Virginia Stem Owens

Virginia Stem Owens


Virginia Stem Owens has written more than seventeen books, including four novels and nonfiction on a wide range of topics from media to metaphysics. She has been on the editorial board of Books & Culture since its inception. She also served for seven years as director of the Milton Center, an institute dedicated to fostering excellence in writing by Christians. Virginia lives in Huntsville, Texas, with her husband, David, a dog, two cats, and a varying number of chickens.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

NTERVIEW QUESTIONS With Westminster John Knox Press

Caring for Mother

Why did you choose to write this book? In the introduction you explain that you began writing about the experience at first in very technical terms, by recording doctor appointments, tracking medication, observing behavioral changes. When did you decide to transform these facts into a memoir?

I did begin by keeping a log of medical information, but I soon also started to keep a very rough journal my interactions with my parents and how the experience was affecting me. I made a conscious decision to write it rough, being intentionally non-literary. To do otherwise at the time just didn't seem right, either morally or substantively. By which I mean that the time was very jagged and rough itself and making it smooth and readable was contrary to what I was feeling. I didn't begin what one might call writing the book until the last couple of years of my mother's life. I believe I began by describing the doctor visits and the parts that were not so personal to me.

Your previous books have ranged in subject from mystery novels, to meditations about the bible, to political hot-topics such as the death penalty in Huntsville, Texas. What is it that draws you to a project?

I have to write about topics I feel deeply about. I read a lot of mysteries and wrote those three books as "practice fiction. The other novel, Generations ( has only been published in England), is about a grandmother who lived through WWII, a mother who lived through the Vietnam war, and her two daughters during the first Gulf war. Generational links have figured largely in several of my other books as I come from a large extended East Texas family. Interestingly, And the Trees Clap Their Hands, about the new physics, was a subject I was equally passionate about as it opened up my cosmological view of reality in a truly earth-shaking way.

You have addressed the issue of death and dying many times in your writing, most notably in your book about Huntsville’s Death Row chamber, called the "Death House" by locals. You come back to this image of death again in Caring for Mother, but this time you compare your mother’s nursing home to the "Death House" in Huntsville—By viewing both facilities in this jarring light, you reveal the similar social, moral questions about how our society is able (and unable) to treat these two populations. Have you thought further about this comparison? What steps can we take to improve care for the elderly while retaining their integrity as a free-willed person?

My family would say my choice of dark topics fits my general outlook! But I'm actually a rather happy person. Maybe it's just that I don't like to fool around with trivial topics. As for improving care for the elderly, I believe that they, along with many other sequestered parts of the population, should remain integrated in the community as far as possible. But such caregivers need a lot more support than they get in order to do this. The money that Medicare spends on nursing home family care be used to support people in their own homes or the homes of their caregivers .And it would save a lot of money! Of course there are many elderly without families or in such conditions that this isn't feasible. But they would be a much smaller population and would thus, hopefully, get better care.

You wrote, "Nothing had ever confronted so forcefully my faith that an ultimate graciousness dwelt at the heart of the world and cared for us." How have you been able to reconcile this experience since her passing, or have you? In which ways was your faith present, or absent, during this experience—especially after being unable to "flip on [your mother’s] steadfast faith [that] she had always relied on?"

I was surrounded by family and friends who loved and prayed for my mother and me. Knowing of their concern me from feeling abandoned and alone. I prayed a lot too, which I tend to do especially when I'm in a desperate mode. I never thought God had done this to my mother. Statistically, something's going to happen to you sooner or later that's not too pleasant. The body just has a lot of different ways of dying, none of them, except perhaps for a sudden heart attack or massive stroke, without pain and nastiness. It wasn't fair that my mother had to suffer as she did and for so long, but fairness isn't a concept recognized by what we call nature. The world runs by mystery, not by our simplistic categories. We didn't make it; we can't understand it. Suffering can't be solved. It has to be grasped, like a nettle. You have a choice of denying it, running from it, letting it make you bitter, or trusting your way through it.

Your memoir often addresses the human condition on a philosophical level. After finding your mother trying to balance her checkbook, off only a few cents, your mother exclaims that "It’s the only worth-while thing I’ve done all day." You then pose the question, "Who is to treat this symptom, I wonder, my mother’s growing sense of worthlessness?" Although you never answer these questions in your memoir, you suggest in the final chapters that the journey of this experience, a journey that forces these questions into your consciousness, has somehow given you peace about the "not knowing" that is, as you claim, "precisely the point of human death." Could you explain?

One of my prayers - my private paraphrase of part of the Lord's Prayer - is "save us from futility." Futility, uselessness, worthlessness. They are the particular afflictions old people and the chronically ill. It's a feeling I have had to fight against myself as my blindness has descended and I can do less and less to "earn my existence." The older we get, the more we think about what our life has been worth. Our culture is especially good at wasting lives, I think. And at convincing people whose lives have been well spent that they've accomplished nothing worthwhile. Of course, none of us will know what our lives have meant until they're over.

In the end of your memoir you list practical emotional guidelines to assist others who face the eventual care of a dying parent. One of your suggestions is: "Friends and relatives may offer their sturdy support, but they cannot bear your pain for you." Knowing this, what advice would you give to a friend or a relative attempting to offer support to a care-giver in your situation?

Knowing that there is no way to take away or take on the pain, I would also know that there are very practical things that would be a help, such as staying with the sick person for a couple of hours to give the caregiver time to shop or just get away for a while. Or bringing a cooked meal. Or finding information on the web about eldercare, nursing homes, hospice, etc. I would caution against presenting this as suggestions, however. Everyone always has ideas about how you ought to be handling the situation, which gets very wearing. One must be subtle in making the info available. But even letting the caregiver vent on the phone is an act of charity.