Lynn Coady muses about love, loss and long-term care with novel Watching You Without Me
This interview originally aired on Sept. 21, 2019.
Edmonton short story writer and novelist Lynn Coady — who won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2013 for novel Hellgoing — is originally from Nova Scotia. Coady finds the funny and the absurd in family life — and both are front and centre in her latest novel, Watching You Without Me. It's about a woman named Karen who, after the death of her mother, goes back home to Nova Scotia to care for Kelli, her sister, who is disabled and requires a caregiver.
The work of a caregiver
"I grew up in Cape Breton. When I was a kid, my parents were in a situation where they had to look after my aging grandparents. At first, they would come up from Margaree every summer to stay with us in Port Hawkesbury. They stayed down in our basement. They would also bring my uncle, who was developmentally disabled — like the character Kelli in the book — and who always needed care.
When I was a kid, my parents were in a situation where they had to look after my aging grandparents.
"My grandfather died when I was about 14. My grandmother was with us a lot longer and almost made it to 100. She was home with us the whole time, along with my uncle who needed somebody with him all the time. It wasn't always easy. My dad had a bitterness about the fact that we couldn't take vacations or go anywhere due to this caregiver situation. Sometimes, I wondered why it had to be the way it was."
A time to care
"When my parents retired, they moved to Dartmouth. They now have caregivers coming in regularly and, these days, there's a little bit more access to that kind of help. I started writing Watching You Without Me around the time my brother and I were giving each other those looks, understanding that it's going to be on us now as our parents are in decline.
"It's a sad stage that we all get to. My mind just started going to a dark place because I didn't want to think about all the ramifications of the situation. I thought I'd write a scary novel as a result — perhaps to find a nice metaphor for everything that scared me at this stage of life."
"Kelli was the character who got me through writing the book, which wasn't fun to write at times. People would ask me what my book was about, and I felt I couldn't reduce it to being about infirmity, death, grieving and housework — even though that's what the book is about! But then I would think about Kelli and I loved her as a character. I feel incredible affection toward her in the same way I feel toward my uncle, who is very similar.
In the book, Karen is regretting the idea that she convinced herself that caregiving is a way of cancelling yourself out.
"In the book, Karen is regretting the idea that she convinced herself that caregiving is a way of cancelling yourself out. What she's starting to realize, now that she's spending time with Kelli, is caregiving can be incredibly rewarding, and it's a way of being human. She's been denying herself, for all of her adulthood, and telling herself that's bad. To bond with Kelli feels good.
"This is, in a way, awful because she's denied herself that her entire adulthood. She's denied herself a relationship with her mother."
Lynn Coady's comments have been edited for length and clarity.