Loving and Leaving Jane

My summer as a home health care aide.

Photo credit: Austin Kirk, CC BY 2.0.

The best and worst job I ever had is the one I was least qualified for, of course. I learned new skills I will likely never again have the opportunity to use, formed a friendship, vacuumed my first dog, tended my first garden — and then quit. Abruptly, early, shamefully.

I loved her and then left her.

I applied for the job late at night — I worked the overnight shift in my college’s 24-hour library — and I’d had a lot of Monster Energy Drinks. These were the same circumstances under which I would later decide it was a good idea to go to grad school, so a lot of questionable decisions were made under the influence of excessive doses of caffeine and the reassuring hum of the library’s fluorescent lights. It was the end of the semester and the library was going to reduced (non-24) hours as the bulk of the student body abandoned campus, so I needed a job to get me through the summer.

After an entertaining but ultimately financially untenable summer back at my parents’ house the year before—you might remember the story of how I almost sold Cutco knives—I was trying my luck with the job market in my college town.

The Summer I Almost Sold Cutco Knives

Lured by the promises of $10/hr, more than I had ever made, and the prospect of something new and different, I applied for a job I found online to be a home health aide to a woman who used a wheelchair.

I got a near-immediate response by e-mail asking for an interview. In the light of day and after a good night’s sleep, I began to be vaguely concerned that the job was maybe not real, maybe too good to be true, maybe posted by a predator trying to lure college girls to his house for an “interview?” It did not, however, occur to me that I was incredibly unqualified. I told my friends the address of the residence where I would be going so they could direct the police where to begin the search for my body should I not return, and headed to my interview.

I arrived at a sweet ranch-style house on a tree-lined residential street outside of the student part of town. Real people lived here, people who mowed their lawns, decorated their porches, and didn’t have beer pong tables in the front yard. To my relief, I was greeted at the door by a woman in a motorized wheelchair, along with a large yellow lab and a small yellow chihuahua. Not a predator. Still, I was surprised. I admit I had preconceived notions of what she would be like — in typical ableist fashion I heard “wheelchair” and imagined someone weak and old, not the ruddy, smiling young woman who greeted me.

This was Jane (not her real name). Jane was blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and wore thick scholarly-looking glasses with a long peasant skirt. She was in her early 40s, and worked as an English professor at another local college. We immediately fell into easy conversation, bonding over literature and a sarcastic sense of humor. Jane had a colorful vocabulary, and employed it to dramatic effect in describing the sweet nursing students who usually replied to her job ads. She was sick of sweet nursing students, of being a productive stop on their resumes. She was ready for a clueless and acerbic English major.

I left the interview transformed. I was giddy about the job, which an hour earlier I hadn’t even been sure was anything more than a trap set by some 21st century Ted Bundy preying on college co-eds. I really liked Jane. I gushed about her to friends over stale keg beer back in my student neighborhood that night. “She’s so funny, and so smart!” I enthused. “We have so much in common!” “Huh,” they said, “I’d pictured someone old and decrepit.” I became an evangelist about ableism.

My job was helping Jane in and out of her chair first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I was to arrive at 7am to get her out of bed, and again at 10pm to put her into bed. But before I could start this routine, I needed to learn “the lift,” which she taught me when I arrived for my first shift, an afternoon practice session. It was a clever lift that didn’t require a ton of strength, accomplished by positioning both of us just so and leveraging her body against mine while lifting and pivoting.

Lift practice achieved, Jane then began to teach me the next-most important task: caring for her two dogs, whom she loved fiercely. The big one, a yellow lab, was easygoing and sweet. Every night he would climb into the same spot in her bed, nestled firmly against her back, providing helpful support to keep her in position. The chihuahua was a terror and constantly tried to bite me. That first afternoon—while Jane was instructing me in grooming the lab with a vacuum from which it wanted nothing more than to escape—the chihuahua starting puking, eating the puke, and puking again. “Stop him!” Jane shouted at me over the vacuum. “How??” I shouted back, vacuum hose in hand, frustrated that each time I stuck my hand towards the vomit the dog would growl, bare his teeth, and eat the puke with renewed vigor. This scene of panic and confusion and puke continued for some time, until I managed to scoop the dog up and onto Jane’s lap so that I could clean the vomit without being bitten.

It was an inauspicious start, one from which my relationship with the chihuahua would never recover. He would curl up against Jane’s stomach at night and growl and bite at me when I tried to help her out of bed in the morning. Jane had little sympathy or patience for my fear of her tiny dog.

