About two months ago, I broke my arm. Not coincidentally, this corresponded with my not posting an entry for about… two months. More on this later.
It was a skiing accident where, in trying to avoid colliding with zig-zagging kids crossing a mid-slope traverse at Sunday River in Maine, I zipped up a hill they’d made by piling up some of the fresh man-made snow. I landed the first jump, telling myself what a hero I was. By the time the word “hero” had entered my brain however, I had started up the second and taller hill and realized that I wouldn’t be landing the second one. I didn’t. Instead I fell and broke my humerus.
I contemplated an entry about recovering from injury at 46 compared to doing so at 26. There’s not a lot of suspense in that though — it’s also not particularly relevant to the Sandwich Generation. What is more relevant is disability.
In particular, because of this injury I suddenly had a great deal of difficulty completing some of the most basic tasks of life. The accident happened on a Friday afternoon, and when I pulled off my sling and tried to peel off my ski clothes on Sunday morning, it quickly became 5 of the most difficult minutes of my life. Putting on a shirt was nearly impossible. Showering when it hurts to move your arm even an inch is a trying experience. Toweling off is worse.
Eating was a challenge as well. Without a functioning left arm hand, I couldn’t cut food. Or really use a knife as a counterbalance to a fork. My most prized kitchen possession is a large Pasquini espresso maker, which I now know requires 2 hands to operate. So do most corkscrews. And bottle openers.
I mention all of this on a blog about being a Sandwich Generation father because it gave me a small taste of my father’s daily struggles with pant zippers, scissors, unopened jars, shirt buttons, slipping on shoes, getting into cars, and the million or so items of basic everyday living that challenge him. I used to get angry when he failed to change his shirt after spilling soup on it. Now I understand better why he doesn’t bother – it’s a lot of work. More than that, it’s frustrating. You struggle to reach the buttons and remember that it used to be an afterthought to slip them into the buttonholes. You have trouble simply crossing the room and flicker back for a moment to playing tennis on the street in front of your house with your sons.
I visited him one evening a few weeks ago to help with a television emergency. Yes, there is such a thing. He was in bed when I arrived and while I spent about 15 minutes diagnosing and fixing the issue, he was barely able to get out of bed, slip on his robe, put his dentures back in, and wander outside to the living room. I realize now how much time and energy he’s invested before I come on the weekends to shower, dress and shave.
There’s more than one reason that I haven’t written for a while, but with my left arm in a sling, I found it difficult to type. This also made it difficult to work since a large part of my living depends on how effectively I can tap at a keyboard. Truth be told, I did not adapt quickly. Adapting also takes a lot of energy and because of the pain, I was tired a lot. The pain was constant, but almost more important: it was draining. I suspect that my energy level was more like someone who is 86, not 46. Of course, my father hasn’t been 86 for some years now, so even with this experience, I can only imagine what that must feel like.
On the bright side, my children – the other side of the sandwich, if you will – took responsibility and helped tremendously, especially with dishes. And, in a moment of which I am particularly and perversely proud, they also helped with a bottle opener. Perhaps no beer has ever tasted as delicious as that one. Another small victory for a Sandwich Generation dad with a broken arm and a long recovery ahead of him.
When I arrive on Sunday mornings to my father’s place, he’s usually sitting in his old chair in front of his heavy, worn wooden desk. It’s old enough that the drawers either droop or don’t open without herculean efforts. A small spiral notebook sits on the right side, his iPad in the front and the inbound mail on the left. The new in the middle, the old on the right and left.
This notebook contains the list of my tasks he’s stored up over the course of the week for me to address during our regular sessions. It’s a consistent set of technical issues, household annoyances, financial questions, and the occasional personal care request. Apparently one core skill you need as a Sandwich Generation son is the ability to give pedicures. Always these tasks are written in capital letters. My father has always preferred capital letters.
In his office in my childhood home, the one where the desk used to live, he mounted a posterboard on his wall to show upcoming projects. He was a one-man consulting engineer who would pile himself and his sophisticated electronic equipment into a faux-wood paneled station wagon and trudge off to faraway cities. He’d test television signal levels to help design or improve antenna or satellite towers; two of then loom to my right when I drive down Route 9 toward Newton.
