An unemployed New York City editor, formerly hooked on drugs and shamed by his homosexuality, returns home to rural Missouri to care for his ailing, elderly mother and discovers a deep vein of tenderness that helps reconcile him to his past.
It’s not a run-of-the-mill plot line for a caregiving memoir. But George Hodgman, the author of Bettyville, published earlier this month, isn’t your usual caregiver.
He’s unmarried, in his 50s, down-and-out and accustomed to caring only for himself when he realizes that his 90-year-old mother, Betty, needs his help but is too proud to ask. His dad had died years before. “It is my time to play the grownup and I don’t want the part,” Hodgman confesses to readers early on in the book.
But what an eye this son has for his willful, plain-spoken mother’s feelings, almost never expressed directly. How readily he understands her fear of losing control and her determined efforts to fight the indignities of aging. And how unsentimentally he conveys the sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes humorous, sometimes irritating, often banal realities of caregiving.
“I know these are our final days of home,” Hodgman writes, capturing the bittersweet quality of long, slow days marked by the sense of an ending.
I caught up with Hodgman by phone in Miami in the midst of a two-week book tour. What follows is an edited version of our conversation:
Next Avenue: What inspired you to leave New York City and move to a small town in Missouri to be with your mom?
Hodgman: I’d been coming back for longer and longer visits the older she got. Then, I lost my job and she lost her driver’s license. She didn’t tell me; she tried to hide it. I found out when I went home for her birthday.
She was having more moments of confusion. Spending a lot of time on the couch. She wasn’t eating right. She wasn’t cooking any more.
I didn’t decide to stay with her: I just took it day by day and was drawn into her struggle more and more. The thing is: I saw how hard she was trying to keep going. She was also clearly scared. And my mother doesn’t get scared.
Are you still living there?
This two weeks away is the first lengthy amount of time I’ve had away from her since then.
How did the idea of the book come to you?
I started recording incidents that were going on as a kind of therapy. I put some on Facebook and there were so many responses.
People would come visit us, and they were always shocked at the way my mother and I talked to each other because we’re not all lovey dovey. We have a comic banter that’s a little aggressive. People would say you two are so funny together. I realized I wanted to do a book about Betty and George, one that was quirky and eccentric.
You call yourself an “unlikely guardian” for your mom. What did you mean by that?
I am an only child who has dreaded the loss of his parents all his life. I feared it so much. I’m not a very domestic person. I was self-centered. I couldn’t cook. I couldn’t do insurance forms.
So many people take care of other people. This book is about somebody who wasn’t sure if he could pull that off. Part of the message is: We’re not perfect people. None of us. We’re complicated.
I guess that what I got from going home was some sense of my own competence, of being able to deal with my mother and her troubles.
You’re a private person. What made it possible for you to describe your feelings so vividly in this book?
It’s what people who are writerly do. Here I am, a middle-aged man living with my sick mother. I wasn’t feeling great about myself. I asked myself: ‘How did I get here? Why are things as they are?’
It was just a very gradual accretion of revelation. I wanted the book to be about our relationship and there was no way that I could write about the relationship if I didn’t write about myself.
One of the things you wonder about is your parents’ reluctance to ask about your life or tell you much about theirs.
There were so many things I wondered about my mother that she never revealed. And it seemed odd there was so much she didn’t want to know about me.
At a certain age, you’re not very sensitive if you don’t begin to look and see your parents’ disappointments. It’s terribly sad to see your parents and understand that they didn’t get what they wanted out of life.
Your empathy was one of the most striking features of this book.
Who couldn’t empathize with someone trying so hard to hold on? It broke my heart because she was so brave. And because she didn’t go gently.
Essentially, what I know is that I really love my mother. And even better than that, I like her. I like this tough old lady who is doing her best to live. I like her, warts and all.
And I know that at the end of the day, whatever happens, I’ve come through for her. I need to know that for myself much more than I need anything from anybody else, because that’s what I’m going to live with the rest of my life.
Books for Caregivers
I also asked George which books meant the most to him during the time he describes in his book. His emailed answer:
1. Final Payments by Mary Gordon: I first read this novel years back. It touched me because it clarifies something important: Yes, we go back home to care for our parents, but we also go back for ourselves, to set things right, to savor, to think, to love and — in my case, at least — to laugh. It’s also about a grownup going back to confront and embrace not just a parent, but also all the values that her father represents.
2. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: I think about death, unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately, as we can’t avoid it — a lot. To be around an old person is to confront one’s own mortality; that’s why I think we sometimes try to separate them from our lives. This remarkably beautiful book puts the end of life into perspective and it is wonderfully reassuring.
3. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande: This is the best book about old age that I have ever read. Gawande is a marvelous, intelligent and wonderfully companionable writer with whom one feels wonderful sympathy and empathy. I liked it because, unlike so many books about the end of life, he emphasizes many of the positive aspects of old age.
4. The Year of Magical Thinking/Blue Nights by Joan Didion: Two books about all the complications of loss by a writer seemingly capable of capturing every nuance of feeling. During the years with my mom, I have looked for books with first-person voices, speaking totally honestly from their experiences. One needs companions. Didion becomes a friend on the journey.
5. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens/Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: Because sometimes one is there, alone, with reality and simply must — especially during the long gray of winter when everyone feels worst — get utterly and completely away. These books took me far from the reality of my existence.
Judith Graham is a freelance journalist who specializes in writing about aging and health.