Saturday, November 06, 2010

Sandwich Generation

I got the e-mail Wednesday morning, just after I had taken Oldest Daughter to school: My father was in the hospital after suffering chest pains.

The diagnosis came swiftly, and treatment even more swiftly. My dad's heart was schematic, meaning it wasn't getting enough oxygen. His arteries were obstructed, and some form of angioplasty would be needed to correct the difficulty. My dad elected to get stents, and the procedure, which took place Friday afternoon, was done in half the time that had been expected, with no complications.

"You realize," my mother told me tonight, some twelve hours after my father's discharge from the hospital, "this is just the beginning."

Alas, I do realize it. I am in the sandwich generation. My brothers and I have arrived at that age where our own identities have been subsumed into our children's. I am "Evangeline's Dad," not David; my sister-in-law is "Morgan's mom," not Tammy. Our own dreams, goals, and wants increasingly are subordinated to what our children need. Sure, I could use a new pair of shoes, but if Rachel needs a pair too, I know who's going to wear old shoes a little while longer. Herb might have plans for the weekend, but they take a back seat immediately to his son's schedule and activities.

And now, while we bear the onus of raising our children so that they are multilingial, socially well-adjusted, academically gifted and physically fit boys and girls ready for the challenges of the emerging global economy in the 21st century, we are becoming more aware of the needs of our own parents.

This is what it's like to be a part of the sandwich generation, supporting our children on the one hand and our parents on the other. The one was our lot from the moment they were born; the second, from the moment we were born. In both cases, it feels rather like the load was dropped into our laps without much time to prepare.

My folks have always been good parents. We've had our moments of difference, and our points of dissonance, but I suppose the truth is that, like every other person who has walked the earth before me, I've always held my parents in some measure of regard and even awe. The moments of my greatest frustration with them have been when they remind me of how prone they are to the same human weaknesses that bedevil me, those daily niggling reminders that for all their vaunted authority and wisdom in the years of my childhood, they are made of the same sullied flesh as I, and if they inspire me to believe that I can rise to the same heights that they have, still they perplex and confound me by falling to the same depths that I do.

And worst of all, like me, they are mortal.

It's been my privilege to walk the same earth as my mother and my father for 40 years so far, and by God's grace, I hope to walk it with them for many more. But they are not as young as they once were, and they are reaching an age where even eating right, getting good exercise and having enough sleep will not be sufficient to ward off the progress of time and the slow humiliation of the flesh.

We're all getting older. I looked at my brothers today, and saw less hair and more of it gray than was once there. The lines are clearer on our faces than they once were, and while we're all feeling the pull on our lives from our children, we also all felt the first pull from our parents. We're in the middle of the sandwich.

God grant us grace in the years to come.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Road trip

The road from Nova Bastille to Saunders Station is a long one -- too long, if I am honest.

It's a six-hour drive, begun in darkness and continued straight into the darkness, interrupted only by the light of oncoming cars in the other lanes of traffic, and even if you are well rested, the journey is rewarded only at the destination. Behind you is the better part of yourself; ahead of you are aging parents and a hospital; and with you is the knowledge that while things are good, they are not as good as they were and probably are better than they will be. The journey is boredom and frustration, but it is inescapable. Once you have begun it, you cannot stop. It must be completed.

Enter Rachel, an 8-year-old girl on whom the sun rises and sets every day, even when she's in a bad mood and doesn't know what the sun is doing. Get her in the back seat, load yourself in the front seat, and you don't even notice as the miles melt away beneath the rolling wheels of the car.

Rachel and I set sail from Nova Bastille for Saunders Station on Friday evening. Night had fallen and the road was dark ahead, but she was bright and cheerful, and as I drove, she chattered away in the back seat of the car, about I don't know what and probably neither does she.

Sometimes we talked, and sometimes we sang, but mostly she just talked, and I luxuriated in the sound of her life. For a while, zombie trucks chased us and threatened us in the sanctuary of our car, but she used her super powers, and kept them at bay. When it was later, and her sister stirred back home in Nova Bastille, we joined our voices in song, and calmly lullabied her back into a restful sleep.

Many times Rachel estimated how long we had been traveling (15 minutes) and how much further we had to go (we're halfway!), and almost always she was wide of the mark. But when we stopped midway to buy gas and get some caffeine, we saw the clock. Time had stolen hours away from us on the road,

"Ten o'clock!" I wondered. "That's when the monsters come out."

We ran around the car two or three times as we rushed to escape, then climbed in and drove off. The monsters safely evaded, Rachel declared she was going to sleep, and asked me to sing her some lullabies just as we had done to her absent sister.

I sang the miles away on my own then, more slowly and more gently than before. All the while my greatest treasure drifted away on the back seat of the car. I sang about why the stars shine, and why ivy twines; I sang the ancient riddles, of how there can be a cherry without a stone, or how a story can have no end; and I sang gentle songs about where the flowers had gone, and what we must do for them to return; and soon I was alone on a long ribbon of darkness, wrapped in the love of the girl in the back seat.

I drove on into the night, and love became a hymn that I sang to heaven, and the hymn became a prayer that I poured out before those watchful eyes, for the treasure in the back seat, and for the other greatest parts of me left behind, and for those other parts on the road ahead of me. I sang, I prayed, and the miles melted away until we were at the other home, and Rachel completed her journey to bed.

I asked her today if she was enjoying the chance to see her grandparents and her uncles, and she allowed that she was. And then I asked her what she was enjoying the most.

"My favorite part," she said, "is getting to be with my daddy all by myself."

The miles between Saunders Station and home are long, but oh, I am afraid they are not long enough.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.