The bedtime shift was quick — out of the clothes, into the nightgown, into bed. Morning was more involved. Morning was out of bed and into the bathroom, and then either into the shower or onto the toilet for awhile. Jane taught me several valuable tips and tricks for those of us who aren’t fond of daily showers — like the beauty of spot cleaning with a washcloth and appropriately applied baby powder. She rolled her eyes about her doctor warning her about letting too much deodorant pile up in between showers. There was tooth brushing, armpit shaving, and hair brushing, and then back into the bedroom to dress, which accomplished through a series of mini-lifting maneuvers.

While Jane sat on the toilet or in the shower, I would putter around her house and get things done. I fed the dogs, swept the corkboard floors, opened and drained cans of garbanzo beans or whatever other food prep she needed for the day, watered the garden, and did the dishes, all while we listened to NPR and chatted about the news of the day through the bathroom door.

It was a level of intimacy I’d not shared with anyone other than my mother. Despite this, it was pretty easy with Jane, and when it wasn’t, she guided me through with grace and her wry wit. She’d had an accident one morning when I came in, but was even and unembarrassed about it while walking me through how to help her. It would be years before I could ask for what I needed with the firm directness she modeled. She taught me vocabulary words (smarmy: “you know, like when a guy looks at you funny,” she shouted through the bathroom door), talked with me my about my boyfriend and my summer classes, and complained about her mom, who came over and helped her out with tasks during the day, but was critical and overbearing: Jane should wear a bra. Jane should have a boyfriend. Jane should speak more decorously. I met Jane’s mother once, and despite the fact that she’d arrived with groceries and whipped herself into a flurry of helpful activities, I got it. Her mom seemed to disapprove of me too.

The first paycheck took awhile to come through. Jane didn’t pay me directly, so I got paid via some government agency. I had been working for Jane for about a month when it arrived with her daily mail. I stashed the check in my bag and looked at it when I got home. The hourly rate, I discovered, was several dollars less than what she had put in the job advertisement. At the low hourly rate and the measly hours needed to accomplish my tasks, it didn’t leave me with much. I ate a lot of bologna sandwiches that summer, walked everywhere to avoid putting gas in my car, and secretly stewed in my frustration. I told myself it was because of the friendship I felt with Jane that I never brought this up — that I didn’t want to embarrass her by pointing out her error or, worse, catch her in a lie — but the truth is I don’t think I would have had the guts to bring up a pay discrepancy in any situation.

Jane modeled forthright honesty about one’s needs and I admired this in her, but I didn’t follow her lead when it came to asking her for an explanation.

By the end of summer, I was sick of the late nights and early mornings at Jane’s interfering with my social calendar, especially with my friends slowly returning to school from their summers abroad. The magic spell of openness and the feeling of suspended time brought on by summer were fading, and I was turning back into the version of myself most concerned with whether I’d have to miss any cool parties. The library would be going to 24-hour operation again soon, too. I was willing to adjust my class schedule to accommodate the semi-nocturnal state my overnight library shifts required, but was unwilling to make the same concession so I could stay on with Jane. I hinted at this to her and she told me she would be disappointed if I left, while making some realistic and helpful suggestions about how I could make it work. But my mind was made up, even if I pretended that it wasn’t.

Instead, I made it entirely impossible for myself to continue with Jane by applying to an easier and more career-applicable second job at the public library. A productive stop on my resume. Afternoon hours. It paid more, which I wished didn’t matter, but did. Jane hired a nursing student to take my place — I met her once, and she was sweet.

“Keep in touch,” Jane said, and I did, kind of, in the half-assed way kids keep in touch with adults, until I graduated at the end of that year.

I still think about Jane, far more than any of my previous employers. I still miss her, and wish I felt like I’d done right by her — I still carry some guilt about my abrupt exit at the end of the summer. She took a risk on me, trained me, and worked on developing a relationship with me, but I treated it like a like a summer fling. Like a smarmy guy. But I’m lucky to have had a job learning so much outside my realm of previous experiences. I don’t list my time with her on my resume, but I gained experience that’s great for life, if not directly applicable to my career. Lifting, cleaning, dealing with awkward bathroom situations and wrangling angry dogs are all skills I use frequently. Asking for what you need without without fear is something I’m still working on. I’ll probably never have the occasion to shave someone else’s armpits again, though, and I’ll never again attempt to vacuum a dog.

This article is part of our ‘Summer Series’ collection. Read more stories here.

Anne Petrimoulx is an Archivist and Historian and Human currently living in New York. She now has her own tiny dog that likes to bite people.

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