My sister and I switched off often as caretakers for our mother, although she resided in a nursing care facility. It wasn’t a position we applied for, but it was a position we took out of love for her. For all the caretakers in the world, here is a reminiscence of one woman’s last days on earth, a testimonial of sorts about how critical it is that you have as much empathy for the dying, as you tell your employee you do when you apply for the job.
My Mother’s Marathon
I’ve always had a love/hate affair with road racing. In grade school, as soon as someone said let’s race, I’d instantly clench, sprint off, but lose. So when I took up running, I went solo. As a solo runner, I preferred to compete against myself, to strive for a personal best each time I hit the road. I love my own company. I never keep anyone waiting, and I’m a great conversationalist. I love running because it’s healthy for the bones, lungs and heart, and a great stress release. I cherish the time alone to create a story in my head, make grocery lists, and revel in the fact that I can conquer the next hill. Scenery I run past inspires me to create similar gardens, using green, white or pink groundcover. Houses I’ve passed offer vast dreams that keep my runs from growing stale. And yet, I usually enter about 2-3 races per year to maintain my competitive edge.
I’m very selective about the races I enter. They have to be well organized with splits at one and two mile marks if a 5K, or at 3 and 5 mile marks, if a 10K. There must be free pre-race bananas, and plenty of post-race refreshments. I don’t like paying more than $30 for a race and the money must go to a good cause, i.e., animal rights or diabetes research (because I have the disease). Mainly, however, the race course must contain no more than one hill, if possible, usually at the beginning, rather than the end. And, I don’t usually run a race that is not well attended. As a middle of the pack runner, I don’t want to stand out as the last person to cross the finish line. I’ve never run a race in the heat of the summer. The colder the weather, the better my pace. Receiving a nice, long sleeve tee shirt with the name of the fundraiser is a nice perk, too.
Since I began running 15 years ago, I’ve become an avid spectator of the New York Marathon, Marine Corps Marathon and Ironman. Call it motivation, call it aspiring dreams, call it what you will, but I certainly never imagined myself able to complete such a long race. I mean, me? Running for four straight hours? Not to mention time spent training. I just didn’t see it in my cards.
But then, fate stepped in and changed my plans. My first ever marathon lasted a week. I didn’t enter it willingly, per se. The marathon had no known name, no signup application, and no free perks. It began on the tail end of my daily run, a 3-miler through circuitous back roads near my home. All it took to enter this marathon was a phone call received one blue skied early fall day by my grim faced husband. “What? What?” I mouthed, but I already knew the answer. My mother had recently been rushed to a hospital.
I’d been asked to sit by her bedside as her body began its slide toward death. This emotional task was to be the race of all races from which I couldn’t decide to enter or not. I like to call it my mother’s marathon, mileage undetermined. My life’s path would become forever altered. Each day for the next six, I would trek a new leg, blindly running ahead only to find the more miles left to go. Hoping beyond reason, I thought that perhaps the doctors were wrong, and my mother, though in hospice, would recover, and cross the finish line with me, hand in hand.
I tried to remain focused on each step we took together, drawing on inner strength to keep moving. I’d ignore my own needs to be certain that my mother’s were answered first. Did she have enough pain medicine? Could she drink, if thirsty? Could she feel my hand holding hers? Was she as sad as me? Was she as scared as I was of the unknown that awaited us both? Stamina and resilience are the backbones of runners. So is endurance and courage. I knew I could make it to the end, but why did the end have to come so soon?
My mother was my best friend. We shared the same goofy sense of humor, liked the same foods (champagne, lobster and chocolate). We were both in love with my son, away at school starting out his senior year. We were terrible at math, and geographically challenged, often driving the same route seeking landmarks, instead of using a map. For more than 15 years, we spoke on the phone every day around four p.m., like best friends forever.
I don’t believe I’ll ever be a fast runner, but I’m a steady one. My day is not complete until I’ve had a run. I run with a cold, and always feel better afterwards. Headaches do not still my feet, nor does poison ivy, contracted by merely passing a vine! I also do cross training, such as spinning (builds quads and stamina), boxing, and lifting weights. The fastest 5K I ever ran was 27 minutes, and it was my first. The slowest 8K I ever ran was 45 minutes, and I hadn’t trained beforehand. Although I consider that a horrible race pace, it was a great experience, where one side of Interstate 83 was blocked to traffic for the event. Imagine that, running down an interstate at 7 in the morning?
My mother’s marathon would not cease with her death. I believe in afterlife, and I knew that her dying was only the beginning of a wonderful journey to the Other Side. I, too, was embarking on a vastly different course. I was about to become an orphan. My father died young, at age 62. My mother was 81. She’d lived a good life, put up a good fight through two devastating diagnoses (Cancer and a quintuple bypass), and endured a broken shoulder, arm, coccyx, and hip. Since I hadn’t trained for this marathon, each step I took seemed utterly insurmountable with each change in her breathing and unconsciousness. Dragging my feet could not delay the insurmountable.
I loved my mother. I can’t claim I loved her more than any other woman loves her own. She was exceptional only in my eyes. I admired her because she’d forged tracks where no other woman dared to go. She was a journalist for her family newspaper, starting work when she was 11. She remained a writer all her life, switching jobs for harder challenges, and not retiring until Cancer got the best of her at age 63. She also became a photographer, winning awards, and earning exotic trips to Africa, the Canadian Rockies, and lying down on Howard Street in downtown Baltimore in order to get a picture of a Barnum and Bailey circus elephant from the feet up. I have her to thank for instilling in me the desire to tell a story, to put my thoughts to words on paper, and not be afraid to share what I have to say.
I also have my mother to thank for avoiding smoking, an addiction she embraced for 67 years, to exercise and eat healthy. Aside from being a child equestrian, my mother never once walked around the block, swam, or lifted a 10 lb. barbell. Exercise to her meant nothing.
For me, when running, the first mile is one of adjustment. Adjusting my iPod, adjusting my pace, slowing my breathing in cadence to my foot’s fall. But by the 2nd mile, I’m well settled into a pattern, singing a mantra to keep me moving, full speed ahead. By the final mile, whether it’s 3, 4 or 5, I’m struggling, battling fatigue, having negative thoughts about whether I should run all the way to my front door, or use my cool down walk beforehand.
My mother’s marathon was not timed by a traditional clock. By the end of the 5th day, I was moving as if in a trance. I’d performed a shaky, tear clogged bedside prayer vigil, and was urging her to let go, that I’d be okay, that she’d suffered enough. I spent the night in a chair, convinced that she couldn’t be alone as her death rattle set in. I didn’t sleep, instead sang religious songs, and talked to her about how much I loved her. By the morning of the next day, I felt as though I’d been running forever. I didn’t want my mother to go, but she was ready to end her life’s race. The gap between me and her finish line was closing fast. There was no applause from the sidelines. Instead, holding her cold hand, I wished her a final farewell and took a fork in the road as we parted ways.
Running my mother’s marathon was one of conviction and courage. Nowawadays, when I log more miles, I look skyward and smile. I’m warmed by memories of my mother. I know I’ll be okay without her. You see, I’m used to running solo. And now I have a marathon finish under my belt.