When my late husband died and his body was removed from the house, I was suddenly very much alone. Dear friends were at hand, but there was no one to go to bed with and sob, no one to wake up with and sob. So when I awoke on December 25, 2015 a widower, I did what I do. I got to work.
There were lovely and thoughtful visitors throughout that day, but it was eerily like the weekend my father died three decades earlier. Also a holiday, many of my closest friends were gone or seriously occupied that weekend, too. Back then, I had just met Paul two weeks earlier, but we were thrown together and he was my best chance for warmth and support.
When Paul died, there was an added oddity, however. The very people with whom we shared our toughest days and nights were apparently warned off. Their job was done. Paul’s quartette of care givers, Leslie, Jose, Aneeka, and Yolanda, were told to take some time, I believe.
While I don’t doubt the wisdom of that advice, it still somehow seemed odd to me then and now. Yolanda found Paul’s body, called 911 and me. She was dressed in a sassy Mrs. Claus outfit to amuse Paul on Christmas Eve day. I held her later as she sobbed uncontrollably. Jose had taken split shifts, weekends, late nights to do what he could to make our lives as good and secure as they could be. Aneeka had more than once shifted things around to get to our home at 6:00 AM on a weekend morning to keep Paul’s routine as trouble-free as possible. And Leslie had been there from the beginning of home care until the end. Her years of commitment to Paul and, by extension, me was breathtaking.
Over the years, Paul and I learned of their loves and their losses, their amazing successes and the persistent challenges. New apartments, annoying supervisors, a grandson’s first days of school, a scary date – they were on our radar.
A social worker assigned to Paul had cautioned him more than once that we were a bit too casual about our finances with these four. Two of his aides wrote checks and balanced Paul’s accounts. They picked up his medications and had access to his debit card. Sometimes they did errands on the way to our house or on their way home, keeping his credit card overnight. I regularly left cash around the house and we never locked up anything.
Paul and I looked at it this way: If we could trust four completely trustworthy people with Paul’s body, we could certainly trust them with money.
So, on December 25, 2015 as I worked packing up three shopping bags of Paul’s medications, it struck me again how amazingly trustworthy our gang was. At least half of Paul’s cache of drugs would have big street value. A couple of days later, the local police were quite surprised at the staggering amount of controlled substances I carried into the station. They asked if I was sure I had gotten it all. My amazement, however, was not about the ethics of Paul’s caregivers, it was about their fortitude in the face of the insulting pay and insinuating comments they receive for their work.
In our communities, we are relying on health systems, educational systems, child care and elder care systems, all of which depend on front line workers who cannot survive on the pay they get. Most are booked for fewer hours so that the employer need not provide insurance coverage. Many cannot depend on enough hours a month to pay for their own housing and transportation costs, so they work more than one job and pray the scheduling conflicts don’t result in them being terminated.
It does not add up that we can outfit a 10-year old boy for tennis or baseball for more than his classroom aide will make in two weeks. It does not compute that Paul’s wheelchair cost more than any of his aides made working with him in a year. We are utilizing systems that are incongruent with the human communities that live within them. People are working hard, creating something larger than the sum of our individual relationships. Systems, however, are not supporting us humans.