Caregivers Fill the Spaces Families Often Can’t
Sophia Gomillion has made a career of helping families at their most vulnerable times.
I LEANED OVER his shoulder and spoke in the tone of a parent talking to a toddler: “Dad, this is Sophia. She’s gonna stay with you tonight.”
He squinted at her. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Fred.”
My father’s had several strokes, and several falls, and several bouts with congestive heart failure, and … this could go on awhile. He now gets around only in a wheelchair and needs 24-hour care. In their house in Shallotte, about four hours southeast of Charlotte, my mother helps him finish every meal, on every trip to the bathroom, through every prescription pill, and … this could go on awhile.
This was going to be her big night out. For Christmas 2016, I’d given her two tickets to the April Neil Diamond concert at the Spectrum Center. She’d hoped to go with her sister, but Mary Anne’s cancer returned in full force last spring and she died the week of the show. My mother needed this night as much as any night, but the only way we could make that work was to find someone to take care of Dad.
My then-fiancée, Laura, suggested Sophia, who’d helped when her grandmother fell ill in 2014. Sophia spent several months with the family, assisting with chores and providing companionship until Laura’s grandmother died that summer. Sophia is one of the patient souls known as caregivers, people who slide into families in vulnerable moments and perform the miracle of making the worst situations easier.
When she arrived in our hotel room that night, we overloaded her with information about Dad—can’t eat salt, has these pills, needs help in the bathroom, cusses a lot. We must’ve looked awful foolish, talking about him like he wasn’t there and talking to her like she didn’t know what she was doing.
Sophia nodded and told us to go.
Mom stood and sang and carried on through the concert, wiping away tears while thinking of her sister. After an endless repetition of the chorus of “Sweet Caroline,” Diamond walked off the stage and we walked back to the hotel. We opened the door slowly, fearful of what we’d see—maybe he’d fallen, maybe he’d had an accident, or heck, maybe Sophia had gotten just plain sick of him and left.
But we found him as comfortable as I’ve seen him in recent years, lying in the bed watching the news. She was in a chair in the corner.
“What’d you do to him?” I joked.
She raised her palms and shrugged her shoulders, and my mother smiled and laughed.
SOPHIA GOMILLION WAS a 16-year-old student at Harding High School in 1986 when her mother came into her bedroom one night to talk. They were preparing for a family member’s funeral the next day, and Sophia’s mom wanted company that night. She had plenty of options in their big family, which included 16 children if you counted previous marriages and merged households. But for some reason, Sophia’s mom chose to sit on the end of her bed, and they talked until about 2:30 a.m. about family, about death and life.
Early the next morning, Sophia’s father gathered Sophia and her siblings and informed them Sophia’s mother had passed away in her sleep. The news shocked the family, but Sophia remembers being surprisingly calm. Looking back, she thinks that’s because she was able to spend those hours with her the previous night.
In the three decades since then, Sophia’s been a part of dozens of final conversations.
Mecklenburg County’s over-65 population has grown by nearly 30 percent in recent years—from more than 75,000 in 2010 to 96,000 in 2015. Our systems for taking care of older adults are confusing and expensive at best. In North Carolina, the median cost for a private room in a nursing home is $225 a day, or about $82,000 a year. A home health aide costs about half that. Medicaid helps some people, but many others like my parents, a retired schoolteacher and fisherman, don’t qualify.
Some have families close by. Others have children scattered across the country, mid-career and just starting families of their own. In some cases, like in our family, spouses take on the role of caregiver. My mother taught first-graders for nearly 40 years before retiring in 2014 to tend to my dad. But no person can do it on her own. One reason I quit my job last summer was to spend more time helping them. And my brother, who lived in Baltimore for more than a decade, recently took a job in Charlotte in part to be closer, too. An aging parent can alter a family’s course, and even then, the hard truth is that your efforts will never be enough.
People like Sophia fill spaces families can’t.
She wanted to be a nurse growing up, but that dream changed when she realized she didn’t like needles. Still, she wanted to help people. She earned an early-childhood care degree from Central Piedmont Community College, but she’s split her career between children and senior people. She’s worked for the same caregivers’ agency for nearly 20 years, but she regularly takes freelance assignments to help others who aren’t able to afford care. Currently, she babysits at a church preschool during the days, but on Friday nights she sits with an aging man named Mr. Grady.
She’s a selfless soul in an increasingly selfish world. Perhaps as important as her generosity, though, is that she’s also trained—someone who knows what to do when a patient who can’t walk needs to use the bathroom, or when a patient who can’t swallow needs to eat. For older people who are so often surrounded by amateurs from their own family, Sophia’s most comforting offering is her expertise.
She had the first of her three children when she was a teenager. They’re all grown now and Sophia, 48, helps raise her “grandbabies,” as she calls them. With what little free time she has after all of that, she visits her father, a 96-year-old World War II veteran who lives in Charlotte.
She gives all of her days to people who need someone, but she’ll tell you she gains as much from the company as they do.
“We all have gifts,” she says. “And for me, it’s taking care of babies and old people. I’m only doing a job that I was put here on Earth to do.”
THE FIRST WOMAN she cared for liked Klondike bars.
The woman had dementia and couldn’t remember Sophia’s name, so she called her “that girl,” no matter how many times her grown sons told her to stop. Sophia’s used to this by now. Many people call her “Sophie,” and she’ll never correct them. Children have a hard time putting all three syllables together, so she answers to “’Phia,” too.
