Friday, November 8, 2019

Review: Be With by Mike Barnes

I hope it is many years yet before I have to be anyone's caregiver. Actually, I lie. I don't ever want to be a caregiver. It sounds heartbreaking and exhausting both emotionally and physically. But we all age and die and in the normal scheme of things that means that the younger generation takes care of the older. And so I likely won't be spared. Mike Barnes, a poet in his 60s, has been the primary caregiver for his 90 plus year old mother Mary, who suffers from dementia, for eight years. This slight book is a series of four letters of advice he's written to fellow caregivers, not so much hard and fast lessons he's learned but quiet insights he's gained during his mother's long decline. It is emotionally open and honest, acknowledging the hell of dementia even as it recognizes the grace of the mother still and always behind the patient.

Barnes' letters are composed in brief paragraphs and short fragments to allow his fellow caregivers, whose time is limited, to dip in and out of his gentle, poetic musings. This is not a memoir, although he does offer snapshots of his mother's care over the past eight years. Instead, it is an introspective look and sharing of the intangible truths of being a caregiver and of the road that Alzheimer's forces people down. It doesn't detail Mary's declines in anything more than the most general of terms, restoring the dignity that the disease strips off of people. The letters are heartfelt and Barnes urges other caregivers to be gentle with themselves, admitting and accepting that he himself has made mistakes along the way but granting that he has made any errors with the best of intentions. In all of the exhaustion and second-guessing and heart-sick feelings, he never loses sight of his mother as still present, no matter her failing cognitive function, never stops seeing her as smart and brave as she pushes, increasingly ineffectively, against this terminal disease. The title, Be With, tells the most important thing he's learned on this journey with his mother. The most important thing is to be with her, to be present, and to be with himself too. The quiet tone of the letters has a very good chance of offering solace and understanding to people who are so in the weeds of caring for their loved one that they haven't had a chance to reflect on anything beyond money, care homes, and other tangible aspects of dementia care. Just as Barnes says that simply placing a soft hand on Mary's forehead and leaving it there helps to settle her and connect her again, this book becomes the soft hand on the forehead of his fellow caregivers.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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