Book Review | ‘One More Day’ a joyful celebration of life
- Published: December 20, 2021
By Ed Davis
Diane Chiddister’s novel “One More Day,” set at Grace Woods Care Center, an American assisted living center, is a joyful celebration of life. Chiddister penetrates deeply the lives of both residents and their devoted caretakers: Lillian in her hallucinatory world of dementia; executive director Beth, pressured by new for-profit owners to change her gentle stewardship; Thomas, the former anthropology professor, alienated but ever curious; and resident aide Sally, who devotes her life to her patients and develops an especially close, touching relationship with Thomas.
Sally and Beth have little life outside their jobs, which, as Chiddister demonstrates, is both good and bad. Sally has worked at Grace for 25 years, beginning in high school; Beth, in her 60s, has done this work all her life, at the cost of her marriage and any children she might’ve had. Sally has the uncanny ability to always do the right thing — apply a warm cloth, kiss a forehead, read aloud, wash the body of a patient moments after death as carefully and lovingly as she’d clean a newborn. She is the angel we’ll all want at our bedside when our time comes. Similarly, Beth’s commitment is 100%, and her values include knowing every patient’s name, interacting with each daily and keeping doors unlocked during the day, a decision that will come back to bite her but one that shows her total respect for the aged who are not to feel imprisoned.
Lillian and Thomas, the two residents we get to know deeply, are not stereotypes but real, living human beings. Through Lillian, the reader learns what it might be like to have dementia by experiencing it from the inside. It’s “fizzy” with heat and “big winds” and flocks of birds that constantly and confusingly intrude, reducing speech to “Hello!” and “Yes!” Still, she has a rich inner life all too easily missed by the young and healthy. All Lillian wants is to return to the colonial brick home she shared with her husband and daughter, but when she tries to say home, it comes out “hmmmm.” Eventually, Beth and Sally figure it out; heartbreakingly, they can do nothing about it, until Lillian takes matters into her own hands — and feet.
New resident Thomas, long-retired anthropologist, is an astute observer, alternately critical and forgiving, angry and patient, cheerful and despairing. Sally touchingly cares for him like the father she never had — until his real daughter, a former prosecutor, arrives, creating plenty of sparks and opportunities for growth, even as death approaches. Breathtakingly beautiful passages in which Thomas relives the crucial experiences of his life as he lies dying will stay with me forever.
As for the caretakers, Sally the angelic aide is, for me, the book’s moral center. Loving and talented as she is at her work, she must come to grips with having sacrificed herself to a profession that will gladly take all she will give. In the course of events, she will come face-to-face in the workplace with the demons making her such a sacrificial lamb. Her relationship with a younger male colleague provides drama, suspense and humor. Despite the novel’s focus on such serious themes, it’s also very funny; for example, there’s never anything but weather reports on the center’s TV, mostly hurricanes and tornadoes! Still, most residents stay glued to the set.
This is a novel for everyone wanting to understand aging in this era of increasing life span as well as increasing health challenges. Most importantly — and movingly — it avoids stereotypes to portray older people as they really are, as diverse individuals. And, though without illusions, the book is amazingly uplifting and wonderfully written with gentle humor and subtle insight. It’s a must-read, an enjoyable read, for young and old. The book’s available locally at Epic Bookshop and at amazon.com.
* Ed Davis is a local author and poet.