Ever wondered what an elderly person gets in the mail? I spend about 20 minutes a week going through my dad’s stuff, most of it junk. I never stopped until this past weekend to consider what actually is in there. Sorting the mail for both my parent, and occasionally for my kids, is part of the role of being a Sandwich Generation man.
The elderly have a special mix of mail that tells you a lot about American society, actually. So what kind of country are we? We are the kind of country that sends our oldest members:
- multiple envelopes from coupon aggregators (in his case, Valpak)
- statements and bills from supplemental health insurance and supplemental prescription drug benefits programs
- American Express solicitations (even though my father has a card)
- Invitations from social services agencies, sometimes in multiple languages (in his case, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, English and Russian respectively)
- Envelopes that say “Information about your plan’s home delivery pharmacy – Important Plan Information” – which åre solicitations to subscribe to new costly services
- Envelopes that say “Urgent information about your health plan’s benefits – Your Response is Required” – which is where they try to figure out if the bills they reluctantly paid can be pinned on another insurance company because of some kind of an accident
- Vacation solicitations from cruiselines
- Carter’s catalogs
- Local restaurant menus (The Sub-way and Pizza)
- Citi credit card solicitations – these guys send these to everyone
- More American Express solicitations
- Solicitations to take part in mailed surveys
- Coupons set designed to look like a newspapers
- GEICO solicitations that are sent to a loved one (in this case, my brother)
- Statements for services that were long ago canceled but I guess I didn’t cancel in triplicate. In his case, NJ EzPass.
- Yet another cruise line solicitation, this time from Norwegian Cruise Lines
- Notifications from companies like Remedy Partners, which is a third party that was the overall care manager during his hospital stay that they got money from Medicare for that. Which based on the level of coordination I saw, should be coming to me instead.
- Coupons and now hiring notifications from Domino’s Pizza / Now Hiring. That would be interesting
- A second Globe Direct mailing with home-related offers and coupons
- Official notifications of Medicare from what they approved and denied over the past 3 months. It’s actually somewhat useful, which as you can see, really surprises me.
Plus, my father received a jury summons.
This one should be interesting! I’m sure there’s an exclusion for people who can’t quite get out of the house. I’ll work on that for him before more mail comes in…
Although it has been months since I last posted, it’s not because I haven’t written. It’s also not for lack of subject matter. Over the past 4 months, the highlights include my father breaking his hip, needing surgery, then also needing a pacemaker, then surviving nearly 2 weeks in the hospital/ICU, 6 weeks in rehab where many days I thought his stubbornness against instruction would overwhelm his stubbornness to live, his finally moving back to his apartment, re-adjusting to some new limitations , then me having to adjust to him at a different (that is, lower) level, and the associated adjustments my family had to make.
As I mentioned, I have been writing. Because I have a tiny audience on this blog, I’m sort of doing it for myself anyway. One main point of the Sandwiched Man blog is to give myself an outlet to process and express events and my own reactions during such an intense time. Some people are able to do this out loud, the first time, and I admire those people – but that’s not me. I often think or say things and shortly afterward think, “Yeah, I didn’t really mean that.” With the spoken word you can’t take things back.
The irony is that the more intense the time, the harder it is to find the time to write. Or the energy. Maintaining a blog requires a lot of energy. Sometimes polishing a bullet point list or scribbling about emotions costs more energy than gained by the zen it can create. So, I’ve been scribbling without really writing. They’re not really the same thing.
But here I am again, stringing sentences together.
I have to admit that a big reason why is unsolicited feedback this past week from two different people: a work colleague from 8 years ago, and a very,very distant family member. They both told me that they loved reading this. It really touched me that they said that. The second one told me at the Park Grill right next to the skating rink in Millenium Park in Chicago where I took this selfie. As is true of most people who take selfies, I am not immune to flattery. That it came from people who didn’t realize that I hadn’t written in a while is not perfect. But — I’ll take it.
