Learning Some Hard Lessons as an Educator and a Caregiver

I didn’t get to take pictures of my daughter at the bus stop yesterday along with all of the other parents waiting for the first day of school. I didn’t get to post adorable pictures of her on Facebook (y’alls were very cute, I’m not whining). I did wish her a fantastic first day of eighth grade before I left my house at 7:30 so that I could drive an hour to take my mother to the doctor at 8:45, the soonest appointment I could schedule after I got THE CALL last Thursday (I teach all day Friday, and last week was the first week of classes where I work).

As a caregiver and an educator, watching my mother unlearn (there is no other word for it) is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Another difficult task I have attempted to learn, over the last twenty years as a caregiver of my own children and as an educator, is when to let go. It took me a long time to get to the place where I could let my children take responsibility for themselves, when every fiber in my control-freak body wanted to take over and do it for them. It took a long time for me to watch them make mistakes as a way of learning, when I know that I could do the task faster. It took me a long time to say, “It doesn’t have to be done my way for it to be good.” It works for students as well — now my twitter handle says, “I’ll show you where to look; I won’t tell what to see.” I believe in an education that is active and autonomous and free and empowering. I think I finally might be getting okay at it.

Now, with mom, I am learning how to do the opposite. There is no moment of greater learning. There will be no moment of greater responsibility. There is no letting go so that mom can do it on her own — there is only my taking on each new responsibility, each new task as she loses them one by one — driving, balancing her checkbook, paying her bills, and now cooking for herself and cleaning her toilet. THE CALL came because she has moved to needing a much higher level of care. It is heart-rending to watch her lose each element of her own autonomy. Still there is the struggle to allow her her dignity, to retain as much of herself as a person that one can.

Some moments, she is placid about what’s happening, but yesterday had been a long day of events, and she was tired. As afternoon waned, she cried, and I cried, and in the midst of my incredible sadness about my own situation, I had to marshal myself to support her. She told me how much she doesn’t like what is happening to her, how much she doesn’t want to be “there” – today I see that doesn’t mean just her physical location but also the overall space she is now inhabiting. “Why is this happening to me?” she cried. So we talked a bit about how nice it was that she had a cozy apartment, plenty of medication, and long-term health care insurance (Y’all, GET IT if you don’t have it. NOW). Apart from dementia, there is not much medically wrong with her. She can walk and talk and hear and see. We talked about the beautiful blue sky we could see from her apartment, the friends she’s made in in her facility. The fact that HGTV, her favorite, exists. How much her children love her and will continue to take care of her.

I’ve been thinking today about all the teachers she must have had. My mother does not have a college degree, but she went through elementary and high school in Corunna, Michigan, where I know she was a straight A student. She still can recall many of the teachers she had (every single time we pass Jahnke Road in Richmond she talk about Mr. Jahnke). Her favorite teacher was Dick Clark, who was her teacher and then her principal, and who has now been married to my Aunt Jo Ellen, her sister, for over twenty years (small town). She did go to college, Central Michigan University, for two years, but dropped out at the beginning of her junior year and married my father when she became pregnant with me.

Many years later, she returned to college at Butler University in Indianapolis, where she worked for years in the admissions department of the pharmacy school. I can’t remember what she wanted to major in, although I do remember the conversation we had about whether it really mattered, at 50-plus, what she majored in — couldn’t she just take classes in things she enjoyed? Absolutely, I said. I remember when we went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant and she proudly ordered in the Spanish which was her language requirement. She earned her AA at Butler, and the December she received it, about twelve years ago when she was in her late fifties, she wanted the revelation of her degree to be a “gift” to her four children for Christmas. When the moment came, though, she couldn’t find the envelope that had the notice of her degree in it. The loss of this document made her very anxious — she may have been already in the very early stages of dementia at the point — but when she finally told us, we were so proud of her.

So – all her teachers and instructors over the years. I wonder what kind of teachers they were? I wonder — and hope — they gave her that opportunity to explore on her own, to develop the skills she wanted to develop, to take responsibility for her own learning. I hope at least some of them afforded her as much autonomy and ability to learn in freedom as I want my own students to have.

I have a feeling they did, because despite everything that has happened to she has an indomitable will and resilience. My mother still is just so incredibly stubborn — she is resisting the memory loss, the confusion, the hopelessness of her condition with everything she has. It frustrates me almost beyond measure most days, but then I remind myself why she is responding in this way.

Today, I thank my mother’s teachers.

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