Review & Interview: Kristina T. Saccone on Sue Mell’s Giving Care

“I need more pills.”

My mom’s texts arrive throughout my day—during back-to-back work meetings, while I’m driving to pick up my seven-year old son from school, and at all hours.

“I need more pills.”

“Can you get me more meds. I’ve run out.”

But she isn’t out of pills; my mom has dementia. The texts keep coming. She tells us how it is, rarely asking for help anymore. It is frustratingly abrupt and dissonant in an already hectic and noisy life of working full time, raising a child, and managing a household. But I keep repeating the truth in hopes she remembers just one time because she is my mother.

To put it succinctly: “Now her need for me is bottomless.” That resonant line in Sue Mell’s flash story “Interval” twisted my stomach and moved me to tears. She hits right at the core of how it feels to be a caregiver in her flash collection Giving Care, winner of the 2022 Chestnut Review Chapbook Competition. Mell is a truth-teller: she parallels the obligations associated with care; what it’s like to live with the grief of a declining loved one; and the power of love between conflicted family members.

I spoke with Mell virtually from her mother’s house in New York state, where she has lived since her mom’s debilitating fall several years ago. We talked for more than an hour about our mothers before discussing the book. Though we are strangers, Mell and I have a lot in common: we are part of a growing demographic across the world of unpaid caregivers who face this end-of-life reality with their parents. “Writing is always a way through for me,” says Mell of the chapbook. “So it was a way to manage all those difficult feelings and make something out of them.”

The resulting collection is a reflection of that rich and ever-challenging experience, succinctly describing the constant tension of being a son or daughter who is also a caregiver. She writes in the story “Good Help is Hard to Find”:

I’m a critical person whose high expectations are often disappointed, and I’m not necessarily the kindest or most patient person with my mom. I can always change her diaper. What she needs is a part-time companion—someone to supply the sort of company that as her daughter, in a historically fraught relationship, I just can’t provide.

As now-adult children, we remember our parents as they once were and, in real-time, experience the tragedy of their decline. The result is a study of contrasts. “Juxtaposition is a great thing, because the experience of caregiving is one of constant juxtaposition,” Mell explains, “and the dissonance of things that don’t or should not have to go together, and yet they do.”

Mell illustrates this in her homage to the trees she grew up with, which are now being heavily pruned by the city “In the Front Yard.” As those long-dear hemlock, dogwood, and birch branches fall in parallel to her mother’s decline, she writes fiercely and poetically: “But just the thought of some prick taking a chain saw to what’s left of that grand old tree doubles me over with a suffocating grief. Summer days spent lying in the grass, blue sky and contrails seen through its wind-wavered leaves.”

Similarly, the chapbook’s opening story “Crocus” sets a poetic, hopeful tone, where together Mell and her mother plant “a dozen crocus bulbs, a soft fibrous weave encasing each one.” In our interview, Mell shares that her mother was a gardener before her decline and the bulbs are “like an echo of who she was and who I am.” Later in the collection, that hope dissolves when a hungry squirrel devours those crocuses in a later story, a small tragedy and another juxtaposition jumping from the page. 

The flash form enables these parallels. “To create that effect, it needs to be in a small space,” Mell says. Take, for example, “Long Lunch,” which clocks in at just under 40 words. The title evokes the kind of leisurely meal that nine-to-fivers dream of, but Mell bursts the illusion with a single, concluding line: “My mom eats like a nodding junkie.” It is a tiny story that encapsulates the giant contrast between the picture-perfect perception of aging and the sad, difficult reality of decline.

All nineteen of her stories offer these multiple layers of meaning without ever losing the core narrative of that stark role reversal between parent and child. Giving Care is a collection that will offer caregivers resonance and provide writers with inspiration to draft their own stories. In conversation, Mell offers advice to those authors: “Be as kind to yourself as you can, because it’s so hard what you’re doing–both caregiving and writing. And when you put them together, there are so many difficult and conflicting emotions, and there’s so much grief.”

Giving Care, by Sue Mell. Chestnut Review, June 2022. 39 pages. $9.99, chapbook.

Kristina T. Saccone (she/her) writes short fiction and nonfiction. Her work appears in Fractured Lit, Cease, Cows, Gone Lawn, Flash Flood, Luna Station Quarterly, LEON Literary Review, Emerge Literary Journal, and others. She’s also querying a hybrid anthology about caring for our aging parents and editing a new, limited-run online literary journal with stories about caregiving, called One Wild Ride. Find her on Twitter at @kristinasaccone and @flashroundup.

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