Because it’s mid-Yom Kippur and I am in the part of the Sandwich Generation with only one parent, I am thinking about my mother today. Last night at services I looked to my right at my children and flashed briefly to just how much they’ve grown in the 4 years since she passed away. If she could observe them, she’d be proud of them. Maybe she would be a little proud of how I’ve done as a father with, let’s face it, no formal training whatsoever.
Over the choir’s chanting, I flashed to a recurring dream I’ve had over the past couple of years. I am a recurring anxiety dream kind of person. My usual standards are (a) I’m trying to make a plane but every step just seems to take a lot longer than usual, like I’m running in molasses, (b) I somehow didn’t study all semester and the test is in 24 hours or, another variation on this topic, (c) I’m back in business school and skipped most of last semester, so this semester I am really in trouble if I want to graduate. Oddly, I recently conquered (c); somehow mid-dream I’ve been remembering that Stanford was a zillion years ago and that this can’t be reality.
In this particular dream, I’m standing in the a dream-altered version of the kitchen of my childhood home. It is smaller, more cluttered (which you would not think possible if you ever visited my mom’s kitchen), the light a little more slanted and muted. My mother is alive. Her death turns out to have been a big medical mistake and she’s back. In the dream this is reality, not realization; as I walk into the house, I accept that this new version is just how things have been for some time now.
“Reality” also means that my father has moved back in with her into my childhood home and they have fallen back into the pattern where as a unit, she is caring for him.
I think I flashed to this because having pondered how proud my mother would be of her grandchildren, I know she would be amazed at my father. It’s hard to remember the days before he became a widower and in his late 80’s managed not only to survive but to carve out a life. But in the dream and last night in the synagogue, I realize that if she were still alive and could see it, it of course wouldn’t have happened. By observing it, she would change it. It’s the human application of the Heisenberg principle from physics: observing momentum at the atomic level alters it.
In the case of my parents, this maxim holds. My father told me a story a few weeks ago about a planned Alaskan cruise that they canceled abruptly the morning of their flight to Seattle because she suddenly didn’t feel well. Around and observing her constantly he didn’t divine what I surmised not long after she passed away: she spent the last several years of life struggling with illnesses, with anxiety, suffering in near silence. It was just like her to make you worry more about her more by telling you not to worry about her. Now, with distance, he recognizes that she must have spent weeks fearing having to let on to him that she wasn’t well enough to make that trip. Which then altered what happened.
As a caregiver, observation frequently leads to corrective action. It has to. As a parent, there is a balance is between observing our children’s reality and stepping in, no matter how good the intentions, to change it. Knowing when to do which is something for which, as previously mentioned, I did not receive formal training. I must have skipped that semester at Sandwich Generation dad class. Now as in my dream, I suppose I am in some trouble now as my daughters edge closer to adolesence. At least now I know to watch out for doing both at the same time.