As I mentioned, I do have a lot of material stored up for sharing the story of getting through this particular scare. It was an intense experience on which I’ve come out the other side. Or, at least, the other side this time. I realize more and more that as my father goes through repeated incidents that would finish off most people his age, it does take something out him.
Also, this is the Sandwiched Man blog, which is about being a Sandwich Generation man and therefore a different kind of caregiver than most with a parent this age. So, I also have stories about my family during this time, and in particular about trying to remain a father while also being a good son.
So, the blog is back. I’m looking forward to getting back to real writing.
Sometimes the smallest things remind you of where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going.
My phone has a light that flashes different colors based on what kind of alert I’m getting. Blue for most things, including text messages. Green for certain alerts, including Facebook. Yellow for notifications from different apps. Red for a charging battery. With one quick glance I know what kind of message I’m getting and whether or not I have to respond, without even seeing what it is.
It’s a rainy Sunday and before I left for my weekly visit with my father, I reached out to 2 friends whose situations I know all too well. One lost her mother 10 days ago after an unexpected and fast decline. She is in the part of mourning a parent where you just start to feel like you actually someday might feel like yourself again. You do a workout, take a trip to the mall, laugh with your kids at a TV show to gain a small shred of normalcy. Through your grief you look up and can see the surface of the water; while you are happy you can see it, it is so far away. I didn’t have her phone number, so I messaged her on Facebook. A green light if she responds.
Then I texted another friend who is at the start of moving a recalcitrant and newly compromised parent to Massachusetts from an unsold house in another state. She is in the part of becoming a caregiver where you are just trying to survive it. You haven’t had time yet to consider how much a part of the Sandwich Generation you are about to become, or that your reward for surviving the upcoming months of sprinting will be years of trudging ahead. You don’t have the time or inclination to look for the surface of the water. You are just trying to get boxes unpacked and keep your newly fragile parent from falling apart from the shock. A blue light if she responds.
On my way, I found myself at a red light, and looked down at my phone. Flashing blue. I disappeared in my head to a moment in 2013 just after my father had moved here. It is late on a fall Sunday afternoon and I am over at a friend’s house after dropping something off. He, his wife, and another couple – the same woman who is turning my phone’s light a flashing blue – are into their second bottle of cabernet laughing around the kitchen table about the previous night’s party. I feel a wave of isolation and jealousy wash over me as I instead am rushing over to my father’s place to deal with the latest disaster brought on by his never-ceasing C Diff attacks. They are preoccupied in their conversation and it hits me that I live in a different world from them, and that I can never go back.
I arrived at my father’s, unplugged my phone from the car charger. Flashing green. Now I am thinking about the cabinet full of the COPD medication my mother didn’t take. She never exercised, continued to sneak cigarettes for years after her quadruple bypass, drank endless cups of coffee to get up and swallowed valium to take the edge off. She too had a fast decline and I can’t help but wonder if it didn’t need to be so fast.
Blue. My uncooperative and cantankerous father is exiled from his post-hospital rehab center, so I have to scramble to move him back into the house long enough for my brother moves to move him to Massachusetts. Green. I completely fall apart when I see my kids for the first time after she’s gone. Blue. My brother has only 72 hours to extract my father from our childhood home and reduce lifetimes of memories into what he can fit into a moving van. Green. I climb into my car a week after my mother has passed away and try to muster the strength to drive back home to Boston from New Jersey. I don’t know if I can do it but I know I have to try.
Blue. My father is happy, healthy, and thriving at 92. Green. My mother escaped a long, slow decline, and my daughters have only sweet memories of her. Where I am today is very different from where I was. I am grateful.
Earlier this week I saw flashing lights of a different color in front of the house next door: red ones from a fire truck. They are coming more and more these days as my neighbor has given up her battle with brain cancer that she is about to lose. I have been blessed as my father has beaten one life-threatening condition after another. They remind me though that someday, somehow, his luck is going to run out, and with it, mine.
Sometimes the smallest things remind you of where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going.
I am exercising moral license today. Or, in plain English: treating myself to a day playing hooky.
