It’s Father Day’s morning and I am sitting outside Peet’s Coffee in San Jose nursing the last ounces of a cup of coffee and enjoying a moment of solitude. This is one gift I wanted today for Father’s Day. Father’s Day (Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, you pick it) feels contrived and usually I’ve railed against it. Earlier today I blasted past the “Happy Father’s Day” and “I miss my father on Father’s Day” posts on my Facebook feed in search
At this moment, it feels special somehow. I admit it. It’s not only because given a moment to contemplate, I’ve realized that I bothh am a father and have a father; I suppose the guess the Sandwich Generation father tag on the blog is a giveaway for that. I’m at a brief window, a pause in the slipstream, where I am drawing strength from both sides. Summer is about to start, and if you just fought through the winter that we experienced in Boston, you too have had this day marked in Sharpie for months on your calendar. And to top that off, I’m with my family visiting my brother and his family, so my clan just doubled. People need clans.
And this is why this article in the New York Times (called “At Home, Many Seniors Are Imprisoned by their Independence”) caught my attention. If like me you are generally pressed for time, I’ll save you the trouble. It’s about the phenomenon of ‘aging in place’, where seniors try to stay in their homes. It seems best to let people live out their days in a familiar environment, but there is a tradeoff: it means that they are often alone. With no clan. And for many people, it is harder because it turns out that being alone as a general condition is not how we are designed. Not by accident is solitary confinement criticized as cruel and unusual punishment.
Even my father, who is a misanthrope 13 days out of 14, needs his biweekly “Classical Music Hour” to interact with other people, even if only to complain about them later.
So as I am finishing up this post and contemplating ending this short hour of blessed solitude, I am reminded why it feels so wonderful: I am generally sandwiched between responsibilities, being needed by people I love, and needing and loving them in return. The glass is half-full today. Happy Father’s Day.
I am the volunteer treasurer in my Temple, an amazing community where, as in many such cases, much is asked of the lay leaders. This particular time for our institution has been one of transition and rapid growth, which are two things not often written about synagogues in a country that is less than 3% Jewish. It’s challenging, fulfilling in a way that no job could be, and an opportunity to collaborate with some brilliant and very inspiring people.
It also has been at times like a part-time job, which since I have a full-time job and the Sandwich Generation dad responsibilities, is one part-time job too many. During the school year, there is a 50/50 chance I’ll be at the Temple on a Tuesday night.
Recently I was sitting my Temple president over breakfast. We have become close and candid with each other over 2+ years of working together closely. This scones session was no exception. I had recently told her that I was thinking of moving on from my volunteer role after 3 years instead of the maximum 4. She found this puzzling. So specifically, she wanted to know why I wasn’t planning to stay in my role for the maximum timeframe if I found the work fulfilling.
I had to stop and think about that one. It’s an great question. Here’s what I came up with: it’s the juggling.
I signed up for this wonderful and demanding role in the spring of 2013, which is before my father came into my life as he is now. My job was different – I traveled more, but the hours were less intense and my commute nearly non-existent. And my kids were 9, meaning that they had many years to go before slipping into adolescence and needing a different level of emotional energy. So yes, I am busier now.
But it isn’t being busy that is the issue.
On any given day, I have the Sandwich Generation father problem of switching contexts dozens of times or holding both in my head simultaneously. I am at work in the morning heading into a meeting when the associate director in change of my father’s community head calls me and asks me to call her back quickly. I am sitting in the evening with my daughter who is freaking about her homework and someone from the Temple calls and emails me in rapid succession about a meeting held earlier in the day that I didn’t attend because of course, it was scheduled during my workday. I am with my father on the weekend checking my watch, always checking my watch, because pretty soon I have to leave to pick up my kids’ carpool. I am in the car on the way to get them, and my company’s attorney calls to discuss an engagement letter. I am with my wife in bed late at night watching TV trying to stop my mind racing so that maybe I can sleep through the night.
