by Caroline Johnson
51 poems, 83 pages
Publisher: Holy Cow! Press
To Order: www.holycowpress.org
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
In 1983, at the young age of 58, my father fell victim to a brainstem stroke. This
debilitating event placed Dad in hospice care, where he passed one month later. Caroline
Johnson's new collection, The Caregiver, brought to mind my daily visits to the hospice
unit, sitting beside him, hoping for a response but receiving virtually nothing that
the door of opportunity to bid my father goodbye.
For approximately 12 years the poet managed the care of both of her parents through the
rigors of slow-moving, long-term illnesses: Alzheimer's for her mother, variations of
Parkinson's for her father. The 51 poems included in The Caregiver, invite the reader to
share in the intimate details of the poet's twin labors of love as she, with the help of
Donna, a professional caregiver, learned to care for others beyond all thoughts for herself.
The Caregiver is divided into three sections: Part I, Father; Part II, Mother; and Part III,
Grief. In the Foreword Johnson reveals many of the inspirational sources that resulted in
her poems. Trust me, don't skip the foreword. It is one of the best I've ever read.
Crossing opens Part I, and features her father's favorite creature:
Today I came across a painted turtle
as I was bicycling near a canal.
He had stopped in the middle of the trail,
head erect, all limbs exposed, waiting.
He seemed stuck in the moment,
moving neither forward nor backward,
trapped in time,
I thought of you, dear father,
moving across unstable ground,
gripping your cane and hovering
for a brief moment
before the storms set in.
Years earlier her father had offered his daughter a piece of sage advice, "Be like a turtle.
Let your problems roll off your back." I believe that Johnson tapped into that "nugget"
more than once during her caregiving journey.
The storms alluded to in Crossings, did set in. Poems such as Life's Melody,
and Becoming Erudite, illustrate her father's once brilliant mind in slow
She remembers his voice, smooth, intoxicating/like the vodka tonic on
the side table.
A Good Day, opens the door on Parkinson's in its advanced stages:
He was having a good day. A nurse evaluated him. He couldn't answer
most questions, but he knew it was spring. He couldn't sign his name.
He thought it was January. Still, he was having a good day.
Johnson is candid about her feelings in stanza 2 of A Good Day:
I wanted to leave. I had done my time—spent hours with the nurse and
his caregiver. I had to grade papers, buy some groceries, get home to have
dinner with my husband. But he was having a good day, and when I tried
to say good-bye, he asked when he would see me again. I told him soon,
and that I would bring cake.
As the poet moves the reader gently into the world of her mother's long goodbye,
met with an epigram from Kahlil Gibran, The most beautiful word on the
lips of mankind
is the word "Mother."
Shut-ins is about Johnson accompanying her mother as she delivered pine wreaths to the
less fortunate. Here she learned, my first lesson in kindness.
Coyote employs no fewer than four animals in a touching tribute, awesome and upright,
harboring a/deep purpose and an elevated spirit.
Johnson has a way with metaphor; Skiing, showcases the poet's visual skills in this
She stands up from her wheelchair clutching her cane—
a monogrammed rod, a wooden crutch, a tree branch,
an extended piece of willow, a bleached crow—
then plants it like a pole, attempting to descend
the stairs one more time, each icy step a flag of victory,
a fast blue slope, a thrilling dangerous carousel ride.
Barbara Crooker opens the door to the grief process, Grief is a river you wade in, until
you get to the other side.
What Got Him Here, will touch the hearts of readers with its poignant lines that describe
the grief process beginning long before Johnson's father dies.
As Johnson drives home from her mother's funeral, her poem Changing Lanes, begins to
form. This prose poem takes the reader along in a potpourri of thoughts. Condensation
appears on the windshield, it smears as she wipes it off. She recalls how her mom's
grandsons played hide and seek around the coffin, how she fielded questions about what
items should or should not accompany her mom to the grave. This poem in itself is worth
the price of the book.
As the grief portion of The Caregiver, draws to a gentle close, look for The Sneeze,
written especially as a remembrance of her father, as well as, The Gallery, which pays
tribute to Johnson's mother, who loved and taught art. The closing lines stand out through
the poet's tears of grief. Her mother's legacy captured,
You will find me in the dialogue of my students,
in the cry of my neighbor's baby,
in the wisp of a dandelion seed.