It’s a beautiful warm late September day in New England, which means that in about a week, the bottom will drop out and the high temperature will barely reach the high 50’s. But that’s a song for another time. Today, I ditched my responsibilities and jumped into my convertible for a day trip to the beach, top down.
I’m sitting in Coffee Obsession in Falmouth, one of my designated happy places, drinking an iced coffee tapping away happily at my keyboard while the locals filter through slowly. Often in long meetings or traffic jams when I let myself drift away, this is where I go. Sometimes it’s nice to actually go for real to the place you go in your mind. My next stop is Surf Drive beach, where I have nothing but headphones, a book (Positively Fifth Street), a beach chair, and a towel. Maybe I’ll get a Diet Coke too. That’s pretty much all I need.
Being here is sort of the height of irresponsibility. It’s Thursday, not Saturday. I don’t have any less to juggle than I did yesterday, and this is going to make tomorrow and next week more painful for sure. I’m still a Sandwich Generation father and son.
On occasion though, I give myself more leeway than I otherwise would for that, a gentle version of what social psychologists call moral license. In theory, it describes a subconscious phenomenon where increased security in one’s self-image tends to make people worry less about the consequences of subsequent behavior. It’s one reason that people who work out tend to drink more. In this case though, it is conscious. I know what the consequences are going to be, and I choose them anyway. They are a fair price to pay for a relaxed cup of coffee, a couple more hours in the sun, a drive or 2 with the top down under a beautiful blue sky. To live. Part of the sandwich generation experience is realizing as your kids grow, and parent ages, that life is short.
I’ve been told more than a few times, at different points in my life, to give myself a break. When I overachieved in high school. When I would make a bad financial decision. When I would beat myself up over work. When I felt stumped by something that was genuinely hard but tortured myself anyway. If you know me, you know that this is a tendency of mine and it is not my best quality. Far from it. In a strange way, being a some-time caregiver for my father has made me better at recognizing it, and occasion, combating it.
I suppose part of me has always wanted to treat myself better. It is strange to realize that my Sandwich Generation membership might be unlocking my ability to do it.
At the risk of alienating more than a few readers, I have a disclosure to make: I am a huge country music fan. It’s true. It’s been almost 25 years now since someone played Mary Chapin Carpenter (who went to my high school, actually) for me and I was hooked.
One of my recent “songs on repeat” is from a band called Old Dominion. It’s called “A Song for Another Time”. It’s about a relationship which is great, but is going to end, and soon. The idea is that we should enjoy it now, and feel the sadness later. This is a common country music theme, I know. To make the cliche worse, as if it could get worse, the descriptions of how amazing things are, and how sad they will be, are just the titles of songs strung together. Brown-Eyed Girl. Sweet Caroline. Always on My Mind. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. You get the idea. Trust me: no one will be writing articles about this tune 50 years from now about how it changed music.
But I am hooked on this song anyway. It captures something in the way that only music can. Like many of you, I have lived almost this exact scenario in a relationship before. (As an aside — I could do a whole other blog on those moments in relationships, of all types, when you know it’s all going to change, either one way or the other. Comes down to only a few and they always stick with you.) And as a Sandwich Generation father, there are moments when I feel like I am living it now.
My daughters just turned 13 in June. I’ve been told by countless parents that the journey from here to 16 is fraught with peril. Occasionally I can see that future, but not today. Today my kids still think I am funny and smart, and mostly like being around me. We have fun together. They make just about anything I’m doing more fun. They still have some innocence and at the same time show flashes of wisdom that make me shake my head at how amazing they are going to be as women.
After the first day of school, I took Sophie to Five Guys and we just hung out and ate dinner together and talked about our days. It was simple, and sweet, and lovely.
