I’m writing this from a place I’ve written before, a train working its way up the Northeast corridor. It’s a good spot to reflect. Right now, Sophie and I are somewhere in Connecticut. She is to my right, laboring away at studying for a science test, which in her world appears to consist of color-coded writing in a spiral notebook while eating M&M’s and listening to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You”. Based on what comes out 107.9FM in Boston these days, it could be a lot worse.
I wrote a couple of years ago about a weekend I had alone during a dance competition. Sophie doesn’t dance anymore though. Lily does, and she and Nova are grinding out a competition this weekend in Concord, New Hampshire. Months ago, Sophie and I sat at dinner at Border Cafe in Harvard Square and thought about this particular weekend, and what we should do with it. Even that dinner was fantastic; there is nothing like anticipating a weekend away with your daughter who you suspect in the future won’t be interested in such a weekend, let alone planning it.
It was a chilly fall evening and we were sitting outside. I think we both wanted to brave the elements because we could, and because we both knew the season was fleeting. It is New England after all. We were talking about flying somewhere that was a great food town, and given the evening, mostly picked spots that were warmer. Maybe New Orleans. We also tossed around Austin and Atlanta.
Weeks later, indoors, we landed on New York, which is how we ended up on this train today. For the past couple months since I bought the train tickets, I’ve thought ahead to spending a weekend in the city with my teenage daughter, the one who once fit between my elbow and my fingertips, who once looked at me with the earnest open eyes of a 10-month old and said “Gee” with a hard G. But as a sandwich generation man, I overlooked the many reasons that it would such an amazing couple of days together.
For one, I almost ceased to be sandwich generation this weekend. With some guilt, I admit that I didn’t check in with my father. That didn’t work so well on Yom Kippur but it was a luxury not to juggle that responsibility. I also didn’t check work, barely checked in with Nova and Lily, and didn’t touch base with my relatives who live in the city. It was just us.
It was wonderful. I got to focus in on this wonderful human being who is usually half of “Sophie and Lily”, or 1/3 of the women I live with every day. I could tell a dozen stories, but instead I have one that describes the weekend.
We are on top of the World Trade Center having finished the tour and looked at the city through all 360 degrees of the panoramic viewing area at the top. We are considering getting something to eat or drink so that we linger a little longer, and I notice a very classy and elegant bar area looking north toward the Empire State Building, Central Park, and beyond. Of course it faces that direction – it’s pretty spectacular, even on kind of a hazy day.
Sophie asks me if I want to stop there, and of course I do, how could I not – but instead I say, “No, it’s OK, we can get going.” She stops me and replies, “Come on Daddy, we should go in.”
It is a thoughtful and perceptive gesture, and takes me completely by surprise. I hesitate for just an instant, then agree, and so instead of leaving and thinking about what might have been, I walk with her over to the hostess stand.
The hostess leads us to the bar and we take our seats. We share a moment at the bar looking out the window, her with a raspberry mint concoction and me with a Sean Minor Cabernet. We sit and talk, not rushed. It is perfect. When Sophie was young, she would frequently be overstimulated and as a result, she learned to recognize impulses and emotions in herself. Now that ability to look inward manifests itself in awareness, and confidence, and sometimes, empathy t0ward others. I feel sometimes like I never ask to get to ask for what I really want, because I am sandwich generation and because I am my mother’s child. She somehow knows that about me, and doesn’t want me to miss out on something that she knows will be important to me.
Like I said about the gesture: perfect.
In case you are wondering: we achieved our goals of overeating this weekend. It was New York after all. We had dinner at Chelsea Market at Los Tacos Number One, dropping a mere $20 for amazing and fresh tacos for the 2 of us, and my favorite, re-imported Mexican Coke made with cane sugar and served in a glass bottle. Once upon a time that was a rare, hard-to-find treat and I’m therefore conditioned to say yes every time the chance presents itself. Our ‘dinner’ Friday night was frozen hot chocolate and berries and cream at Serendipity. Lunch at Eataly. Breakfast at Zucker’s bagels. Dim-sum in Flushing with our friends. We saw a musical and wandered Times Square in a chilly drizzle.
We also rode the subway incessantly, which she loved. She had the appreciation of an adult and the giddiness of a small child. Apparently there is something for a teenager about being trapped in car-centric suburbia, and suddenly being able to hop onto a train accessible within blocks of anywhere you’d like to go. Or at least my friend said during dim-sum. He is right, I’m sure.
I saved my Metrocard, and every museum brochure, and every receipt.
And yet — the gesture at the top of the World Trade Center is the one that I’ll remember. Freed of sandwich generation constraints, I had the space to recognize it. Thinking about it now, I can’t help but feel so much pride in having a small hand in bringing someone like that into the world, and shaping her a little. I don’t get to shape my father much.
