In Every Waking Moment by Chris Fabry, Devin Hillis is a filmmaker with vision but no cash. He wants to make a documentary of the stories of people in the Desert Gardens assisted-living facility. He tries to support himself in the meantime by making shorter memorials for funerals, but that’s not paying the bills, and both his partner and his landlord are on his case.
His time in Desert Gardens brings to his attention an employee there named Treha Langsam. At first she looks like perhaps she is developmentally delayed somehow, but she is very intelligent. She has nystagmus, a condition which causes her eyes to be almost constantly moving, and when she’s agitated she makes a typing motion with her hands, but otherwise she seems emotionless. She grew up in various foster homes and has little to no memory of her history. But she seems to have a gift: she is able to bring out residents who have been closed off and uncommunicative to where they are speaking clearly. She was hired for janitorial services, but when the facility supervisor, Miriam Howard, saw her work with the residents, she let her have free reign to interact with them. Devin thinks Treha may be the story he’s looking for.
But Miriam is about to retire, and the new supervisor is more concerned about her own rules and regulations than care of the residents. She has her eye on Treha, threatening to fire her if she does anything other than clean.
What will happen to Treha and the residents if she loses her job, and will Devin and Miriam be able to solve the mystery of Treha’s background, not just for the documentary, but for her future?
I got this book right on the heels of finishing Not in the Heart by Chris Fabry because I loved his writing so much and wanted to read more. I was looking at that book on Amazon when a link to this book with these words from Chris intrigued me:
What if this is as good as life gets? Are you okay with that?
This question has haunted me over the past few years. Several years ago we moved to the desert for health reasons. Looking for recovery in a dry and thirsty land. And I realized my soul was more thirsty than anything.
Every Waking Moment is my effort to take some of the pain and loss of life and sift it through the life of a young woman who’s been marginalized in society, working among people who are marginalized (the elderly). This character, Treha, has an extraordinary gift that few observe because she’s “different.”
Like most of my tales, it’s a love story, a mystery, part thriller–but mostly a character sketch of lonely people looking for hope. And it’s my intent that you find hope and meaning for your own life through Treha’s journey.
That theme of “What if this is as good as it gets” comes up for several characters throughout the book. Poking around Chris’s web site, I saw that this novel arose in part because of his family’s experience with toxic mold and the detrimental effects it has had on his family’s health. That is not what caused Treha’s problems, but he draws parallels from the experience.
Not in the Heart was fast-paced and suspenseful. Every Waking Moment is a different kind of book. It has moments of suspense, and of course there is the mystery of Treha’s history and what made her the way she is. But overall the book has a different pace and feel to it. But it is still quite good.
Some of the lines about or by the facility residents were especially poignant to me with the decline of my mother-in-law’s health and abilities over the last several years:
The daughter didn’t realize that this was part of the problem. The same tasks that wore her mother down were the tasks that gave her structure and stability. Worth. When she could no longer do them and others were paid to accomplish things she had done as long as she could remember, life became a calendar of guilt–every day lived as a spectator, watching others do what she couldn’t.
Deciding what Mother would like or wouldn’t like was a seesaw between two relatives who were guessing. Love looked like this and worse and was accompanied by a mute, white-haired shell.
“I want that person you knew to return. But the truth is, this may be the best we achieve. Today, having her here and comfortable and not agitated…that may be as good as we get. Are you okay with that?”
“Your love for your mother is not conditional on her response. You love her for who she is. You don’t love her because of the things she can do for you.”
“The medical community views individuals as patients to be cured. But when people age, they’re not looking for a cure as much as they are for encouragement to continue. Our work here is not about curing. It’s about the dignity of each person…”
“Value people not just for the income they provide us. Value them because of the lives they’ve lived. Value each person who pushes a broom or cleans a bedpan. And value the girl whose life is marred, yes, but who gives these people more than a doctor ever will.”
“Growing older is not much fun. It’s the slowing down that gets to you. Elsie calls it ‘vigor mortis.’ You just can’t do what you used to.”
“Old age teaches you in a very unkind way that things won’t necessarily get better. Not in this life. In fact, you can pretty much count on things degenerating. Being content is not a lack of ambition. It’s being able to rest and relax and know that your worth doesn’t come from what others think of you or even what you think of you.”
And one I loved just for the writing: “Retirement was bearing down on Miriam like a semitruck trying to make it through a yellow light.”
For those of you who like book trailers:
I enjoyed this book quite a lot and can heartily recommend it to you.
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)