My father too is in one of these phases where I recognize that things are about as good as they are going to get. There are more bad days than there used to be and some things that I do for him make me a die a little every time. I wish I didn’t feel that way, but I do. And yet I know the glass is still half full. Many blogs about caregiving are written by women, mostly older than I am, who are caring for very sick parents who need help with the basics, who can’t remember who they are, or are fighting terrible diseases. Much of my time as a Sandwich Generation son is spent just talking, or fixing modest technical issues with his iPad. Last Sunday afternoon we hung out and watched the US Open final, like we have for almost 40 years now. It makes me feel like a kid again and so happy that I still have my father. It was simple, and sweet, and lovely.
In the back of my mind, I know different days are ahead. The moments will come in those relationships when I know they are going to change. As the lyrics go, though – that’s a song for another time.
A brief departure from introspection to a discussion of some nuts and bolts. Specifically, for those of you embarking on the journey of caring for an elderly parent — whether or not you are sandwich generation — I thought it might be helpful to catalog some of the gadgets, devices and doohickeys that help make my father’s independence possible. Some of these were carefully considered and do perform the function that my brother and I hoped they would. Some are useful even though we didn’t expect it. And others… well, fails happen.
In no particular order…
Old Backup Hard Drive
We have this stashed by the front door. It’s a refugee from the Rube Goldberg contraption IT setup my father once had. Useless in his iPad world, it makes a great doorstop.
Sony Wireless Headphones
Because my father’s hearing is not the best (and never has been – see The Capital Letters for more on this), he used to blast the TV, with predictable results. These headphones connect to the back of the set and then project wirelessly. Everyone is happier.
“Lifeline” monitoring system
It’s typically assumed that the elderly need a “panic button” (a la, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” My father has one that’s provided by his community. He never, ever wears it. Amazing for someone with such a strong survival instinct.
The Coffee Table
When he moved here 2 ½ years ago, my family and I went to local mega-chain Jordan’s Furniture to furnish his apartment. Literally every single thing we bought was wrong. Here is a really cool coffee table where the top pulls up to reveal storage inside. Totally unpractical. Other misses include the uncomfortable wooden chairs (because now you need a pad – and my father has incontinence issues) without arms (because he can’t stand without using his arms to lift himself), the nice-enough wooden table that he coated with stains and crumbs within 2 weeks and the small table lamps which he can’t operate.
Somehow my dad discovered the pleasures of having a drink here and there. He’d never done this before. This is his go-to, roughly once a day. The apartment is always stocked.
Jack’s Abby Smoke and Dagger
This is for me. Sometimes as a caregiver you need something to get you through your visits. Also notice the cologne next to my beer bottle – my dad uses this to mask his scent when necessary. It somewhat works. Somewhat.
Two-sided covered hamper
When you invest in your parent’s laundry needs, get the biggest hamper you can find and make sure it has a lid. The lid should be easy to open and easy to close so that it stays closed. Enough said there.
Buy more than one. This is the one that lives in my dad’s shower. On a side note: your parent is going to leave things in places and in conditions that you might not. This thing is metal and is always wet. That’s just life. Move on.
One of the great challenges for the elderly is changing batteries. (Another is figuring out how to make the cellphone work – that’s why my father doesn’t have one anymore. And what exactly does he need it for?) One reason the headphones are so great is that they charge on a stand. If you are a product designer and you think that people over 80 might be a target market, make sure that your product recharges. These are for his Apple TV remote; we have another set for his hearing aid.
This empty shelf is where his photo albums used to be. We had them scanned at GoPhoto instead. They’ll take your photo albums and turn them into high quality electronic pictures (you know, the type we now take for granted because there’s always a high resolution camera in your pocket.) Now he can view pictures on his iPad and Apple TV, and share them. In an album, they’re hard to access.
Sometimes he needs a hammer – but most often, it’s what keeps the tension from the network cables from pulling his AppleTV off the shelf. No uni-taskers.
My brother came up with this innovation. Since my father relies on the Internet for pretty much everything, and cable companies can’t distribute equipment that doesn’t need to be reset constantly, it had to be easy to do. More than 2 years in, we moved the cable modem to a shelf he could reach easily and tuned the unit so that the cables and power switch were in front instead of the back. File that under “Why didn’t we think of that earlier?” Caveat: this trick has a lifespan because eventually, an elderly parent won’t remember to how to use this, or won’t listen when you describe it to them. This recently happened and believe me, it sucks.
