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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Trash Can Toast: Trying to Multitask in a New World of Care

Hannah Saunders

Table of Contents

Keywords: disabled parent, caring for parents, hallucinations, multitasking

Categories: Navigating Loss and Grief; Creatively Caring for Self, Others, and Place; Reflecting on Academic (Over)work and/or Precarity; Somewhere in Between: Grad Student Perspectives


Content warning: hallucinations and illness

“Shhh. Shhh. Don’t talk so loud. They will hear you.” I find my mama sitting outside in her work building where she used to hang fishing nets, alone, staring out the window, crying. She has her most valuable possessions stuffed into a large, black bag that she carries everywhere she goes. The people who she is referring to are of no consequence to me, other than the fact that they are not there at all. My mother’s hallucinations move around us and try to crowd out her peace. They have interrupted and altered our lives over the past three months.

Some things in life we have no preparation for, and caring for a parent is one of those things for me, not because I never thought I would do it but because it came so soon. Carework was required before I realized or accepted it. My beautiful mama is only 64 years old. I am 37. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease over a decade ago and she has been so strong and so positive with every change it has presented to her. My mama never said, “Why me?” Her attitude has always been, “Why not me?” She has shown us how to live through challenges. In June, we were shocked by the sudden and rapid progression of the disease. My mama never gives up, never lets Parkinson’s stop her from enjoying all of life’s sweet moments. Whether she is picking blueberries and pears in her yard, playing with her grandchildren, or visiting with her sisters, she loves life. This time, though, feels different for me. It feels terribly sad. I am angry over all that the disease has stolen.

My mama tries to take the eggs off the stove by moving the pan, and drops my dad’s toast into the trash can by accident. It’s a good morning otherwise. They laugh about it and I love to see them happy. I check to make sure the burner has been turned off. Mama asks me if I’m going to swim in my pool later. I don’t have a pool. My sister does. Many hours later, I tuck my children into bed and my nine-year-old daughter whispers, “Mom, I don’t want to see people. I don’t want to get Parkinson’s.” Every day I hope it will be better. I am there because I love my mama and because she taught me over the course of my life how to be a caregiver. This is not a lesson we speak of openly, but I know how to give care, and patience, and love and compassion in every circumstance because she taught me those things. I am finding that I am capable of finding joy in the midst of sadness and strength in seemingly insurmountable situations, just like my mama, and she is to credit with me having these abilities.

I upgraded my Verizon plan to use my hotspot at my parents house to do schoolwork on my laptop. My husband installed a signal booster. I check student posts on Blackboard and grade essays in between washing clothes and dishes. I read my assignments and craft responses while mama sits next to me watching The Young & The Restless. I try to focus and keep up on schoolwork. I have always been a pretty good student and taken pride in my teaching, but I worry that I am going to forget something. I have sticky notes everywhere. This semester I am teaching two composition courses as a part of my assistantship and taking three courses in the English PhD program at Old Dominion University. The courses that I am teaching are in person. I was so excited about that return to normalcy after such a long time of isolation because of COVID-19.  I was supposed to teach for the local community college again but I had to admit defeat and take something off of my plate. I was afraid if I didn’t, it would slide like that trash can toast and I did not want to be burdened with knowing I did a job, but not well. In this moment, I am trying to check in with a student who is quarantined, help two of my own children who are completing school work remotely this week due to quarantine (one is whining on the floor and calling my name repeatedly), and my sister calls to say that my mom is refusing to stay at home and my sister has to go to work. What else can I do? Drop mom off with me. I’ll take her home after my online class ends tonight at 7, then come home and charge Chrome books, pack bags, feed everyone who is hungry again, clean up and prepare for another day. I’ll read until I fall asleep to keep up with my coursework. And I will feel that all too familiar pang of guilt because no matter how much I do it is never equal or enough for each person I need to care for, and I still can’t figure out how to do any of it without always being at the bottom of the list myself.

Last night at some time, my youngest daughter crawled into my bed. I let her stay. Then my oldest daughter had a nightmare and came in and I had to walk her back to her room and get her settled. Then it was go-time for in-person school for my middle daughter, a rush and fuss and string of fits because I overslept and everyone was just exhausted.

My mother told me my entire life, as long as I can remember, to reach for the stars. I’m still going to reach, but some days are spent in the swing on the front porch at her house, watching cars go by, eating peach ice cream, reassuring her that I know it feels real but she doesn’t have to be worried or afraid. Tomorrow she wants me to come roll out dough the old-fashioned way to make chicken pot pie (what you might call chicken and pastry). I’m trying to make it all fit together– a front porch swing, a rolling pin, mixing up sweet tea, vacuuming, washing dishes, bathroom cleanings, hallucinations, falls, tears, tantrums, folding clothes, paying bills, writing essays, reading novels and journal articles, checking Discussion Board posts, emails, Google docs, PowerPoints, Zoom, lesson videos, and conferencing. It won’t, but I’m trying.

COVID means less care help because if one of my siblings is sick they cannot be around our parents. My younger brother had COVID and just came out of quarantine and now my older brother and his family have COVID. We aren’t sure mama would survive COVID, not just because of the health toll but because of the heartbreak of the separation from family. So we all work together, taking turns in caregiving roles, to support our parents in a very unique time. Finding additional support has been tougher than we ever imagined. Despite the Movement Disorder Specialist sending two referrals for my mama to have in home health care, no agencies within 75 miles will provide the service. My mama’s Medicare is backed by Cigna, and we were told that they pay out less money to providers as compared to other insurance companies which partner with Medicare, so agencies and nursing homes choose not to accept it at all in our area.

I am tired and I am praying I can get through the semester and be all that I need to be for my husband, my children, my parents, my siblings, my professors, my students, and my classmates. The physical toll of being a caregiver is evident and I worry about my own health. I do not sleep well and drink too much caffeine to function. The emotional toll looms, but is not so easily seen. There are many days when I have a lot of trouble focusing on the tasks I need to accomplish. I don’t think I will be able to process what I am going through emotionally until many years have passed.

Care work is difficult, yet I am reminded every single day that it is also meaningful and it is simply what we do for those we love. The stars that my mom always told me to catch may have to come at a slower pace these days, but no matter how few or how far in between a star is gathered, it will shine just as bright and it will be just as beautiful as my mother.



Hannah Saunders is a PhD student and instructor at Old Dominion University, majoring in English with concentrations in Rhetoric, Writing, and Discourse Studies and Literary and Cultural Studies. Hannah is passionate about education and has been teaching for seventeen years. She lives with her husband and three daughters in eastern North Carolina. In her spare time, she enjoys writing for her blog Sweet Potato Py.

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