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Monday, February 1, 2010

Two faces of endurance

I used to consider myself an endurance athlete, but I don't make the grade now when I look around at all these adventurers and ultra-marathoners like Meagan McGrath and Ray Zahab.

I'm more of a lunch-time warrior these days, but I've been doing distance events since I was 14 years old: road races, cross-country ski races and "tours", and bike commuting with the very occasional "century ride" thrown in (usually the metric one).

The adventures of McGrath, a woman from my native land, Sudbury, Ontario caught my eye. Recently, she skied 1,1oo km solo to reach the South Pole, battling a chest infection and suffering from bruises sustained from tumbling into a crevasse. This is just one of her many epic journeys. The world's five tallest peaks are next on her list.

It's important for women to achieve in the physical and intellectual realms.

We should challenge the stereotypes that we are slaves to PMS or menopause, hate our bodies and are terrible at math. Women like McGrath are proof that we are capable of great feats of strength, endurance and single mindedness (beyond owning the latest Prada handbag).

Now, I'm going to risk condemnation and present to you another, more traditional face of endurance of the more stereotypical female variety.

That face is my mother. She is now retired, but you never retire from motherhood. She had four children. I'm the eldest. Her youngest daughter, my sister Liz, has a constellation of physical, cognitive and mental health problems that are covered under a catch-all medical term called 22q11 and she's at the severe end of the spectrum. My dad, while a good man, was largely absent through much of our childhood and battled his own demons. My parents eventually divorced.

My mother would be the first to tell you that she had a great support system in her parents, sister and brother and their families. She also took great pleasure from the simple things in life like the perfect ice cream cone on a hot day, or a good book on a quiet night, or her waterbed with wave control and heat massage (remember the 80s?).

But she carried tremendous burdens. She taught high school, took care of us and listened to our trite little tales of childhood woe with close attention, while acting as my sister's case manager and cheerleader. Her "free time" was a cup of coffee between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. and 20 minutes of reading before bed.

Mom made Liz's home-time physical and speech therapy a game for all of us. We'd take turns rolling Liz on the exercise ball to get her to lift her head, holding up cue cards to teach her to read, and later, maintaining a phonetic dictionary on her computer so her voice synthesizer would pronounce words properly. Interestingly enough, the voice she often picked for herself was called "Justin", who spoke with a plummy British accent.

But the toll all this has taken on my mother's own health is apparent. The exhaustion sneaks up on her and can knock her flat from time to time.

I won't lie and say that having a child in my life like Liz is completely wonderful and inspirational. From what I saw, it was crushing, frightening and exhausting. But when you live with someone like Liz for whom the most mundane task takes a world of effort, the word "can't" doesn't mean very much. If you can walk, why not run? If you can work, then work freaking hard.

In some ways, living with Liz made me compassionate toward others and in other ways, it made me more callous. Liz struggled and struggled until she "got it". Often, I see others giving many excuses for not following through. I'll listen once or twice, but after that I tune out. This is how I see it: Figure out what you want to do, make a plan and then do it. Just shut up and do it. Or just shut up.

Mom never had much time for herself and I wonder about the life she might have lived, if she had more opportunities to pursue her own interests. For her, it always seemed to be "nose to the grindstone".

In my less-than-charitable moments (and I had plenty of those) when I saw another opportunity pass her by, I'd often say to my mother, "No one likes martrys; that's why they're dead."

Sometimes while growing up and even now, I'd get resentful because my mother couldn't spend much time with me or her grandchildren because the needs of her child were so great.

But now that I have children of my own, I often wonder if my decisions would have been any different if faced with similar circumstances.

Sure you can do prenatal screening and terminate if tests revealed disabilities that you didn't want to deal with. And believe me, I took every test that was offered. But what about those cases where children have strokes, suffer horrible accidents or suffer from terrible diseases after they're born? You'd step up, wouldn't you? I'd like to think so, but I don't think I'd handle the problems with as much kindness and strength as my mother did.

Now 30, my sister's health and function is declining and her care is too much for my mother. I'm not willing to take that burden on. Liz is in a home for adults with disabilities, but her care is always on my mother's mind. Mom and Dad visit Liz as much as possible and Mom tries to make Liz's home visits enjoyable.

I wouldn't call my mother a saint because she hates that. To her, she was just doing what had to be done. This is your child and how could you not take care of her?

She got worn down and worn out, but kindness and laughter are what I think about most when I think of my mother. Mom might not be able to catch me on the run, on a bike or on a pair of skis, but she's a far better mother than I'll ever be.

These days, when I read about epic feats like Meghan McGrath's or Ray Zahab's, I can't help but think that sometimes the toughest journey is not skiing 1,000 kilometres across a frozen tundra, pulling a sled, it's staying put for a thousand weeks and doing what needs to be done.


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Amen Patti... well and beautifully said.

  3. Thanks, Helen and Alena. This post was a difficult one to write, but it has been on my mind for a very long time.

  4. "Lazy ass whiner"...those words just smacked me right across the face. Thanks for bringing to my attention today the plight, strength, and determination required for many to just make it through each day, and they even do it joyously. Your mother is an inspiration. Thank you for sharing your family story. I know this wasn't easy to write but you did it with honesty and integrity and you did it ever so beautifully. Absolutely touching. Thank you.

  5. Brought tears to my eyes, and inspired me to be a better mother.

    I love your blog, Patti!

  6. It always makes me cry when you write about Liz. Not in a sappy isn't-it-beautiful way, but in a full-of-the-mysteries-and-ass-breakers-of-life way. You are indeed a unique blend of compassion and in-your-face candour, which I've always appreciated. And your Mom? I know few people enjoy being called saints but man -- great Mom, great teacher, all-around gracious lady. And remember that time we got drunk and she was pissed off so she waited until the morning when you were really hung over and read the Chinese food menu until you hurled? She's so the bomb.