Obi (Voice over IP) box
Many posts ago (Top Tech Tips for the Sandwich Generation) I wrote about switching to Google Voice and an adapter so that we could use it with a regular phone. This way, we can get a copy of my dad’s voicemails, which occasionally include something from his doctor’s office that someone should respond to. My dad relies on home visits so scheduling them in critical. This is the adapter.
We have it pointed at the front door so that we can see his coming’s and going’s. No, we never just watch this (imagine C-Span without the excitement). But if he is getting into a taxi to meet us somewhere, now we know when he actually left. Also helpful for seeing when the aforementioned home medical visits really happened.
My daughter Lily wrote this schedule on here. I love seeing her handwriting (and flower – she’s always loved flowers) and remember how earnestly she wrote it. She’s always been so eager. Of course, that was 2 years ago because we don’t really use this. Not practical, especially for someone who doesn’t really use his kitchen table that much.
Glade Air Freshener
During the worst of our incontinence challenges, these were lifesavers, especially because my father doesn’t naturally open the windows. Now we use them less as they can be pretty overpowering. Sometimes that’s what you’re going for though.
The picture sort of says it all – it also makes a handy surface for holding your most important stuff. It’s hard to fold and bulky but I think of all my father’s physical possessions, this might be the one that he’s most convinced he couldn’t live without. Even now that he has a scooter, it’s a security blanket for when he is out and about.
This is a new purchase – it’s meant to fix the problem we created by buying the wrong chairs the first time. My father has no power in his legs, so he has to rely on his arms to stand up. Close… but also wrong since the height is not adjustable. Find one that is. Now we have C-clamps on his kitchen table so that he can pull himself up instead of pushing off the table, which is close to breaking.
My father used to invite friends over for coffee, so we brought this up from New Jersey. Then I went to Dunkin and stocked him up so that he could do the same in Massachusetts. That’s the original coffee I bought more than 2 years ago. The jars have never been moved. Literally. I actually tried to remove the ‘decaf’ jar from the counter a few weeks ago and it’s become stuck to the counter somehow, so I couldn’t budge it. When we lose his security deposit someday, this will be why.
Large buttons, high volume, loud ring and easy to use. Perfect. We bought 5 handsets (by his TV chair, on his desk, at the dining table, by his bedside and in the bathroom).
The essential tool for the connected elderly.
Maybe the best thing we ever bought him.
What’s not interesting about this is the toaster itself – it’s that he asked to have it on the same table where he eats. (Note: I know that’s “interesting”, not interesting.)
By the time he used to shuffle across the room from the kitchen, his toast would be cold. So while now there are crumbs in multiple places in the apartment – something else I’ve had to learn to get over – now he’s able to avoid this problem. He’s pretty proud of himself, and sometimes building confidence in your elderly parent is more important than the thing that made them feel that way.
Also notice the Diet Coke stash. If the world ever ends and Diet Coke becomes the currency of the apocalypse, my father is going to be a king.
Everyone has these – we have 3. He loves having them now. I can’t believe he fought me about these at first. When your parent argues with about this, just ignore it and buy these anyway.
Last week I wrote about having to embrace reality — the actual reality, not the one I had tried to create for myself — in buying a motorized scooter for my father. He seems to be enjoying it. It’s a mix of being liberated from being immobile and fulfilled by overcoming logistical challenges. How to open his door, and keep it open, so that he can exit his apartment. How to navigate entering and exiting the elevators. How to handle chance hallway meetings with other scooters. How to get back into his apartment. You get the idea.
For me, the best part of the scooter experience is that it’s over.
That is, when you have an elderly parent who orders something complicated, it is your responsibility to make it work. If you’re lucky, that is — because sometimes it also includes the responsibility to return it later.
