No Saints around Here by Susan Allen Toth
I’m sure I must be one of Susan Allen Toth’s biggest fans. In the months before I first journeyed to England for my junior year abroad, I devoured her trilogy of travel books: My Love Affair with England, England as You Like It, and England for All Seasons. The series invites you to discover some of her favorite off-the-beaten-path destinations and presents her unique travel philosophy: limit yourself to a one-inch square of a small-scale Ordnance Survey map and, rather than trying to dash all around the country, explore and appreciate just that one area as thoroughly as possible. Though the books came out between 1992 and 1997, they certainly don’t feel dated; the only thing that has changed significantly is the prices for tourist attractions. Whether you’ve never been to England or know it like the back of your hand, you’ll enjoy reading Toth’s sympathetic retelling of her adventures.
Later I learned that Toth was also the author of two memoirs about her growing-up years, Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood (about her childhood and adolescence in Iowa – and thus a great companion piece to The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson, who is also an inveterate Anglophile) and Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, about her years at Smith College. Though we’re of different generations, I could relate to so much of Toth’s experience of life at a women’s college – especially the crushing disappointment of narrowly missing out on the summa cum laude degree class.
I hadn’t heard anything from Toth in years, so I was surprised and delighted to come across a new book from her, No Saints around Here: A Caregiver’s Days, on NetGalley (a website where reviewers can download pre-release copies of upcoming books). There’s a sad story behind this one, though: Toth’s husband and long-time travel companion, architect James Stageberg, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the mid-1990s and had been in physical and mental decline ever since. This memoir is based on Toth’s journal entries from James’s last 18 months of life, before he died at the age of 85 in 2010.
Toth initially wanted to replicate the diary entries exactly, with no editing or commentary, but changed her mind when she was finally strong enough to face reading them again. There was too much repetition, and she felt ashamed of her tone: constantly moaning about her lack of time and her distaste for some of the more unpleasant chores she had to undertake on a daily basis (brushing and flossing James’s teeth was her least favorite). In one sense, time was slipping away – it wouldn’t be long before she lost James forever – but in another, it felt like there was nothing but time, endless hours spent performing repetitive caregiving tasks. (She also avoided the guilty thought that, once James was gone, she would have all the time in the world to do whatever she wanted.)
As the title suggests, Toth never considered herself a saint; because she “lived with constant interruptions,” she often responded with frustration when James tried walking downstairs without calling her, or when he complained of being bored with a DVD, or when he got her up from meals or her ritualized morning cups of tea a second or third time in a row. She didn’t exactly relish shopping for male incontinence pads, and hated having to call neighbors over in desperation when it took three people to hoist James up after a fall.
Still, James and Toth were fortunate: they had the money to hire several nurses who would come and cover various shifts, including overnight, so Toth could sleep and run errands. James’s six children were often able and willing to help. Towards the end they had the opportunity to enroll James in a hospice scheme that included near-instant delivery of prescriptions. And, best of all, they were able to keep him at home throughout the whole ordeal, so he wouldn’t have to face death alone in a nursing home or hospital.
Those were a few of the small mercies that kept Toth sane; some others were: friends who had been through the same experience and encouraged her to keep going, a new pair of jeans, a few colorful silk shirts purchased from eBay, and an obsession with the life and works of Johnny Cash. Sometimes she simply had to look after herself, with some tiny luxury making the difference between wallowing in self-pity and making it through the day feeling confident. She was even able to escape to her beloved London for nine days, after recruiting an army of caregivers and making a schedule marked by military precision.
At other times, she survived by finding the humor in daily situations, like the time she broke off a phone conversation with a friend when she realized with alarm that James was napping on the porch with his head in the pansies, or when she took a toy stuffed sheep to her heart, only to discover it was actually a rabbit – henceforth known as “sheepit.” After all, she thought, if you didn’t laugh you’d cry.
Toth gets the tone of this memoir just right: although she is honest, she is never melodramatic; although she often feels sorry for herself, she also recognizes how lucky she has been, not just to have done a good job of looking after James, but to have had him in her life at all. Theirs was a second marriage and James was 15 years her senior, so at some level she always knew that she could be a widow for many years – yet that was no damper on the years they did have together. Even when James was at his weakest, when the disease had reduced him to a mere shadow of his old self, the love they’d shared for decades still remained.
Although I found this to be a beautiful and touching story, I did occasionally wonder what it could have been like if Toth had written the whole thing after the fact, rather than piecing it together from contemporaneous journal entries. It’s hard to say which approach would have been more successful. The journal entry format does have the advantage of making readers feel they are right there in the moment with Toth and James, but the lengthy introduction and a concluding chapter written a year after his death also introduces the perspective of hindsight. Toth went back and found the vows she had made to James on their wedding day. They concluded with, “I promise to abide with you in sickness and in health…In short, I will do the best I can” – and that is just what she did. No saints around here, just ordinary people doing their best to live up to the love they promised.
No Saints around Here will be published by the University of Minnesota Press on April 1st. Many thanks to the publishers for providing me with an advance reading copy via NetGalley.