Both Father and Son: a Sandwich Generation Reflection
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“I can do it myself, papa,” says Heloise. It is Sunday morning at the ranch, and I have offered to make her breakfast. My daughter is 13, and has been cooking bacon (and scrambling eggs in the leftover grease) since we all stopped following kosher rules three years ago.
It is easy to look at my child — all 5’8” of her, coltish and angular and breathtaking to a father’s eyes — and still see the little girl who must be kept from the hot stove. Heloise gently pushes me aside, opens the refrigerator, pulls out the package of bacon. “Go see if grandma needs anything.”
I step into the living room. Mama has on CNN — a Sunday Fareed Zakaria special. Mama likes Fareed. As I walk towards her, the program cuts to a commercial, and mama rises, coffee cup in hand.
“Would you like a refill, mom?”
Mama shakes her head. “I think I can get it myself,” she says brightly. Slowly and purposefully, she makes her way to the kitchen, pours half a cup of Peet’s, comments to her granddaughter on the enticing smell of the bacon, refuses the offer of some for herself, and returns to her chair, just in time to watch archival footage of Fareed interviewing the doomed Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
I stand in the space between kitchen and living room, swiveling my gaze from daughter to mother, from the teen to the increasingly frail but still determined 85 year-old. I stand in what the sociologists call the “sandwich generation,” the term for middle-aged folks caring for young children and elderly parents simultaneously. It is not a firm place on which to stand; there are moments like this, where these two of the three women at the center of my universe don’t need me at all. I know that one will rely on me less and less as the months and years pass, though I will never (I hope) become entirely unneeded. The other will require my help more and more in the remaining time, until one day, my only obligation left to mama will be to temper my grief with the memory of a kind, meaningful, and very well-lived life.
Last night, Heloise had a meltdown and wanted to take a walk. I am fit, but she is fitter still, and I could barely keep up with her as we trotted up and down the ranch road at dusk. She didn’t have much to say, but she did make it clear she wanted company; I held her pace, silent and supportive. I can’t carry you anymore, I thought, and you haven’t asked to ride on my shoulders in many years, but I will carry any burden you care to share with me.
Someday, I thought, if I live long enough, and keep the torment in my brain and accidents at bay long enough, you will worry about me as I worry about my mama, and as she worried about my grandmother. That day is not yet, but if we’re lucky, Mousie my girl, it will come. May it not come for a long time, and when I grow frail and forgetful, may my final season be brief and not too exhausting for everyone else.
The social historian in me knows that the anxiety of living in the sandwich — worrying about children navigating the widening river of adolescence and parents navigating the narrowing streams of old age — is as much privilege as it is burden. Too many die too young, and have always died too young. Children buried their parents early, and then, as often as not, buried at least one of their own babies. The idea that each of us will get to pass from infant vulnerability to aged fragility with two-thirds of a century of robust and vital physical autonomy in between? Few got that in the past, and too many are denied it now.
It’s a stroke of good fortune to live in the sandwich. My children are strong, have shrugged off childhood ailments and healed from broken bones. Mama beat simultaneous uterine and lung cancer 25 years ago, has had a heart valve or two replaced, has COPD, and survived a pair of strokes in March 2020. In any other time or place in history, she’d likely not have lived to see her grandchildren, much less to see them surpass her in height. (David, my ten year-old, is now taller than my mother; part of that is his growth, part of that is the reality that mama has shrunk four inches since middle age.) She has lived long enough to lean on her grandson, not her son, and have that gentle lad walk her back to her room at the ranch after a happy summer dinner.
David and mama, July 3, 2022
I grew up the “designated patient” in my family. I was the one kicked out of prep school in disgrace, the one who was medicated and hospitalized, arrested and fired and divorced again and again, from late adolescence to midlife. I was the one everyone worried about, until the day I decided I was tired of making everyone worry. My traumatic brain injury is real, and omnipresent — but so too is my determination to be the reliable plow horse instead of the black sheep. (Sandwiches and sheep; I’m hopelessly mixing farming and kitchen metaphors.) My children will be children only a short while longer; even with the best of luck, mama will not be mama in this life for much longer than that. Now is the moment to fit myself to the yoke, as it were.
The country music that is the constant soundtrack of my quotidian duties is filled with the laments of men who missed their children’s growing up, or who were not there when their parents died. (These songs are warnings; heart-breaking three-minute sermons that resonate in the soul of a boy whose Vatican lies in Nashville, not Rome.) If I can help it, I will not be those poor, remorse-savaged fools.
I stroked my father’s brow in his final moments, promising him in German that his parents were waiting for him. If I have a chance to do the same for my mother, and to live long enough to see gray in my children’s hair when they in turn kiss me goodbye, I would be such a damned fool not to do all I can to stay as long as I can, serving as best I can.
In the meantime, there are mornings like Sunday, where my daughter can now fry her own bacon and my mother can still pour her own coffee, and all I can do is stand in the doorway, half-frozen between the Already and the Not Yet.
What a joy to read your work, always. But especially as I am also pressed between two slices. Less and less so (Alice just finished her first year of college), but still.