Caregiving memoirs: living and writing with integrity and grace

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Something that I've missed in being away from this blog over the last year is having a sturdy place, with a permanent URL, where I can spread the word about new books and publications from friends of mine. Yes, there are tweets and Facebook posts and Goodread updates, but they are short and gone in a flash.

One of the friends I want to cheer about is Lisa Ohlen Harris, who last year published The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law's Memoir of Caregiving ("one house, two women, seven years: the long season of caregiving"), from Texas Tech University Press. It's a gorgeous hardcover book. The writing plus the cover design, paper grade, layout, and typography make it gorgeous inside and out, every which way you consider it. In fact, the book cover won a gold in the American Advertising Awards (ADDY), the advertising industry’s biggest prize competition, for the press’s region. Those two medallions you see on the book's cover signify it has won a Nautilus Book Award (Silver) and an Independent Publisher Award (Bronze)!

The Fifth Season is a beautifully written – and beautifully lived (which doesn’t mean lived without imperfection, frustration, and even anger) – story of “reverse midwifery,” in which Harris lives with and cares for her dying mother-in-law. The entire book is excellent, but the drama of the two women kicks into and stays in high gear with “Seek Shelter,” a chapter in which Harris skillfully weaves in the image of a tornado barreling through her town.

The Fifth Season raises all kinds of questions. What does compassion look like? What does love look like? What is marriage? What is the good life? The good death? How does the medical establishment prolong and even cause suffering? How does it soothe? How does a person live and own her own life while still giving so much of it away to someone else?

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It's timely to mention Lisa's book now because she has a book review ("For Better or Worse") of another caregiving memoir  – No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver's Days by Susan Allen Toth – in the current issue of Books and Culture. When I read it, it felt nearly like entering hallowed space, one woman with her own deep story of caregiving reflecting on another woman's deep story of caregiving. To live with such integrity and commitment is a rare accomplishment; to write about it with grace and beauty is rarer still.