Sitting there at the bar, she looked at me and asked me if we could do a trip like this again next year. There is only one thing you say when you get a question like that during a special weekend: yes.
As I mentioned in my first post in this series, my father had fallen and broken his hip. Much more on that later. First I want to talk about something I learned when he checked into Leonard Morse Hospital, which is this: many nurses don’t work for the hospitals where you see them.
Her name escapes me now, which I feel a little badly about – but then I suppose if you are a hospital administrator, that’s part of the point. You want them to be as interchangeable as possible. So, let’s call her Carmen. She looked like a Carmen, with dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. Although she was attending to my father in a hospital in Natick, Massachusetts, she was actually a 30-something temp who lived in South Florida and was part of a staffing agency. I was too jacked on adrenaline to ask her which agency, and truth be told, I was still absorbing the fact that a Massachusetts ER nurse would have been transported up for a 4 day shift from Florida.
She wasn’t unhappy about it. In fact, she had requested it because her boyfriend lives in Milton, only a 45 minute drive away. She gets up here every chance she gets. But from hearing her describe it, it is a challenging life. She is paid by the hour; if she’s not staffed somewhere, she’s not earning money. Often she is dropped into ER’s where she doesn’t know anyone and she’s gone before she has the chance to really try. And when she works, she is working. She is not checking social media, or shopping online, or catching up on work-related reading, or texting with her boyfriend. Even in an ER that isn’t that busy, Carmen isn’t walking around. She is running.
I was somewhat flabbergasted by the sheer amount of chasing people down that she had to do. Even in a mostly empty hospital on a Wednesday night, scheduling resources like an X-ray was extraordinarily complicated. Then getting my father up there was hard. Then we had to wait for the result, and of course, she is the only one who has any idea when the orthopedic gods from on high have deigned to gaze at the picture. I imagine her nightly labor is a little like my recurring dream like I am running in molasses, or am trying to move my arms but something I can’t see is pinning them. Carmen must feel like that all the time.
And yet – she was so wonderful with my father. He is 92 and therefore is simultaneously a bit cantankerous while also liking to flirt with and charm younger women. Which for him, is everyone. She did not treat him, as the system would so often over the next couple of months, as an “elderly-male-who-fell-and-probably-has-dementia-and-so-many-other-problems. Every doctor, and I mean every single one who saw him that night, did. Not her. She figured out that because he has a hearing aid, she should talk into that ear. She made sure he was comfortable. She held his hand while she talked to him. She delivered news the instant she could, and was selfless and apologetic when she couldn’t. Mostly, she delivered care. Not medication or testing. Care.
I’m guessing of the 3.1 million registered nurses in the U.S. – 3.1 million! – that hundreds of thousands of them are temps like Carmen, waiting to find out where they are going next. Then when they get there, they are the front line to sick, broken and scared people who are caught in the hospital system and looking for answers and care, genuine care, anywhere they can find it. The same was true for my daughtefsdfgsdfgrs when they were in the hospital with rotovirus just before they turned two; hospital supervision is a sandwich generation problem, for sure.
I wish I could remember Carmen’s name, or that we had a system where Carmens are not commodities. Imagine the care they could deliver if they weren’t running in molasses. But, obstacles or not, I’m glad she was there that night for my father, and for me.
Sometimes as a parent or caregiver, you get to enjoy the personal care task you’re asked to do. Reading a favorite story to your young child; I used to read “Fletcher and the Falling Leaves” to my kids night after night. I never got tired of it. Or, you realize that you have to be the one to do it. When my father ended up in the hospital almost 4 years ago with C-Diff and they wanted him to drink the barium-infused milky nightmare needed to make his bowels show on the x-ray, I drank some with him. It was chalky and sticky and faux-strawberry and all around just awful. But I drank it with him anyway so that he would do it. The universe had placed me in that spot at that exact moment for that exact purpose, and when the universe does that, you have to go along. It is the universe, after all.
And then there are the things that are not like that.
This came to mind the other day at my father’s apartment as I ran down the list of chores he had so thoughtfully prepared for me. The bills, of course. His latest iPad problem. Parceling out medication. Unpacking his Amazon shipments, including the never-ceasing supply of Depends. Changing the battery in his Apple TV remote and/or hearing aids and/or TV remote and/or other TV remote. Then there is my usual list, which includes airing the place out, checking for expired food (especially the food he leaves on the counter), throwing the plastic bags, cracker packages and Sweet N’Lo packets he is hoarding, and examining the state of his bed and other important pieces of furniture to make sure they are clean.
