You cannot be in two places at one time. This physical impossibility defines the “sandwich” generation – those of us with young children still in the home and older parents experiencing the inevitable health issues of aging. I was in Florida for a tradeshow – 200 miles from my parents – when I received a text, a call and a text from my dad. When I spoke to him, it was clear that I needed to drive down to their home in South Florida to visit.
The last four weeks have been a travel whirlwind with an unprecedented collision of work obligations. My husband and children weren’t happy, but they understood. I ensured that I was in town for the important end-of-year events that inevitably start in May for each of them. A really big event for my middle boy was the Thursday and Friday of the same week that I was in Tampa.
From the middle of second grade through the end of fourth grade, this bright, athletic boy could not stay out of trouble because of his impulses and undiagnosed (until mid-fourth grade) central auditory processing disorder that amplified sound beyond the point of irritation among other problems. Fifth grade was a revelation. New school and a new teacher who teaches 31 students and still found the time to figure out my son and help him learn the skills to control his impulses, focus his energy and succeed. And that new school has an audition-only Shakespeare program for fourth and fifth graders.
It was shocking that my boy wanted to audition. He’d have to give up recess every day except Tuesdays from January through May. For a boy who lives to run and throw, it’s a major sacrifice. We practiced his audition monologues. He was initially disappointed not to be cast in either the play or the role he wanted – and overcoming that disappointment was a lesson unto itself. Then he embraced his role in the other play and found that it is fun to play the villain of the story.
My boss and my team were unbelievably supportive as I dropped off the grid with no notice. I had a flight home Thursday night that would ensure I made it to my son’s Friday performance. My mom developed a fever Wednesday night following an outpatient procedure. But post-surgical fever means doctor on Thursday. And that’s how I happened to be in the room when the doctor said – “I am sorry to say this, really I am, but the pathology from yesterday showed cancer.” The treatments that she’d been having all winter, and that made her so uncomfortable, were supposed to eliminate any chance of hearing that diagnosis. It was a punch to the gut – for my parents and for me. It’s likely not very advanced and there are treatment options, but that’s one of those moments when time stops.
It was fitting that it was raining outside. My reeling parents wanted me to stay for the weekend. Be with them as they process this news. And I wanted to stay. I felt needed by them and I hoped that I could help them cope. And I wanted to go and celebrate my son’s growth – to be with my family after these weeks of travel (I was home almost every weekend). Sandwiched.
My son sadly acknowledged that Grandma needs me and that I’d watch digitally somehow. He was more concerned about his Grandma than his own disappointment. I was devastated to be missing this play he worked so very hard to do. And then my sister came through for us. She knows what’s its like to receive a cancer diagnosis. She understands what this weekend may be like for them. She also knew what my son and I endured together to get to this healthy place. She and her husband re-arranged their weekend so that she could get on a red-eye and arrive in Florida hours after I left – provided I stayed to Friday – which was my husband’s suggestion of a way to help me feel like both a good daughter and a good mother.
So we re-routed again. I stayed Thursday night – which felt good. Poured my dad a scotch and my mom vodka. Made dinner. Hugged them, listened and shared information I could find, when they asked. It seemed important to sit on the couch next to my dad and watch TV for an hour after my mom went to sleep – just to be close to him. My children are elated that I would be home on Friday and will see the play and all their various sports this weekend. And each of them shared prayers and love for their grandparents.
Frankly, I’m not sure if I made the right call. G-d, fate, luck or the powerful IV antibiotics she got yesterday made my mother’s fever break during the night – so I was able to make her breakfast and enjoy talking with her this morning after encouraging Dad to play golf. My sister and I are encouraging them to ask for help from their friends – visits, dinner, just going for a walk. As we navigate this journey of aggressive, recurrent bladder cancer, I’m sure that my sister and I will be sandwiched again and again. Our husbands and children will make arrangements and figure out how to cope when we do. It’s what our generation does. It's likely what generations have been doing throughout time. What do you do when you are sandwiched?