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It all boils down to car keys.
I first heard the term “sandwich generation” a couple of decades ago – a cute term for something that had as much relevance to me at the time as a pair of reading glasses, a bottle of fish oil or follicle-stimulation techniques (all subjects for another essay).
But now I find myself wedged right there in the middle of those two slices, with a couple of crusty teenaged kids on one side and a pair of eightysomething parents – one with Alzheimer’s – on the other.
Perhaps the “Wallenda generation” would be a more apt term – I’m balanced precariously on a tightrope between two tightly-wound ends, either one of which could snap and plunge me into the depths of despair and financial ruin.
For now I am still gliding slowly along the wire, balance pole tightly in hand, trying to keep it together while friends and relatives stand below me shouting words of encouragement and support, feeling glad it isn’t them.
But let’s get back to car keys.
When trying to succinctly explain to a colleague what I’ve been going through lately, it hit me: In one hand, I have the keys to our family car, which my newly licensed 17-year-old son is desperately trying to wrestle away from me; in the other hand, the keys to my father’s car, which I have just traumatically torn away from him, the last vestige of his independence which hearing loss and dementia demand that he release to me.
And then I started thinking about the other monkey-in-the-middle situations I find myself facing daily:
Begging my wired son at 3 a.m. to go to bed, while telling my exhausted father at 8 p.m. that he needs to wait a couple of hours before going to sleep for the night.
Getting reprimanded by my embarrassed daughter for talking too loudly, and by my father for not speaking loudly enough.
Having the “just say no” discussions with my kids – hoping they’ll stay away from drugs – while at the same time reminding my parents, morning and evening, to please take the handfuls of pills that keep them mentally and physically stable.
And then, of course, there are the bathroom issues. It seems like just yesterday my world revolved around when my kids pooped, how often they pooped, what the poop looked like and how co-operative the poop was. Suffice it to say the issues are identical now, though cleanup is much more difficult and feelings of shame, anger and embarrassment accompany each mishap.
On the positive side, my once occasionally grumpy and often controlling father has reverted to the sweetest child a parent could wish for – always obedient, asking what he should be doing next, then following instructions to the letter and greeting everyone – whether he recognizes them or not – with a warm handshake or a hug and kiss. (I had never seen the handyman crack a smile before Dad gave him a hug for hooking up the new clothes dryer.)
I recently took my father to see the blockbuster theatre production of War Horse. A bit of a risk, since he no longer seems to enjoy any form of entertainment due to his hearing loss and inability to follow even the simplest plot line.
The play was entertaining enough, but my real enjoyment came from watching Dad watching it. He was transfixed. Memories of taking my toddlers to the theatre came flooding back – the look of awe and astonishment as puppeteers created magic on stage; the excitement and exuberance as good triumphed over evil. I was mesmerized, staring at an 88-year-old man while thinking of my no longer six-year-old kids.
Ironically, the discussion at intermission turned to “babysitting.”
“Mom, have you found someone to watch Dad at home during the day so you can have a bit of a break?”
To which my mother predictably replied: “We’re not children! I am totally capable of looking after your father – we don’t need a babysitter!”
Gee, isn’t that the same “discussion” I had 10 years ago with my then-12-year-old daughter, when I wanted someone to look after her and her 10-year-old brother? Thankfully, the end result was the same. After putting my foot down, promises to behave and do the right thing prevailed.
I put my parents on a plane the next day, to visit my sister in New York.
As I watched my father shake the hand of the security officer who was waving him through the metal detector – then turn back to wave goodbye, as my little girl did the first time I put her on a plane by herself – it struck me: I shouldn’t complain about my role in all of this. On the contrary – when I’m not tearing what’s left of my hair out – I should, and do, thank God every day that I am the meat in this familial sandwich.
I feel truly blessed that I have a couple of wonderful, demanding kids and still have both of my stubborn, loving parents. Who all need me. And my car keys.
Ken Gruber lives in Toronto