I have come not to mind most of these. Most things I do for my kids also fall into this category, which as a sandwich generation man, is fortunate. Or I am suppressing something, one or the other.
Then there are some chores that I die a little each time I do. To spare needless gory details, I won’t list them all. One is cutting his toenails. It is pretty obvious why I don’t like this one. Another, though, is cleaning his glasses.
I don’t know why this one bothers me so much, but it does. It would be pretty easy for him to do for himself, but he won’t. He has caregivers in and out of his apartment every day, and it would be easy enough for him to ask them. It’s common for elderly parents to cling to their children as the only ones who can do things for them, no matter how small. Especially those who lack an empathy gene. I’m just saying.
This past weekend I stopped to ask him why he insists that I have to be the one to clean his glasses. He stopped for a second to ponder it, and said, “Because you are the master. No one gets them as clean as you do.”
Well, maybe I am.
Then I took a deep breath, took out the Windex, and cleaned his glasses again. Both pairs.
For Yom Kippur every year, I taper off caffeine to avoid withdrawal headaches and irritability. Let’s face it — the day is tough enough already. I do this even though a part of me takes pride in my ability to harness it to keep up the pace of my life. It’s this part that has me start my early pre-workout 5:30am routine with an espresso shot, a device I use to coax myself to emerge from bed on freezing and dark freezing January mornings (and now March ones). The part that knows while water is healthier, coffee is tastier and acts faster. So, after giving in to that part of me most of the year, I need to ease back in the early fall. I switch from all caffeine, to about half-caf, to only a little, finally to almost zero.
The added upside is that caffeine turns out to be a close chemical cousin of Ritalin. So for a short time after the high holidays every year when my system is basically starting from zero, it clarifies my concentration and calms me. No, really.
At some point, I will give up this rite, along with fasting. Like I said, the day is tough enough already. This will be one of the privileges of getting older, I suppose.
For my father, however, abandoning Yom Kippur is not a privilege – it’s a challenge. He always wants to prove that he can do things his way even if they are exactly the opposite of what he should be doing. This DNA sequencing is part of why he is still alive at age 92, after all. So at age 92, he fasted this year. Why wouldn’t he? He is stubborn, my father.
Sometimes though, conventional wisdom actually is right. It was this time. He got weak, fell while reaching for something while getting dressed, bounced off the corner of his bed, crashed into the floor, and fractured his hip.
Some hours later, I was sitting on the couch after attending a break-the-fast party at a friend’s house and scanning my phone for the first time that day. It was about 9:30pm. The rest of my family was upstairs in bed already. By then, my father had been on the floor since 2pm. Although he has a “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” neck pendant that his community provides him, he didn’t wear it. As I said: stubborn. He also has a cord in the bathroom not 10 feet from where he fell that he could have pulled. That didn’t occur to him either.
But he also was too stubborn to just stay there. After 3 excruciating hours on the floor, he managed to crawl the 50 feet over to his desk so that he could reach his iPad to send an email for help. Then, somehow he pulled himself up high enough next to his desk to pull down his iPad and use it to start sending emails to my brother and me letting us know he was on the floor.
Several hours, and a phone call from my brother later, I saw the messages. As I mentioned in an earlier post about technology we’ve deployed for my dad, we have a camera deployed in his apartment that points to the front door. However, we can also see most of the apartment, including the area next to the desk. That was where I saw my father was laying face down when I checked it.
My father lives 15 minutes away in a community where there is plenty of help. I called the front desk there to let them know what had happened and to ask them to send someone upstairs. They did so right away, which is yet another reminder of why I’ve been so happy that my father doesn’t live in the house he insisted on staying in for years after my mother died. Sometimes I have anxiety dreams about trying to manage everything for him, but he still lives there.
In this case though, it was a question of just driving over. By the time I arrived, the front desk had called an ambulance. I would describe the condition he was in when I walked in his front door, but the readership here is small enough and I’m not trying to scare more of you off. Suffice it to say that when an incontinent man falls while getting dressed and then crawls across the floor in extreme pain, it is not pretty. He looked up at me and said, “Peter, I need your help getting up.” I gently let him know that this was not going to happen and that an ambulance was on its way. It was obvious that he had a broken bone. The only question was how many, and how seriously.
A short time later, the Framingham firefighters and an ambulance arrived. (Brief rant: why do the firefighters need to come? There is no fire. The EMTs are trained paramedics. It feels like marketing.) Almost instantly my father ceased existing a human being with a story, a background and a soul. Instead he became “elderly-male-who-fell-and-probably-has-dementia-and-so-many-other-problems.” It happened almost immediately. As soon as the EMTs tried to ask him questions to gauge his mental acuity, but asked them into the ear where he doesn’t hear well, I knew what I would be spending the rest of my night, and probably October at least, guarding against. He had been transformed.
