I did more clean-out of my dad’s stuff today. This afternoon was entitled “Make the Biro Garage Great Again”, otherwise known as reconfiguring where things were, starting to give some things away, and of course, starting to throw things out. Otherwise our cars will never fit in the garage again.
Right now, I am deconstructing much of what my brother, my family and I spent many years pulling together. Today: files easily thrown away. I am leaving the harder stuff for “Future Peter” to deal with. I’ll let him figure out what to do with the photo frames, stamp collections, postcards from friends long gone, old passports and plane tickets, and the presents my children constructed for him . Back in 2013 when he moved here, they made a beautiful little mirror for him. I sat with them that morning and picked the colors. What should I do with that?
With his Bank of America statements and copies of bills marked “Paid”, thank goodness, it is much easier. They go.
I remember the week that Rob and I spent in New Jersey in April of 2011 where I developed a system for him to get the bills paid. Rob focused on clearing stuff out of my parents’ house and I took all things financial. I sat with my father at what had been my mother’s desk. I demonstrated logging into online bill pay, keeping track of statements versus invoices, assuring cash in the account would cover the bills, identifying bills versus statements versus solicitations. I transferred everything onto credit cards that I could. It was a frantic and awful week — and that system worked for years.
This afternoon, I discarded the bulk of the product of it working for years.
There is more of this that awaits me. I also found a clock today that for the past 3 years sat on top of his bedside table. To find that exact clock took me a few tries. Then the one that I’d purchased broke after 6 months or so, but I didn’t realize for quite some time that the difficulty in setting the time and date was the clock, not me. Somewhere in the boxes in my garage is the other clock that he wanted atop the refrigerator. I remember sourcing that one too.
I wonder sometimes if I am cursed because the deconstruction reminds me of the construction. It is the same as a sandwich generation father; I remember the visits to Plaster Fun Time and the times Sophie and Lily worked all day to create artwork just for me. It makes me happy to have experienced that kind of unconditional love, and haunts me a little at the same time.
Creating those folders was my own version of unconditional love. I knew that I had to throw them out regardless. It is just the nature of things.
Before diving into this blog post, I wanted to step outside the blog, so to speak, and write about writing it. Very meta, I know.
My dad passed away about 4 weeks ago. Only now is it really starting to hit me. This makes sense if I step back, which is hard to do when you don’t really feel the ground beneath your feet in the first place. First of all, denial is one of the stages of grief, and true to the cliche, I have been in denial about my father passing away and the impact it’s going to have on me. I’ve also been somewhat in denial about the impact of having been a caregiver, and especially the intensity of last couple of months. There were days that the phone rang 20 times. In a way, you sort of have to be.
Second, truth be told, there is a part of me that wants to stop writing. Just be done grieving and processing and reach the end state, whatever that is going to be. It has to be better than this. As if declaring that I was done would make it so. I am a check the box person and sometimes I like to check the box even if something isn’t 100% complete. However, with processing trauma, it doesn’t work that way. Plus, I still have a few stories left to tell. If anything, they mean more now and I realize that I need to get them out.
Right now, I am in the phase of grieving called “dealing with the stuff”. It is different than when my mom died more than 6 years ago. Back then, my brother and I had to deal with both clearing out the clutter from her life and setting my father up to live his. I don’t have that problem this time. What I do have is all of my father’s things left in the world now in my garage. There is no distance. Every time the garage door opens, there is his scooter, his power lift chair, his desk, his walkers, his dining room table and chairs. Even our outdoor fridge has some of the beer that I used to keep in his old apartment.
But what really grabbed me recently was his robe. That stupid robe that he’s had since well before he moved to Massachusetts in 2013. One of the first things of his that I unpacked was his ugly purple suitcase; my father only had cheap luggage that came courtesy of casinos who in the 1990s gave cheap Made-in-China gifts to him and my mother in their roles as perpetually unlucky medium rollers. I had packed it for him when he checked into the rehab center. I stuffed in multiple pairs of pajamas, pants, shirts, handkerchiefs, his slippers, iPad and case, hearing aids and batteries, his headphones, reading and distance glasses, power supplies, and the framed letter he had received from the Commander of the US Navy Pacific fleet (a whole other blog post). And his robe.
So when I unpacked the robe, I flashed back instantly to how much it had said to me over the years. As a caregiver, you learn to look for signals. When he first arrived, he wore the robe constantly, even to his community’s dinners, which of course you are not supposed to do. I had to save him from that, and insist that he would wear clothes. Then he tried to wear the robe when I visited to prove his independence to me – so I would leave. I think I felt guilty at first and eventually learned not to. My father was a man with whom you had to set strict boundaries.
Over time, he stopped doing this. I would arrive on Sunday afternoons and he would be dressed, and showered, and shaved, and drowning in cologne to cover the smell that he knew his incontinence would create. After a while, I came to appreciate this gesture. For him, putting on a button-down shirt was torture, but he did it anyway. He would ask me if he looked all right. Those were the good days.
