Caring about an instance of ‘care for’: I took a man to get his toenails cut and I got a keyring

This is not a story from fieldwork in Port Melbourne, but it does get at some of the themes I look at in my research.

I used to get to see Arthur when he came to visit where I worked. His carefully spoken and polite English, along with with his careful presentation (complete with a hat that would be removed on entering the building), might be captured by a description of him as like many of those newsreaders of years ago. Arthur would waiver between coming infrequently or more regularly. During the last period he was coming quite regularly, he gave me a keyring as a gift. You might already know this; I am sure I have spoken, and perhaps even written about, him before.

Keyring I was gifted

Keyring I was gifted

My worksite at the time was one of those community sector organisations that had been there ‘a long time’ by colonial-Australia standards: they must now be up to a few decades in that same building and the organisation’s existence goes back further than that.

Arthur always explained his visits were to rest his feet. In many ways they were for this purpose. He would enquire after staff, volunteers and other regular visitors and, thinking back on it now, I could imagine his self-talk as he rang the doorbell as, ‘I will call in to rest my feet, but also I have the purpose in mind of enquiring about Steve and Ray.’

Other opportunities would arise alongside the chance to sit down and to have a conversation. I do not know whether the first time his visit overlapped with the podiatrist being onsite was a coincidence, planned by him or carefully orchestrated by my manager. However, he was able to have his toenails done and he was very grateful.

I started wanting to spend more time at the kitchen table during Arthur’ visits not only because I found it interesting to listen to him, but he would accept a carefully offered drink or meal. As his face appeared more drawn, I felt the beverages and food were significant for his wellbeing. Arthur did not seem to ‘have a GP’ – a doctor he would go and see.

When it had been a long time since he had seen the podiatrist, but also being aware of Arthur appearing increasingly frail, I wondered if he would attend the health centre. Not only would he get to have his feet attended to, he might become familiar with the service and that could make it easier to encourage him to have other health issues address in the future. I understood that I was skirting a patronising position: I was seeking professional ways to extend care to him. However, I was fine with my selfish enthusiasm for Arthur to continue to be able to walk over to visit: extreme pain in his feet or a potential future infection left unchecked would impact on my experience of sociality around the table at work. I was used to pushing men into accepting medical care and familiar with the cascading and always ‘interested’ justifications for doing so: the presence of that particular person in the world matters, and more acute care would entail more physical suffering for that individual, greater cost to the health system and would prevent resources (e.g. an intensive care bed) being available for another person. I do not think there is much that is benevolent about care.

A comment from Arthur about his feet was used by me to broach the topic of podiatrists. Almost holding my breath with fear I would snap our relationship by trampling his autonomy, I let him know about where he could once again get his feet attended to. Before too long, we made arrangements for him to call in during a Monday morning – when the health centre had their walk in clinic. As Arthur’ approach to scheduling was a complete mystery to me, I did not expect our appointment to be kept. However, he did arrive on the agreed Monday. I walked down with him to the nearby health centre and helped him navigate his way to the reception counter, through the forms and onto the list for the podiatrist that morning.

I had given him a hand, or at least that is what I like to think. That building such relationships and helping people access services fell within the scope of my job seemed to make it even more fraught than when I make such offers to friends: “This is what I do at work so I could help with making the calls to find out what you need to do.” That Arthur gave me a gift was a little uncomfortable, but I was also relieved that I had been able to maintain my relationship with him. I know it was not under my control, but I still felt proud that my ‘giving him a hand’ was treated as the sort of favour that might be acknowledged with a little present rather than an oppressive assertion of my power as a worker.

This is already a very long post, but I do want to turn my attention to fieldwork. My involvement in relationships of care in fieldwork fell in between how I experienced being a worker and a friend. As an employee, or even a volunteer, there is a very particular formal institution I need to function within. With my friends, these people are part of how I see myself in the world and it is not unusual to move a strong friendship across into different domains with the friendship being the linking thread rather than the particular activities or spaces you find yourselves in. In fieldwork, I was capturing the happenings I observed and trying to observe my own experiences of engaging in the sociality of a suburb.

However, here I have ended up writing about Arthur instead of somebody from Port Melbourne. Am I violating the relationship I had with Arthur all those years ago? Is the fact that I am writing from memory rather than returning to the confidential archives of the organisation I used to work for or the health service any more or less ethical? What about if, instead of a blog post, this was an email I sent a friend either now or back on the very day Arthur and I walked to the health centre? Surely the passing of time renders the telling of my story less accurate, but maybe the distance from the moment allows this [re]telling of the story to be less constrained by a boastful humility.

This post is not trying to smuggle in a convincing theoretical analysis. It is ultimately a bunch of words I was prompted to write by some memories. Arthur is one of those people that I remember often and, when I see this keyring, I do feel sad that I am ‘just’ remembering him rather than answering the door to him as he explains that he would like to rest his feet. I suggested above that I do not think of care as being all that benevolent. I suspect the same is true for caring.

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