The woman eventually reached a point where she couldn’t be left alone, so her sons sent her to a nursing facility. By then, though, she’d grown attached to “that girl.” Her sons continued to pay Sophia to visit the home every day, and she often stepped into the middle of arguments between the woman and staff.
“They wouldn’t give me ice cream!” the woman shouted one day. The staff told Sophia they’d taken a group trip to an ice cream shop, but the woman refused to eat there.
“That’s because she only eats Klondike bars,” Sophia told them.
A few months later, one of sons called Sophia to tell her that his mother was dying. When Sophia arrived on a visit, the woman looked at her and said, “I just needed you here. Now I can go.” She closed her eyes for the last time.
Then there was Ms. Betty. “Oh, Ms. Betty,” Sophia says on a recent night as we sit in a booth at Showmars on 7th Street.
Ms. Betty had an adult daughter who had three children, including two who were little. Sophia watched Ms. Betty’s two young grandkids as much as she did Ms. Betty. The family traveled to Chicago to visit relatives at least a couple of times a year. Sophia would always go to the airport to send them off. On one trip in summer 2008, Ms. Betty grabbed Sophia’s hand before boarding. “I won’t be coming back,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Sophia said, leaning in. “If you don’t come back, I won’t have a job.”
“Trust me, with my daughter,” Ms. Betty said, nodding to the two young children, “you’ll always have work.”
Ms. Betty got sick during the trip and passed away in Chicago.
“She said she wasn’t coming back,” Sophia says with a soft laugh. And as Ms. Betty predicted, her daughter kept calling Sophia to help with the two small children.
“Then there was Roxanne,” Sophia says, rolling into the next story. “Roxanne was funny.”
Roxanne was in her late 30s. Sophia doesn’t know exactly what her condition was but says it was neurological. Roxanne weakened to the point where she needed help with everything, including her two little girls.
Roxanne didn’t want to admit that. She ran off her first two caregivers while clinging to her independence. Sophia was the third option. She arrived one morning and told Roxanne’s husband to go to work and not to worry about coming back.
“You don’t know my wife,” he told her.
“She doesn’t know me,” Sophia said back.
Roxanne tried to make Sophia quit. When that didn’t work, she tried to convince Sophia that she needed her husband to return. “If he comes home, he’ll lose his job,” Sophia told her, “and then you won’t have any lights or water.” Roxanne softened. Soon, Sophia was in.
In 2016, Roxanne’s husband landed a job in Ohio. Not long after they moved, he called Sophia and asked if she would consider joining them. Sophia moved to Ohio. About eight months later, Roxanne died in spring 2017. She wasn’t quite 40.
“She still had those two little girls,” Sophia says, trailing off as she looks down and blinks away tears.
LAURA'S GRANDMOTHER LIKES cheese grits. Elizabeth Cathey went by Lib and was born and raised in west Mecklenburg County, in Paw Creek, near what’s now the airport. She was in her 90s when she had knee surgery, and learned she had cancer a few months later. Her children—Laura’s mom and aunt and uncles—all had full-time jobs at the time. They met Sophia through a family connection. “And as soon as I got there, it was like I was home,” Sophia tells me.
She came each morning and made those cheese grits and eggs and toast for Lib. Then they watched The Price is Right. Lib grew attached to Sophia, to the point that when family members would show up for their shifts, Lib would say, “Why are y’all here? Sophie’s here.”
Every June, Laura’s family travels to Ocean Isle Beach, all 20-something of them cramming into two houses. That can sound like a nightmare for some families, but with them, it’s not. I have a friend who likes to say he hit the “in-law lottery,” and if that’s the case, they must run the numbers more than once because I have, too. Laura’s family is the kindest, most peaceful, and generous bunch of people. They cherish this beach trip.
They’ve only canceled the trip once, in June 2014, the year Lib’s cancer worsened and she was admitted to the hospital that week. Doctors told them they were out
Sophia joined them at the hospital. “Can I go home?” Lib asked when she saw her.
She eventually did, and Lib passed away in her house on July 7, 2014. Her obituary included a line that read, “We are grateful to Sophia Gomillion for her loving care.”
Sophia Gomillion sat with the author’s dad, Fred, during the author’s wedding in September.
A little more than three years later, this past September 30, Laura and I got married. We called Sophia to help with my father that weekend, to give Mom a little room to step away.
“I’ve been looking forward to this!” Sophia said when she showed up the first night. “I get to see Grady and Marsha and Karen,” and then went on down the list, rattling off names of Laura’s family. In pictures of the ceremony, Sophia’s there in the first row, the family row, right next to my father.
Looking at them, I get a small glimpse into what she gets from all that giving. If we’re lucky in this life, we’ll be a part of one loving family. Sophia’s become a part of dozens, from her own with her father and children and grandchildren, to Ms. Betty’s and Roxanne’s and Laura’s and … this could go on awhile.
At the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding, Laura and I stumbled through an awkward toast to thank everyone for coming, and just as we were about to say, “OK, let’s eat!” a hand went up.
It was Sophia. This saint of a person stood next to my father and thanked us for inviting her, as if she were the only one there who didn’t know she had it all backward. Then she told a story about how important toasts were in her family, and she raised a box with two champagne glasses and said they were a gift to new beginnings.
Michael Graff is a writer in Charlotte. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.