My father, who is an Apple TV addict (more on this next week), decided he really wanted to upgrade to the very newest version. Apple decided to make the user interface and remote a lot more sophisticated, which I tried to tell him he didn’t want. He didn’t listen. So, I bought the new version and installed it for him, only to have him decide that he didn’t want it. Which I told him would happen.
That of course made it my responsibility to return it, which smacked right into Apple’s 14 day return policy. A 30 minute chat session later I convinced them to take the unit back, which earned me the right to box it off and drop it off for UPS. As a sandwich generation father, I am not drowning in free time, meaning that throughout the process I felt awash in resentment and frustration.
I thought of this episode during my third trip to get the scooter operational. For the first, I plugged in the charger, which seemed suspiciously quiet. For the second, I unfastened the seat and pulled off the motor cover so that I could attach the battery leads to the battery. Now the charger made a happy humming noise, so I felt pretty confident that the second time was the charm. The following morning, my father informed me that the unit wouldn’t move. Having read the directions, I knew that there was a simple lever he had to release.
But increasingly my father is not willing to listen to directions I give him, or get other people involved, or believe that someone else might have the answer. Instead he decided to send me a never-ending series of emails about how we might troubleshoot the problem. Finally on the third trip I found the lever — all the while ignoring his unhelpful kibitzing about calling the manufacturer and complaining — and released it. He looked at the fully functional scooter for a few seconds. Then, he progressed to move back to the rest of the list of to-do’s that he had compiled for me.
This lengthy narrative, I hope, sets up what I really want to write about: gratitude.
What makes times with my father so frustrating sometimes is that I feel a distinct lack of appreciation. Which, on its face, is pretty absurd. If the measure of success of being a parent or a caregiver were the count of “thank you’s”, we’d all have given up the effort a long time ago. And an act of kindness is cheapened by expecting praise for doing it. If selflessness is its own reward, by definition you can’t be thanked for it.
It is also absurd because recently he actually has been saying thank you. He has started to tell me that I picked a great place for him to live, which a year ago he attribute to luck. Only this weekend, he sent me an email that reads:
“Peterkem this weekend started on the wrong foot. As of today became a super weekend, thanks to you. Million thanks again, I am very proud of you”
Which in turn got me thinking about whether he doesn’t show appreciation, or I don’t absorb it. This happened with my kids’ B’not Mitzvah too. I likely drove them close to not appreciating the event by passive-aggressively demanding appreciation for the event. I looked for signs in their actions that would belie the thanks in their words.
Being a sandwich generation parent means that you get feedback from both sides, both spoken and unspoken. You have to look to the unspoken sometimes to understand what is really happening, whether in a developing child or an adapting parent. This reaction, at some level, is impossible to avoid. That doesn’t mean it’s always right. Sometimes you have to overlook the unspoken so that you really hear what’s actually being said.
I moved to New England in 2003, trading the mild Bay Area climate for April snow. Needless to say, I felt some bitterness about this as I’d fled the Northeast years before to avoid this kind of unnatural condition. In response, I did what many adult males do: deluded myself. Specifically, I pretended that having no solution for removing snow magically would prevent snow from appearing. That didn’t work. I passed a couple of winters shoveling Massachusetts snow the old-fashioned way, which did not put me in a better mood about the situation.
Then Nova turned me onto the idea of a gas-powered snow thrower. Her logic was pretty simple: I couldn’t change the weather by pretending it wasn’t bad, so I needed better equipment. I relented, and I admit it: it was probably the best $800 I ever spent. Firing up its engine requires flicking enough switches and pulling hard enough on a starter cord that I feel like I’ve gotten physical. I get to use a choke switch. Who doesn’t love a good choke switch? And it is marvelously loud. Sure it is effective at throwing snow a long distance, but after the other benefits, I almost don’t care. It has changed the way I look at snow. And since we’ve had some winters where the snow hasn’t stopped, I deserve something that can do that for me.
Here’s what this has to do with being a Sandwich Generation father.
