Review of Lisa Ohlen Harris’s The Fifth Season

May 28, 2015 § 3 Comments

fifthby Debbie Hagan

“Gee, your mom is so nice,” I remember saying to one of my sisters-in-law on my wedding day. Her lips formed a sly grin and she said, “Well, she doesn’t want to be one of those mothers-in-law.

Her words evoked an image of a nosy, demanding, rebuking, hovering gadfly—not my husband’s mother. To think she cared how I felt and tried to preempt the classic mother-in-law-daughter-in-law squabbles touches me to this day. Even so, two headstrong, independent, and sensitive women are bound to occasionally step on each other’s toes.

Lisa Ohlen Harris’s memoir, The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law’s Memoir of Caregiving, arrived just after my mother-in-law had died following a yearlong battle with brain cancer. As her health deteriorated, my sisters-in-law and I discussed what we’d do if she needed long-term care. Would we take turns caring for her in her home? Or would take her to live with one of us?

Lisa Ohlen Harris tells the story of how she, her husband, and widowed mother-in-law, Jeanne, purchased a big house they all could share. From the start, Harris realizes that Jeanne set a poor example to her four young daughters, especially regarding health and nutrition. Jeanne’s a smoker, who lives off of Diet Cokes, junk food, and sugary snacks, which she gleefully shares with her granddaughters.

When Jeanne develops a relentless cough and shortness of breath, doctors diagnose her with emphysema. Thus begins a seven-year-long ordeal in which Harris cares for her dying mother-in-law who’s often needy and seems slightly unappreciative of Harris’s care. Her days fill with tasks such as bathing Jeanne, dressing her wounds, checking her oxygen, shuttling her to and from medical procedures. No time is left over for her daughters, let alone herself.

In the early phases of Jeanne’s illness, Harris helps her mother-in-law file an order that states that no extraordinary measures should be used to keep her alive—to prevent a life riddled with pain or sustained on machines. At first the order seems clear, but then “extraordinary” becomes more and more ambiguous. As Harris describes it, “Jeanne is shamed into doing what she doesn’t want to do in a myriad of small treatments that add up to lots of pain and frustration and helplessness. She is forced to endure pain in order to live in continuing pain. No one asks what Jeanne wants…. I can’t advocate for her—they’ll think I’m homicidal.”

When Harris shares her concerns with her husband, he responds, “A life-saving doctor can’t understand why someone would decide at the end of her life that she doesn’t need to experience any more pain, even in exchange for more time.”

As a result, Jeanne’s death is long and painful. Harris and her husband forgo an opportunity for her husband to accept a better teaching position, but dismiss it knowing Jeanne could not survive the move. It’s a huge family sacrifice, but one of many loving decisions Harris and her husband make in order to care for her. Harris dotes so much on Jeanne, the medical staff assumes she must be a daughter. “I’ve learned what her face looks like when she needs more oxygen; I see her nose is dripping and hand her a tissue before she feels it herself…,” writes Harris. She bathes her, rubs her skin with lotion, and keeps up her appetite by feeding her the foods she loves, but won’t feed her own family: “grits, bananas, pudding, Miracle Whip and bologna loaf on white bread, French dressing over cottage cheese, sausage gravy over biscuits….”

While reading, I had to pause time from time to time and consider, would I have done this? Could I have taken in my mother-in-law—as nice as she was—and cared for her in my home? It would have been hard—for me and for her. However, she died so quickly, we never had a chance to seriously consider that option. Even so, 65 million Americans care for sick and aging relatives in their homes.

During this ordeal, Harris worked hard and persisted as Jeanne’s advocate. She’s candid about her conflicted emotions; however, any reader can see the two women shared a deep bond and struggled to the very end to resolve life in dignity and peace.


Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity, editor-in-chief of Art New England and a writing instructor at New Hampshire Institute of Art. Her essays have recently appeared in Brain, Child and the anthology Dime Story.

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§ 3 Responses to Review of Lisa Ohlen Harris’s The Fifth Season

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Our journey with my mother’s health began in the 90s, when I began to commit weekly and then daily time to my mother’s care. But it was in 2002 that this care overwhelmed everything else in my husband and my life. For the first year after she began a clear decline we revised our daily visits to three-times-a-day each or more. My mother was a very sweet and kind person, but she was contrary and stubborn too. Mom would not move to assisted living and she would not move in with us and she would not have anyone else in her house. . . . The MFA might have saved my life. I was forced to focus someplace other than on my mother in order to complete the reading and writing required by the program. When I went looking for a story like mine, all I could find were heart-warning reconciliations in the last days or weeks of life. No one had managed years or could tell me how to do that.

  • John says:

    Thank you for the review of this book. I am in a similar situation: my partner and I live with my 91 year old mother. Her health has been declining for many years, and she’s recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (thankfully, still moderate enough that she knows who she is, who we are, is familiar with the house — it’s when we leave the house that she gets easily confused and agitated). I gave up my job in 2008 in order to stay home full time to take care of her; my partner and I moved in with her in 2006 so she could stay in her own home. We have no children, and I am an only child (I was adopted). So, I can relate to how difficult Ms Harris’ situation was.

    I appreciate the book review, and I will buy a copy. I’m not good at support groups, but have found that reading books by other caregivers has given me a lot of comfort. Sometimes all it takes is knowing that someone else has made it through a similar situation …..

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