Then there would be days when I would arrive and he’d be wearing the robe, and immediately I would know that he wasn’t feeling well. I just knew. If you have cared for an elderly parent before, you know the importance of non-verbal tells, and you know not to give them away.
There were the days that he would wear clothes, and the robe, because it was cold in his apartment. So I’d quietly re-adjust the thermostat.
There were the days that because he wasn’t wearing the robe, I could tell that he’d worn it most of the week by the smell it gave off. My dad would have draped it over the chairs around the kitchen table because hanging it up was too difficult for him. Then I would put it in the laundry when he wasn’t looking and hope he wouldn’t pull it back out.
There was the day in late June, somehow only two months, when I checked him into the hospital. That was the day when everything changed, or at least where the change became obvious to me. I arrived to his apartment to find him in his desk chair wearing that robe and pajamas, with two caregivers on either side of him. They were at their wits’ end. He had refused showers and bathing for days. He had been wearing the same soiled briefs for 3 days. My father was unrecognizable, unshaven, with a dazed look and a barely coherent understanding of where he was and what was happening. His robe told that story too.
There were the final days in his assisted living apartment, which just never worked. I would put him to bed in that robe at 10am because my 9am visits would be over by then – he was just too tired. Then I would cover him with the new cover sheets that fit his new single hospital bed. That never really worked either.
I extracted these memories from just pulling the robe out of that awful purple suitcase. All of this flashed through my mind in about a half second. Maybe less as time loses meaning when one in this state. Like I said, I still have a lot of grieving and work to do.
Back to the meta — I also have a lot of stories left to write. Mostly I am writing that for me. Also I am continuing to write for the many people – which in my world, is like 20 – I’ve spoken to over the past month who have been caregivers, or are caregivers, or know they will be someday. So as with the robe, I am going to keep writing about being a sandwich generation father and son for a while. I hope there are still a few readers left who will follow along.
Long ago, in my childhood home while sitting across from me at the same desk he now has in the apartment I need to empty, my father told me the story of the start of his consulting business. He started confident. While employed in the mid 1960’s at Jerrold, engineers at many of the companies with whom he interacted would ask him if he’d be willing to consult for them. Jerrold was a top manufacturer of antenna equipment and my father a well-regarded engineer. In time, he grew to believe that these sincere offers proved that launching his one-man show would prompt an avalanche of business.
Once he left Jerrold – involuntarily – he decided to start out on his own. He named the company Biro Associates, dutifully printed up business cards and stationery, and phoned many of these people back to announce that he was ready to work with them. Suddenly the fast offers evaporated.
This is where he learned, the hard way, about the difference between the role and the man. That is, that people were talking to the engineer employed at Jerrold, and not actually to Steve Biro. He was merely the person occupying the job. Once he was on his own, things were different.
I know the feeling.
For a little while longer, I am still a little bit Sandwiched Man. Among the tasks related to my father that I still own is clearing out is his apartment. I am traveling, however, back with my family in Italy after flying back to Boston last week for the funeral after having been in Europe for only about 48 hours. What I need now is some actual help from one of the many people who said “if there’s anything you need, just ask.”
I am biased in this regard as the father of twins. When Sophie and Lily were infants, we fed them every 3 hours. 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, 10pm, 1am, 4am. Needless to say, we were perpetually exhausted and in a haze. But they were our only children, so we didn’t know any better.
We also didn’t know any better than to politely decline offers to help. We accepted all of them. Definitely don’t ask if there is “anything” they need. Because I can tell you: they need the laundry done. And they will ask, and mean it.
Fast forward to last week and an offer from a social worker if there was anything we needed, and in particular to help move things out of my father’s apartment while we were gone. It felt too good to be true, so Rob and I decided to test the proposition. We left her very detailed instructions via email on what should go where. The desk, the scooter and the power recliner to my home in Wellesley. The cable box back to Comcast if she had time, otherwise back to my house. Everything else to Goodwill. We sent photos, garage codes, and anything else she might need.
As the hours ticked by, we knew how this would end. Sure enough, an email from her appeared. My apologies, she said. I didn’t mean I would actually help you myself. I meant more that I could give you a contact with movers we know if you wanted. Would you still like that?
The moral of the story for caregivers and parents is this: although you will find many people who can help, you are responsible. Even if Nova and I had spent small fortune to hire night nurses for our kids for the 10pm, 1am and 4am’s, we would have had to manage them and handle emergencies anyway. For my father, I made difficult decisions many times that no one was going to make for me. It was lonely. And now that I am not in a position to steer caregiver dollars toward my father, I cannot help but notice that while offers of help are still abundant, actual help is more scarce.
That makes sense though. In the eyes of those I’ve worked with for some time now, I’m no longer caregiver-with-a-budget Peter Biro. I’m simply Peter Biro. A different person altogether.
Again, this doesn’t particularly surprise or disappoint me. I sort of expected it. I never forgot that lesson sitting at my dad’s desk from all of those years ago. My father got a lot wrong, but on this one, he knew.
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.
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.
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…
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.