April Read of the Month: “Fixing Boo-Boo,” by Pat Stanford

Pat Stanford

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Ultimately a story of grace and transcendence, Fixing Boo Boo (Southern Yellow Pine Publishing, 2017) details a reluctant caregiver’s journey with her brain-damaged older sister, Barb. It gets messy along the way, and Barb is often her own worst enemy. But Pat Stanford tells the story with a deft and gracious hand, even the brutally honest parts about the damage to her own life and marriage. As a testament to the book’s evocative, moving, and well-written prose, Fixing Boo Boo won a prestigious Gold Medalist award from Florida Authors and Publishers Association’s annual President’s Book Awards.

Barb, also known as Boo Boo, was born with cerebral palsy, but her condition worsened after an automobile accident caused a brain injury. Other injuries followed, and Barb also suffered from glaucoma, COPD, and hearing loss.

As children, the two sisters, Barb and Pat, were never close, and this lack of closeness rankles Barb at times, and certainly tests Pat’s caregiving role and patience. In their childhood, age and personality differences created distance between the two. That they shared a bedroom and had radically different outlooks on housekeeping (Pat neat, Barb messy) created additional strain.

At each step of Barb’s declining health, something always seems to go wrong to make things worse. Though Barb was able to get through college, earn a degree, and live independently for a while, her cumulative injuries and conditions made it difficult for her to cope with modern life. Her husband Bill took care of her after a fashion until his death. Pat Stanford’s detailed description of the house the two lived in leaves little doubt that Bill too suffered from some form of mental illness. He was a hoarder and a substance abuser, yet also a highly intelligent and educated man. Yet, despite the mess, the junk, and dirt of their humble house, the two managed to more or less get along until Bill died.

Faced with myriad problems regarding her sister Barb after Bill’s death, Pat finally decides the only thing to do is to have her sister come live with her and her husband. Like most caregivers, the author has moments when she sincerely regrets this generous offer, yet she soldiers on and forms a bond—however slowly and difficult—with her brain-injured sister. The same tensions that tested them in childhood—now exacerbated by Barb’s mental and physical decline, and further complicated by well-known horrors of the American health care system—return to haunt them as adults trying to live in the same house, along with Pat’s husband.

The story is as much about the damage and toll caring for Boo Boo causes to Pat and her husband as it is about Boo Boo. Because there really is no “fixing” Boo Boo, the caregiving years involve hospitals, doctors, assisted living, ineffective (or worse) medical and psychological so-called help, and the wear and tear on Pat and her husband. The strain naturally impacts their careers and their marriage.

Anyone who has been a caregiver for a person with mental or physical disorders will understand at once the high emotional and physical demands such care places on the caregiver. Whether readers have been caregivers or not, they will no doubt read Fixing Boo Boo with empathy—and a great deal of admiration for Pat Stanford as a person.

Yet aside from Pat Stanford as a compassionate person, she is also an admirable and evocative writer. She gives poignant details and describes things with such precision that readers can see, feel, smell, and hear the story develop. This is an important book about family ties, loyalty, and sibling love that comes with a high price. Stanford tells the story with honesty and a benevolent and generous heart. This is a book that deserves to be read.

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