IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Walking the Last Mile
In addition to our work at CU-Boulder, many faculty and staff are dealing with issues related to elder care for family members. Associate Professor Patricia Raybon's latest book, I Told the Mountain to Move, about her struggles during her mother's last year, was released Spring 2005. In this reflection written for Inside CU, she ponders what she learned during the experience of caring for an aging parent.
In the end, I was the mother. That's what challenged me most about caring for my 80-something mother during her long, last decade.
"Is this the right pill?" she'd ask, huddled in her robe at my kitchen table, eyeing the medicine dispenser. Or there was that question that always left me breathless. "What should I do, Patricia?"
The question bullied me every time. It meant something important was getting decided: finances, medicine, life, even death. Of course, I prayed.
Please God, help me get it right. But often I got it wrong. More often, I just wasn't sure.
We were groping, both of us, through a dark, scary corridor called old life. To be honest, we both were frightened too much and ornery.
Mama hated the losses: her strength, hearing, memory, awareness, a sense of her very self.
I hated the insults: the bathing, the bathroom, the bill-paying, the many reminders that the amazing woman who once could swim long laps and hit home runs and chase down fly balls was now the slow, ghostly figure shuffling around my kitchen, confused about pills.
At first, I tried to do it all – organize the medicine and doctor's visits, commute two hours back and forth to Boulder's campus from Denver, teach courses, write a book, counsel students, repair a marriage, marry off a daughter, grandmother my grandchildren, serve on committees, cook meals, consult with colleagues and tend to my aging parent.
Then I finally surrendered, taking a long leave of absence to be what my mother needed: a daughter who would be around to walk with her that long last mile.
It's a slow mile, for certain. Some days, helping my 88-year-old Mama cross the parking lot at the doctor's office, I wanted to throw back my head and scream. She is moving so s-l-o-w! She'd become her own measured glacier, moving inch by imperceptible inch toward a distant door.
But nobody sane rushes toward death. So my mother didn't either. She hung back. She took her own slow time. So I slowed down with her. That's the only way. Then too soon she was gone. The mother I had tried to mother took that slow last step and didn't look back. Another adventure called.
Still here, my own pace will never be the same.
By being my mother's mother I learned a lesson I needed to learn anyway: Take our time. The rush isn't worth it. Life looks better going slow. To everything, there truly is a season. Learn that song, my mother was saying.
A year after her death, I still try. And, look at this, Mama: The beat of life goes on, and it's still beautiful. So go slow. Hold on. Let go. Then fly.
Patricia Raybon is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Boulder. Her essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, USA Today, USA Weekend, reprinted in college writing texts and aired on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition.
©2005 by Patricia Raybon
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