As I left my parent's independent living facility the other day I felt deflated, sad and overwhelmed. Dementia was incrementally hollowing my father out from the inside. Tall, slim and in overall good physical health, the disease was methodically robbing him of his words and memories, his life. My mother, ever his dutiful caregiver, has bent with the weight of this job. Her own fragile emotional health is a grave concern for my sisters and me.
Our lives as daughters were now tilted like a teeter-totter. While for years they had unconditionally loved, sheltered and fed us, homework helped and morally guided, now it was the three of us parenting them. Thank God for my sisters, I thought as I pulled out of the old folks home parking lot, glad to leave the institutional smells and gray carpeted halls behind.
I'd driven the roundtrip from New York to Boston in one day to be back for my kids. There was a third grade school function the next morning and a work commitment.
They call us the sandwich generation and like so many, I am pressed in the white-hot heat between parenting four children and care giving my aging parents. Sandwich? Phooey. I say we are the Panini generation.
I often recall something a friend once said when her aging mother was living with her; she would walk through the door after work and she didn't know who to go to first -- her mother, her child or her husband. Nowhere in that equation was the caregiver herself. She didn't even make the list.
Many of us women today are conducting a high wire balancing act. Those of us who work outside of the home have extra levels, different kinds of pressures. And there is little room for implosion, no margin for error.
Three years ago when my husband was injured in Iraq, my life was already chock full. I ran my own PR and freelance writing business out of the home. I had four kids and a husband who was constantly on the road with his job at ABC News.
My parents, who had carefully crafted their retirement and golden years to "not be a burden" had just moved from their home in La Jolla California to the facility outside of Boston. I was preparing to help with their transition, to head over to Boston and visit, when my husband was critically injured covering the war.
For the next year, as I focused on caring for my family, my parents weren't even in the equation. There was so much to shore up at home. I felt like a mother Robin breaking the worm into five pieces in the nest. My sisters filled the void with my folks repeatedly and came to care for me too when I felt capsized by responsibility. But I felt horribly guilty for failing my own parents in their hour of need. The greatest gift they gave me during that period of time was to NOT come to visit. My mother understood that they would be one more thing for me to care for.
In my new book, Perfectly Imperfect I wrote a chapter in honor of my father. I explored what so many now experience in our Panini generation, mothering young children while simultaneously caring for our parents as they slowly decline and abdicate responsibility. When I shared the manuscript with my family, I removed this chapter before giving it to my mother. I wasn't ready for her to read just how painful it was to witness their journey. I wanted to wall her off from my own feelings of sadness. She was living it every day.
Dignity is such a hallmark of my parent's generation and a disease of the mind is such an undignified way to go.
The Dad who used to run a company now plays ping-pong for a large part of the day with the rapidity and skill of Forrest Gump. He knows that I know and I know that he knows I know that this life sucks. But we don't often use plain speak. I want to reach in through my father's sound body and grab his mind to shake it. I want to tell his brain to stop making him disappear. Stop erasing him, I silently plead.
Dementia to me now is like Botox, bad plastic surgery or men who wax their eyebrows -- all of a sudden I see it everywhere, in so many other families now that I am looking. Or perhaps it is because I am simply of that age.
My twins were born when I was 40, making me one of the oldest living mothers in my elementary school. Their needs are still often physical, my teens require me emotionally, and there is a husband in the equation too. Being with my parents is often taxing, sorrowful. I feel squeezed like a tube of toothpaste. I am scared for my own genetic future.
Mother's Day is on the horizon. I'd like to propose a toast to those of us in the Panini generation. Those of us still enduring Saturday morning cartoons while scheduling the drive to their own parents doctor's appointments.
Seek out those care givers in your life and do something to honor them. Yes, you can give the Hallmark card or the flowers, but go a little further. Look them in the eyes and tell them how much you appreciate and understand what it is they do on daily basis. Maybe it's your mother, your wife, your husband or father, a nurse or neighbor. Watching my own mother, my sisters, the wives and parents of the soldiers who have returned injured from Iraq, you understand that care giving is the ultimate sacrifice, the definition of unconditional love. Even if on a good day it flattens our insides like a ham and cheese Panini.
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