Eli Shaw’s memoir about caregiving, If I Die Before I Wake, delivers universal lessons, since nearly all of us will receive or give care at some point in our lives.
Shaw has worked both informally and professionally as a personal care assistant and HIV/AIDS peer education coordinator who initiated an Opiate Response Team. He currently works in mental health services. Early on, he showed his compassion for others by standing up for a childhood companion with Down Syndrome. Shaw himself needed care, having what would have been undiagnosed at the time: ADD or ADHD.
As a young man, the author helped a close friend, Mark, who suffered from AIDS at a time when the disease was rapidly spreading and misunderstood. Together, Shaw and Mark shared both blissful peace and outbursts of anger as they strove to overcome their feelings about Mark’s deteriorating condition. Anger and grief are common when dealing with disability and illness, Shaw states, and caregivers must acknowledge that most of their assignments will be of limited duration. Still, the work offers rewards; for example, Shaw spent many happy hours with Nate, a severely handicapped boy who could always make his caregiver laugh with him.
Composed over many years, Shaw’s memoir is long, daunting, and even confusing at times, as it was not created in chronological order. There is repetitious material that could have been trimmed, and many sentences are unnecessarily wordy (“Groups like support groups that I have attended…”) The text is also peppered with spelling and punctuation errors (“flash backs”; improper use of quotations marks, etc.). Shaw freely admits he’s not “an accomplished writer,” and this shows, but his dominant themes are clear: As he states in his Introduction, “life is an education with thousands of teachers.”
While the narrative could benefit from streamlining, If I Die Before I Wake provides insights that might interest care professionals as well as anyone giving or receiving help from a friend or family member.