Over the past year, my father’s mobility has declined. It’s a fact. It’s to the point now where he shuffles his feet and not much happens. He has trouble turning. With a walker he can get himself down a hallway, but the clock is ticking on that as well. So about 3 months ago, he asked me to help him buy a motorized scooter to help him get around. Which I resisted. My logic was that once he started using a scooter, he wouldn’t be walking again, which itself would have downstream consequences that couldn’t be good.
I held onto this logic for some time. Like my pre snow-thrower delusion, I felt that I could hold back time a little longer. It’s like trying to wish away blizzards in Massachusetts; you might get lucky for a while, but eventually, the snow emergency is coming. And like that decision, it took someone else to point out that my logic was, in fact, delusional. Actually, this time it took 2 people.
But, in my defense (which is the opening phrase of most indefensible defenses), this is my father we’re talking about. We used to play tennis on the street where I grew up. He helped teach me to swim. He would lift heavy equipment onto his car’s roof as a core part of the way he made his living as a consulting cable TV engineer. I didn’t worship him for these things – we just didn’t have that kind of relationship – but I always knew he was especially strong.
When my mother passed away 5 years ago and I saw her laying there in the hospital, he was the one who kept me from falling over. He was 87. I’ve held onto that as proof that he can defy time, and maybe by extension, that I can too.
Then I thought about what the scooter what mean for him. Right now, he is trapped inside most of the time. With one, he’ll be able to spend a few days outside instead. He deserves to spend more time outside. He gave up his car more than a year ago, and a scooter will be a machine he can control. He deserves more things he can control. And most importantly, he appears to have found a potential girlfriend who lives far away (that is, in a different section of the community where he lives). For all his faults — more on this next time — he deserves to be happy, and I suppose this also means that he deserves a girlfriend.
These are all things that once pointed out to me were so obvious that I wondered what kind of daze I must have been in not to have seen them in the first place.
Do I do this with my children? I like to think I don’t. I don’t pretend that a lack of feminine hygiene products in the house is going to prevent my daughters’ bodies from changing. But then, as with the blind spot I wrote about before, I’m sure I have one here. I look forward to my next discussion on my back porch to discover what it is, and the particular Sandwich Generation delusion about my children that it is hiding.
As a Sandwich Generation caregiver, I frequently play the part of responsible one, handling items from substantive to trivial. For my father: medication, financials, negotiating, most shopping, nail clipping (my special favorite), technical support, housekeeping, being a sounding board, and occasionally, son. For my daughters: provider, travel coordinator, technical support (again), chauffeur, male role model, homework aide, designated top shelf reacher, chef, housekeeper (again), swim coach and cheerleader. To my great surprise, I’ve become the responsible adult at work, and where I volunteer, and among colleagues who come to me for advice.
If you live in this mode long enough, you start to believe your own reputation for knowing best. Your constant decision making, and occasional need to appear decisive even though you often have no idea what you’re doing, lulls you into false sense that you do. You also get used to setting the agenda, so when someone tries to influence it, you resist. After all, you not only know have the answers, you are used to having a monopoly on the questions.
I was reminded about how untrue this can be the other night with some friends in front of our fire pit.
We had people over on a Friday night, something I always looked forward to ever since we added a gas-powered fire-pit in our yard. We opted for direct plumbed gas partially on the recommendation of a fellow father of daughters who pointed out to me the very limited control we therefore have over our lives. So true – and this was before my father also arrived on the scene. The least I could do for myself, he recommended, was acquiring the power of fire. How right he was. It makes me happy every time I flick the direct gas line to my grill and think of the propane tanks I am not dealing with.
So last Friday we had a group of friends over to unwind over a few drinks. It was very civilized. Then quite suddenly I started an argument, for no known reason, with a friend of ours. It was like I was watching myself do it and I couldn’t stop. I don’t think I meant a single thing I said, and just kept escalating. Another friend saw this happening and tried to stop me by interrupting and trying to steer me in another direction. I didn’t appreciate her changing the subject, so I started on her too.
