Jan. 5 2015 04:30 PM

Life in the middle between a dependent child and an aging parent


The Sunday before Christmas, while on my way to a holiday gathering with my husband and another couple, I received an email from my mother with an explosive subject line. "Emergency Room," it read.

I didn't panic because it wasn't all in caps and it didn't have the 17 exclamation marks my mother frequently employs for dramatic flare. "ADORABLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" she might type in a typical response to a photo of her granddaughter, the letters in bold green or purple, usually with several emoticon lip marks tacked on for extra extra emphasis. Still, despite the lack of excessive punctuation in her subject line, I held my breath and opened the email, my head turned away, one eye squinting at the damage.

The body of the email included a photo of my mother's right leg, with her foot—clad in one of her trademark white jika-tabi slippers—resting on a chair with a bag of ice tied around the ankle just below the hem of her adorable red Capri pants. Whatever she'd done, she'd done it with characteristic style.

"Ugh!" she wrote. "Step ladder slipped out from under me while I was digging out decorations. :>( Stay tuned." 

I did stay tuned, which is to say I called her immediately to find out that a) The Gaydi Project exploded her calcaneus and dislocated something or other in the ankular vicinity, b) that she was high on painkillers and weed and c) that Christmas was cancelled.

"You know what your problem is," my friend Brian said to me at the party as I complained about receiving an email instead of a phone call. "It's not that your mother sent the email. It's that you checked your email on your way to a party." Let us all learn a lesson from Brian and make a collective resolution to unplug more, yes?

While his pointed assessment was correct (there was no reason the info about the fall couldn't have waited until the next morning), Brian's bedside manner is one I tried to leave behind as my little family and I ignored The Gaydi Project's Scroogy admonition and headed for Seattle to tend to our wounded bird. After all, the last thing my mother needed was me invading her lair to prove just how wrong her ways are, and just how much better my ways are. Even if it's true, sometimes it's better to shut up than to be right. Brian.

Anyhoodle, with this trek—that would test the bounds of my patience, the limits of my compassion and my ability to do things in my mother's quirky and over-complicated way—I became fully cognizant of my status as a member of the Sandwich Generation.

According to the Pew Research Center, there are millions of us middle-agers happily skipping along through our life's journey with a parent age 65 or older on one side and a dependent child on the other. 

And this is a totally fine and doable and invisible gig most of the time. Until it isn't. 

Like when the aging parent goes from being an urban-dwelling, no-car-having, single-and-loving-it, mover and shaker reaching for some Christmas decorations to a hobbled eccentric shut-in with a 15-year-old blind and deaf Chihuahua with hip problems and periodic seizures. I don't think Pew accounts for the parallel need to care for pets, which, in my case, meant constantly chasing down a neurotic four-legged manipulative asshole dog before he peed and pooped in the house. The little fucker tried to bite me the first time I attempted to pick him up, so I left the dog-care thing to my husband. 

Speaking of which, the impact of sandwiching falls on spouses, too, and mine rose to the occasion in a manner so glorious that, by year's end, he will surely be crowned as the Sexual Favors Recipient King of 2015. I highly doubt he had any idea when we said our "I Do's" 13 years ago that he'd one day find himself cradling my mother's beloved but disoriented dog at 2:30 a.m., contemplating putting it out of its misery (he didn't). Or that he'd be spending hours on the phone patiently negotiating with low-level medical staff. Or hiking the hilly neighborhoods of Seattle, hand-delivering paperwork from urgent care to a surgical center. Or visiting banks and pharmacies and attending doctor appointments. 

Nobody warns you about this stuff when you're getting married. I'm just putting that out there. 

Admittedly, I'm far from experiencing the full breadth of what it means to be a sandwicher. In the six days that my outstanding husband and I spent waiting on my largely bed-bound parent, making home repairs, having difficult conversations about shower chairs and facing off with the American healthcare bureaucracy on her behalf (in the spirit of The Gaydi Project, WHAT A CLUSTERFUCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), while also attending to the many calls of "Mama...!" from the child spending too much time on Minecraft in the next room, I got just a tiny flavor of what it means. My mother is going to have her foot screwed and bolted and plated back together, and she's going to get well. Maybe with a limp, but well with a limp is better than so many alternatives. I know things could be so much worse.

Nevertheless, it was stunning (and humbling and difficult) to find myself in the position of caring for my fiercely independent mother for one week. I think I can safely speak for The Gaydi Project that the experience of being cared for was just as stunning (and humbling and difficult) for her. OK, so it was definitely worse for her. Lo, are there tales to be written about this. But a little time and distance is needed before I dish. 

And dish I WILL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Stay tuned.

Email Aaryn Belfer. Aaryn blogs at aarynbelfer.com and you can follow her on Twitter @aarynb.