I too had been transformed. Usually I am a sandwich generation father and son, straddling the fine line between caring for an elderly parent and trying to be the best parent for my children I can be. Sometimes though, I need to be one or the other. This was one of those moments.
As they wheeled him out, I packed the belongings I thought he would need. iPad. Charger. Worn-out Sony headphones he likes so much. Clean pajamas. His favorite slippers (in hospitals you get those anti-slippery socks). Both pairs of glasses. Hearing aid and batteries. A few pictures. Then I followed the EMTs out, and to the hospital. Luckily, I’d had my first post Yom Kippur cup of coffee and was fueled up for a long night.
This morning I padded downstairs and found my daughter Lily on the couch playing a game on her iPhone. She is 13 so this is pretty standard, maybe too standard. There is a balance at this age between encouraging escape and game playing, for which devices can be ideal, and too much screen time. Nova and I tell ourselves that we have found a decent balance. Maybe it’s even true.
Anyway, I made my way across the kitchen to make coffee. I am a firm believer on putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs, metaphorically, so usually I don’t interact much before the first latte has made its way into my system. Even if it’s decaf, part of it is the ritual. As I frothed the milk, I heard her playing “Magic Piano”, which is a game targeted at slightly younger kids that lets them tap the screen to “play” simple-sounding versions of popular songs. This morning it was songs from the La-La Land soundtrack. I started to browse the paper online.
Then, unexpectedly, she asked me if I wanted to sit with her and listen to her play.
Was it a breathtaking concert experience? No. But it actually was magic. I have to give Smule, who made the game, credit for naming it perfectly. I just sat and watched her. She played the first song (“Another Day of Sun”, which should have won the Oscar for best song by the way but somehow wasn’t even nominated). Then she pretended to take a bow before playing another (“City of Stars”, which shouldn’t have been nominated. It took Justin Hurwitz like 5 minutes to write that song.)
And then the moment was gone.
I share this anecdote as a Sandwich Generation parent mostly because it was so fleeting. It was fleeting because I am constantly in motion, ever moving, ever planning, and I was happily lost for those 3 short wonderful minutes. Because my daughter is 13 and she probably won’t be calling me ‘Daddy’ and asking me to come across the room to watch her play a game much longer. Because I remember being 13 and my father playing ping-pong with me in our garage on 95 degree summer days, afternoon and afternoon. I don’t think I gave him enough credit for that.
I write a lot about trials and tribulations, about technology as a survival aid, about being balanced on a knife’s edge between two extremes. Much of that is true. The fleeting glimpses are true too.
As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, my father fell and broke his hip back in October, and it was not an easy experience for him. Or, by extension, for me. Or, by extension as I am a Sandwich Generation father, for my family.
At times, it felt like too much was happening too quickly, too many thoughts entering my mind, and I couldn’t really keep up. It was series of intense times followed by waiting where I still couldn’t quiet my mind enough to write. Adrenaline and boredom. Highs and lows. Nervous energy alternated with a few drinks, occasionally more. I lost the ability to when I woke at 3am — middle-aged man problems, what can I say? — to fall asleep again. Morning after morning at 5:00am I would look at the clock and think about how I “only” had 90 minutes before I had to get up. I should have stopped looking at the clock — but I couldn’t. Then one morning I stood in front of the shower, thinking about whether I should get ready for work or do a short workout, and changed my mind 3 times.
I’m going to write a series of posts about this experience. Partially, maybe mostly, it is for me. Despite what WordPress tells me about my audience size, I suspect it’s a trick to keep people writing. I realize it’s actually quite a small circle of people, and that’s fine. I do this because I need to. I think one reason I had trouble sleeping, drank and ate more, and was particularly jittery, is that I fell out of the practice of writing.
This was my second time going through a hospitalization followed by rehab. Because it was the second time, I had expectations and knew what to look for. Maybe that threw me off more. I remember how it worked out last time and was results-focused rather process-focused. Or because the experience wasn’t new, I thought I would be able to absorb more psychological stimuli without being overwhelmed. I was wrong.
I have a table of contents built in my head and plan to write once a week. I have a narrative together and for me, this is the hard part without which I have trouble even starting. It’s probably going to be a few months at least, so for the hardy few of you who actually follow this, settle in. Also: I’ll publish posts not related to this story mid-week; I have a few of these saved up. My father is back home from having his hip replaced and his heart “paced”, and my kids continue to turn into teenage girls, so there is no shortage of sandwich generation moments that are good stories.
See you next week.