A dose of humor brightens a load of insight
"The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving," by Jonathan Evison. Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill. 288 pages. $23.95.
By Elizabeth Cook
SALISBURY - Stay-at-home dad Ben Benjamin has no one to stay home for anymore.
He lost his children. His marriage died. He's never been able to hold down a decent job. Now he's drinking too much and running out of money.
But don't let this pathetic premise scare you off. In "The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving," author Jonathan Evison turns Benjamin's despair into a quirky tale of atonement and self-discovery that both breaks your heart and makes you laugh out loud.
After failing as a father in the worst possible way - fate is truly cruel - Ben aimlessly drifts and drinks his way to rock bottom. To begin his long climb up, he takes a night course in caregiving. As he says, he's no Florence Nightingale; he just needs money.
So at 39 and with little more to ground him than a mnemonic - Ask, Listen, Observe, Help, Ask again, ALOHA - he lands a job taking care of a 19-year-old boy confined to a wheelchair with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Fears that this story is about to get sadder are dispelled during Ben's initial interview. The mom steps out for a minute, and Ben asks the teen, Trevor, if he likes girls. Immediately Ben cringes to himself that the question may be inappropriate.
But Trevor quickly takes to the topic.
"I'm crippled, not gay," he says. "Of course I like girls."
I check the doorway. "What kind of girls?"
"Any kind," he says. "The kind that want to get with a guy like me."
"You mean, because of your ... because of the wheelchair?"
"I mean because I'm horny. But yeah, that too."
He IS 19.
Ben has heavy baggage from the tragic loss of his children, Piper and Jodi. And Trevor can be a temperamental tyrant, "a pretzel with a perfectly healthy imagination" abandoned at age 3 by his father and accustomed to his mother's indulgent attention. After a few missteps and strains on the employee-employer relationship, Ben and Trevor get his mother's approval to drive across five states to visit Trevor's hapless, ailing father.
Evison says he never set out to write a road story; in fact, he resisted it. But Ben and Trevor needed to be delivered, somehow, and that was the best way to do it. Along the way, they pick up seemingly cast-off and often funny characters who begin to pull Ben back into the mainstream of life.
Woven through the story are Ben's flashbacks to his life as a stay-at-home dad and his longing for his wife and children. It all builds up to the eventual telling of how the children died, a careless moment of inattention that will haunt Ben forever.
Evison saw his own family disintegrate after his 16-year-old sister died, so he knows this dark territory, "There are holes in our lives that can never be filled - not really, not ever," the author wrote in an essay. "And yet, we have no choice but to try to fill them. We must drive on in the face of debilitating loss, crippling guilt, overwhelming hopelessness. Because to give up is to be dead. I've lived with this idea since I was 5 years old."
That's what Ben does; he drives on.
"The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving" includes other fathers, all who have deliberately hurt their children in some way - abandonment, bad parenting, getting arrested. Yet Ben, who devoted his life to Piper and Jodi, suffers the greatest loss. Life is not fair.
But even a tragic life has its moments. Between Trevor's wit, Ben's sardonic humor and the unlikely circumstances they find themselves in on the road, this surprising story ultimately leaves the reader bemused and hopeful. No one can experience the worst life has to give without scars, but that doesn't mean they have to surrender to despair. "The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving" ultimately holds out hope and humor; what better way to cope?