By Ashley Mackin
Writer and part-time La Jolla resident Susan Allen Toth asserts that grief and loss are part of everyone’s life, and if you’re lucky, so are love and joy. Toth experienced all this and more during her years caring for her husband, architect James Stageberg, through the end of his life. She documents their day-to-day trials in a new book, “No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver’s Days,” which she will read from 11 a.m. Saturday, April 12 at the La Jolla Library, 7555 Draper Ave.
“This is supposed to be a gift to other caregivers, because it was a gift for me to be able to write about it,” Toth said. “This is not a how-to, this is a how it was for me.”
Her husband passed away in 2010, a decade after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and later dementia.
“In the last 18 months, when I knew I was looking down the dark tunnel, to help myself I turned to occasionally writing about topics I was coming across,” she explained. The essay chapters in the book are dated.
“It’s the book I wanted to have after everyone gave me books like ‘how caregiving made me a better person’ and I’d be thinking, ‘this is not what being a caregiver is about.’ ”
Instead, Toth said being a caregiver is about love. “I don’t know how people do this if they don’t really love the person,” she said. Of caring for her late husband, she added, “I would do this again in a heartbeat, but I’m glad I don’t have to.”
A contagious grin comes across Toth’s face when she talks about James’ “irresistible” smile, which shines back at her from a photo on her bedside.
“James was a wonderful man, but it is not his book,” she said. “It’s about me being cross, frustrated, angry, depressed, getting on with things and finding ways to get on with it.”
Sometimes that included slamming dishes down in the kitchen in frustration when James wouldn’t eat what she made, and feeling guilty about it and going to therapy to find ways to manage the feelings.
“This is not meant to be a humorous book, but there is dark humor in it,” she said.
Chapters include “My adventures with gentlemen’s pads,” which chronicles the realization deep in his illness that James could not make it to the bathroom in time and needed adult diapers. “But we weren’t going to call them that. We were going to call them ‘gentleman’s pads,’ ” she reminisced.
Her understanding of “gentleman’s pads” and other facets of caring for a loved one was what made a speaking engagement with Toth appealing to La Jolla Library head librarian Catherine Greene. “With all the baby boomers around who will potentially have some degree of difficulty as they get older, there’s a lot of concern out there with how this older generation will be taken care of and the responsibilities of their adult children,” Greene said. “Susan has insight on that. After talking to her, I saw that and realized she’s worth listening to. She has something to say.”
Toth is a longtime travel writer, including work for The New York Times. She and James traveled the world during their 25-year marriage, though they called Minnesota home. Doing their best to avoid Minnesota winters, they often visited Australia and New Zealand. However, the last vacation they took together was to La Jolla due to James’ limitations.
“I discovered La Jolla and never looked back,” Toth said. “I decided when everything was over, I would move here.”
Toth has penned nine books, mostly about travel. She said she always orients her work as a “gift” to someone, such as when she wrote stories about growing up in the Midwest or travel pieces about accommodations off the beaten path.
The gift within “No Saints Around Here,” she said is, “encouragement, support and relief. I want someone to read it and think ‘oh, good, she felt that way, too’ and get some possible ideas of what to do. I want people to know what goes with this because none of us are saints.”