The posters hung in landscape position with 3 columns and maybe 10 or so rows. He’d show the date, the city, and a few other tidbits about the job. All written in capital letters. I remember like it was on the wall of my house today. Over the years, those posters piled up behind him filing cabinets – those stayed behind when he left the house 2 ½ years ago – like a history of his career, his marriage, the life he created for my brother and me of a father on the road.
I’m remembering this now because last weekend an inbound direct mail piece from Carnival Cruises prompted me to suggest that Bermuda would be close enough to visit if he wanted. He shook his head and started recounting the many reasons he couldn’t. One piece of evidence he offered up about his decline was the trembling in his hands. And t’s true – they do tremble a little. Then he held up the notebook and said, “See – I can only write in capital letters.”
That’s true now – but it was sort of true then. Same for the unusual way he stands up, using his arms to lift himself up instead of his legs. He’s always done this and it drove my mother to distraction. Now he notices it. He’s never had good hearing. For years it was because “you all mumble!” Now he recognizes it.
So as middle age has overtaken me, I too have started to look for my signs of my own physical decline. When you look, they are everywhere. My vision up close isn’t the best anymore. On many nights, my energy runs out long before I think it used to. My powers of concentration are deteriorating. And my handwriting has become totally illegible. Or at least, that’s what I thought until the journals that I kept when I was 16 disabused me of this notion.
In the moment in front of the familiar old desk, I resisted the urge to talk my father out of his sentiment. That would have been unrealistic; he is almost 92 after all, and of course he’s declining physically. Or put another way, some of the tendencies that have been there all along are more pronounced in him. And in me.
His letters are in caps, while in my notebooks – new and old – they are in a weird middle area between caps and lower case. That’s not new though. It was there all along.
For the second time in about a year, I didn’t write a blog post for a while. A lack of drama partially caused this; inspiration is difficult to mine from flawless visits to a parent who is healthy and mentally sharp, or family vacations taken without incident. Some of it stemmed from focusing on some of my own issues that had nothing to do – well, almost nothing – with being a Sandwich Generation father.
Specifically, my career took a weird left turn last summer. I went from frantically busy to idle almost overnight. Actually, it wasn’t overnight. It was even faster than that.
First, I treated myself to about 6 weeks of not really thinking about it; after all, it was August, a time when much of Boston basically shuts down. And I hadn’t enjoyed a month off in the summer since I finished business school and been married sixteen years ago. Later, this particular hiatus was filled with soul-searching about the sudden feeling that the developing career narrative I’d built for myself had been an illusion. At 25 this is a fine discovery, maybe even at 35. But at 45 it came as quite a shock.
Of course I am a Sandwich Generation father, which colors everything, including this particular bout of introspection. What I remembered as the shock passed is that while family commitment and career achievement aren’t locked in a tug of war, it’s certainly a delicate balance. Most people – men especially – feel like this is the age where they have to hit the gas on career because they are in their prime earning years. That’s probably true. It’s the first time I’ve noticed the lower energy level in most people 10 years older than I am. And the moments do come when I find myself jealous of the many people who surround me who have (or, spend) more than I do.
What’s also true for me is that my father is almost 92 and lucid, and maybe not for much longer. My kids are 12, and still like me and still need me. Maybe not for much longer. My marriage, my community, my spirituality – all of these both demand and give me energy. They all define me.
I know from more than 2 years of balancing them that at any given time I need to be able to hit the gas on either the personal or the professional. Which means — I have to set myself to be able to do that. I can’t floor it on either for very long in a row because the other always intervenes.
Fortunately – it’s January now, so the lure of unemployment is less strong – I’ve found something that works. More on that in another post.
As for the blog hiatus – they say with writing that the hardest thing is to start. So it was for this next round of blog writing; it took me weeks and several false starts. Now that I am into my new (flexible) routine, I have a sense of when I’ll have pockets of time to think and to write, so will be more consistent. One thing I know is that real-life hiatuses are hard to come by in the reality of a Sandwich Generation father.