I wish I could say that the sudden dark mood was isolated to this one evening, or something physiological like too much stout or too much sugar, or something else I could explain away. Reflecting on it, I know this was not the case.
The previous night, I had shlepped the kids to a meeting that had added incorrectly on the calendar. I was angry, mostly at the situation. Then I ended up taking it out on one of our kids by going passive aggressive, and then basically bullying her into working on something for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah. It was obvious that she was too tired to do it, but the more she retreated, the angrier I got, so the more she retreated. Finally Nova got home and intervened.
Then the night after the fire pit incident, I started in on Nova about the kids’ upcoming B’Not Mitzvah. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me: they were stupid. Any why would I pick a fight about this anyway? We’re hosting an event where almost 200 people want to come from 3 continents, and where my kids’ friends are almost as excited as they are. This is success. I would have traded anything for that when I was a shy, awkward 13 year old. And my father is going to make it. He’ll be almost 92 and he’s going to make it. When he was sick 3 years ago, I was hoping he’d get through the week, let alone to this event.
Over the years, I’ve learned to forgive myself falling down sometimes. This was not always the case. About this week though, I still feel a little ashamed. Maybe I was feeling a little overwhelmed, insecure, and if I am honest with myself, a little intimidated by my friends, my spouse, my father, even my children. They have their whole futures ahead of them and mine slips away a little every day.
And since I am used to being responsible Sandwich Generation father guy, I think I was more susceptible to letting these feelings spiral into something else. Acting the authority figure is a bad habit you can develop in caregiver mode. You are so used to talking that it gets more difficult to listen to other people. I didn’t heed the warning signs and instead railroaded my daughter, my friends, my spouse, and myself.
As caregivers we have selves separate from that part of our identities, and sometimes, those selves are not our best selves. You only hope that you realize what you are doing and get back to being that better self before it’s too late.
We just came back from a family trip to Israel, where we spent a night and a day at the Dead Sea. If you’ve never been, the main attraction is the desert setting and water with salt content so high that you float like a cork. When laying on your back it’s quite relaxing, sort of like an especially soft waterbed except with the sun shining on your face. Actually, more like blazing on your face; the high temperature for our visit topped at 106 degrees.
This was Nova’s and my third visit. I won’t say we went reluctantly. But, having been there a couple of times, I remembered it as an old person’s destination. To be more specific, old people who tend to be Russian, overweight, wear banana hammock bathing suits, have hair growing from seemingly unusual places in their bodies, and move very, very slowly. Generally a scene I try to avoid if possible.
And generally I didn’t get the idea of a spa vacation before. Now I do.
First, I think of my father gradually slowing down. In particular, it’s harder for him to get vertical and get around. He’s not getting heavier but it must feel that way. For him, floating in the Dead Sea would be a miracle if I could somehow get him there. I’m sure he would love being weightless just one more time, able to leave gravity behind and just float after years of slow deterioration of his physical abilities. This can’t happen of course; the 11 hour flight home nearly destroyed me (although I did consume 4 movies), whereas I don’t think I could even get him to the airport. Now that I spend so much more time with him, I get the attraction of a place that is warm, slow, and rejuvenating.
The other factor is my shoulder. It’s doing better after I broke my humerus 2 months ago; I can even lift my arm over my head now. It’s the little things. Anyway, I can imagine dipping into a magic elixir that makes the soreness disappear even for just a couple of hours. That’s the Dead Sea for a lot of people. It’s probably psychological as much as physical. I get that too.
As a Sandwich Generation father, I was fortunate enough to be there with my kids. They didn’t remember the water’s sensation from their last visit so this was like the first time for them. They loved it. They floated on their backs, on their fronts, found ways to swim around, and managed not to splash salt water in their eyes. Last time they were not so lucky, and trust me, I don’t recommend it.
They also noticed the old men with strange hair reading their newspapers while floating in the Dead Sea. For them they were something of a curiosity, as they had been for me. For me now, they remind me of someone I know very well, and someone I realize I will someday become.