I thought hard recently on when I’ve been happiest in my life, which is a great falling asleep trick that’s come in handy recently. I decided that it was not when I was laziest, although that’s wonderful too. It’s when I’ve had fewer things to handle, not more, and felt like I could invest more and focus on each.
Maybe one of my most fulfilling weeks was when I moved my father into rehab from Princeton Medical Center after he beat C-Diff the first time, and I dropped everything else except for talking to my family. Or when I went to Israel for work this past February after a juggling-filled and snowy week and had mornings to myself to swim, run, read, write, or have a cup of coffee. Or when I used to be a lifeguard in my sophomore year in college and I’d lose myself in the task of getting the floor of the pool cleaned on sunny warm April mornings. It’s the losing myself that does it.
The next few years have a unique urgency to them because my kids are almost gone and my father isn’t going to get stronger. I have found a work niche that is strangely and uniquely suited to me, and because of the Israel connection, has an emotional hook as well. I am learning more and more from watching friends that staying happily married requires investment. These things are the constants in my life, so anything else is juggling. Sandwich Generation or not, juggling is hard.
And by some small miracle, these are also the things I would want to lose myself in.
Sometimes as a Sandwich Generation father, you find yourself in the hospital not with your parent – and right now, my father is as healthy as he’s ever been – but with your daughter. Such was my situation a few Thursdays ago. It turns out that when performing a gymnastics trick called a round-off back handspring, there is a penalty for not landing it correctly: a right hand that is swollen, black and blue, and probably broken. With that, you also win the right to visit the Newton-Wellesley Hospital radiology waiting room with your parent on a Thursday morning. Or so Sophie found out.
After so many trips with my father, it was particularly strange to be in a hospital with my daughter. The last 2 times I’d been bathed in that very particular neon light with the corresponding low air conditioning hum, I’d been with my father at Mass General for his treatment for C-Diff and in Framingham when he had hip pain so powerful that he couldn’t stand or walk. But that more than a year ago, an eternity when your father is pushing 91. It is a small miracle that this isn’t a more familiar experience for me. I suppose in time it might be.
Most radiology waiting rooms are filled not with parents who brought their daughters, but more often daughters who brought one of their elderly parents. That’s just the target market. When you sign in, you fill out the “Did you just have a fall?” card that warns you of the possible problems a spill might cause. They don’t have one for round-off back handsprings. (By the way, the possible side effects are not the hospital’s fault – they want to make sure you know that).
And 11 year-olds in hospital waiting rooms behave differently than their 90 year-old grandfathers. They ask a lot of questions because to them, hospitals are new. Why do we have to register first? How long do you think we’ll have to wait in this waiting room? They bemoan events they are missing, especially on a school day. They exude restless energy and fidget. By contrast, my father does a lot of staring and sitting still.
They also require more entertaining. We ran through the pictures on the wall of every doctor in the department and decided based on their headshot whether they liked their jobs or not. I ran through a long riff on what the likelihood was that they would have to amputate her arm. She laughed and told me it was ridiculous. I responded that it might be, but how amazing would it be if I was right? She laughed again and went back to asking questions about why we were in a second waiting room.
It was in that second waiting room that I noticed the biggest consistency, which is what a difference a friendly doctor makes. Both Sophie and my dad were anxious in that situation, Sophie because she is anxious by nature and my father because he is convinced that it was the hospital that killed my mother, and his world-class survival instinct puts him in high alert. Sometimes I can disarm him, sometimes I can’t. The radiologist totally disarmed Sophie, took her x-rays almost sweetly, and then took her into the back hallway to let her see the results. Sophie had never seen an x-ray before. “That’s so cool,” she said. My father doesn’t say that anymore. There the similarities end.
And then there’s this note for Sandwich Generation dads out there: when you take your daughter to the hospital, it is a special bonding experience in a totally different way than caring for your elderly parent. So when it happened to me, I commemorated it with a milkshake, just like my mother used to commemorate my broken bones with a slice of pizza.