The Opposite of Caregiving

The Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) features dark green foliage and a large white flower. They are strictly indoor plants that take medium light, bloom year-round and are very forgiving. That is, until the unlucky houseplant met me.

Sarah,” I led off in my email, “will you take Tommy’s plants?” My neighbor had admired them on a previous visit. I watched, guilt shadowing my face, as she lifted a watering can from its dusty shelf and approached the Peace Lily.

Tenderly, as I had seen my husband do, she watered the plant along with all of the others he had cared for over the years. The drooping leaves appeared to heave a sigh of relief, soon brightening and popping up as the water I had thoughtlessly denied them quenched their thirst. 

My gift to my neighbor of the half dozen houseplants was part of my effort to divest of anything that required my care and attention. I had spent a good part of my second marriage taking care of my husband -- willingly and faithfully -- and now, with his passing, I wanted to be free of responsibility.

It’s not only houseplants I’m rejecting, but also pets. “No, no dogs,” I’d reply to those who suggested a furry companion to assuage my typical widow loneliness.  “A cat?” they’d pose. “Much easier to care for. No walking in the winter. Just a litter box.”

I’d turn down that idea, too. “Expensive,” I’d respond. "Can't afford it." We had spent a fortune over the years in vet bills for Sasha, who died at 9 and Buddy at 14. While we loved our Golden Retrievers like children, the financial cost is, in truth, one factor, but also the responsibility, and more importantly, the pain of their eventual loss.

And, there'd be the memories a new pet would bring. “Like clockwork,” a neighbor reminded me. “You, Tommy, and Buddy, walking around the park at six in the morning. Then, there'd be Tommy shouting at Buddy, ‘no, no,no’ as the dog headed for a mud puddle. And before Tommy could change Buddy’s direction, there’d be your dog plopping like a hippo.”

I laughed as I recalled that repeated scene. No, no more dogs. No more images of my husband racing to catch up with our Golden. No more reminders of my glee as I watched Tommy fetch Buddy from his makeshift pond. “I’ll hose him off in the basement,” he’d say, more amused than angry.

“A roommate, that’s what you need,” suggested my daughters. “You’ve got two spare bedrooms in your big house, you’ve admitted to loneliness in the afternoons, get a roommate for company and extra cash.”

It was true the two spaces I had reserved for my out-of-town daughters and their families have gone mostly unused, expect for brief visits twice a year. I thought about their idea. Thought about the money that could help me pay bills. Thought about the young student, actor, or even an airline pilot who would welcome our proximity to O’Hare. I even started composing an ad for that last possibility.

But then, I got depressed. I had images of me lowering the volume on my TV so I wouldn’t disturb my housemates. My 4 a.m. MSNBC show that accompanies my early rising might have to be curtailed out of concern for the stranger needing his or her sleep down the hall.

I saw myself opening doors to find clothing tossed on the floor, unmade beds, which paying renters would have every right to leave. I imagined me morphing into Mother, waving away their objections and insisting they eat a little something before their class, performance, or flight.

“Go, leave the laundry,” I heard myself saying. “You’ll be late. I’ll take care of it.”

Then, despite my best intentions, I couldn’t doubt the vision of me lying awake, listening for a late-night key in the door, just as I once did with my flesh-and-blood.

“No, no borders,” I told them.

“But your loneliness,” my daughters reminded me.

“There’s nothing wrong with being temporarily lonely,” I said. “Right now, I really don’t want to talk to anyone. I want to sit on the couch and eat my meals while watching TV.”

Of course, I know a time will come when lack of responsibility moves from respite to emptiness, when I will long for a beating heart nearby. Until then, I will talk to myself and my departed husband. For a smidgen of care taking, I’ll tend to the mixed bouquet on my kitchen table. Trim stems, change water, add crystal. I think I can handle that.