose. It is hard to express the joy it gives me to stroke this little creature and feel the purrs begin in her throat. Those nights I sleep well, a lively sleep rather than a deathly sleep. It makes all the difference!
It sounds like a depressing read, and in many ways it is. But there is much to think about in these 127 pages and it is sadly beautiful. Writer, poet, and teacher, Sarton published eleven of her own journals over her lifetime including one after she had a stroke and one in her 80th year of life before dying of breast cancer. Although I have read and loved some of her earlier journals like Plant Dreaming Deep, I haven’t read any from her later years. It will be interesting to compare them to this fictionalized account of Caro’s written in 1973 a good thirteen years before Sarton’s stroke and some twenty-two years before her death.
This won’t be for everyone. But well worth the read.