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The 'Sandwich Generation'

08/11/2010 03:39 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A friend recently told me, "Welcome to the Sandwich Generation!" I laughed, but it didn't fully register. That is, not until the other day, when I was at a summer barbecue.

I was drinking a margarita, enjoying the fact that since both of my sons are now young adults, I can have a little fun. They were at the barbecue as well, having a beer, laughing with friends, in no way requiring my attention beyond making sure all car keys were collected for the night. We'd arrived separately and we would leave separately in the morning, and if I wanted to have a couple of cocktails and dance embarrassingly with my husband when the music got started, I could. I chuckled as I observed a younger couple constantly checking their cell phones, worried about their 10-year-old who was staying home alone for the first time. I remembered those years, those worrying, watching years, and I had no desire to revisit them.

However. A few minutes later I surreptitiously checked my own cell phone; my father was waiting for some test results, and I wanted to make sure I hadn't missed his call.

That's the moment I understood what my friend meant; I was truly part of the Sandwich Generation, stuck between my young adult children and my elderly parents. And that day turned out to be a fleeting interlude. A week later I was back in my hometown, checking my father into the hospital before ferrying my mother, who has macular degeneration, to an appointment with her eye surgeon. And the next day I was arranging for elder care transportation, after my father was told he can't drive due to a seizure diagnosis.

Two days later, I was back home, taking my son shopping for the endless stuff that college-aged kids need when they move into off campus housing. Arranging for the rental truck that will transport all this stuff. Immediately redialing the phone to check on grocery delivery services for my parents.

The practical details of being part of the Sandwich Generation are endless and I won't bore you with them; suffice it to say that I have to buy a new -- and larger -- day planner.

However, it's the emotional impact that has flattened me. And it goes beyond the usual "my parents won't be around forever" awakening or the "my nest is now empty" pity party. No, I find myself with an unexpected front row seat to both the beginning and the end of two different lives. My head, not to mention my heart, is swiveling, like at a furious tennis match, as I observe them both.

My son just bought his first grill, envisioning nights outside with his roommates cooking burgers and smoking cigars. He earnestly asked my husband for tips on how to get the charcoal to burn evenly.

My father was told by his doctor that he has to forget about grilling or doing anything near a hot fire.

My son went to the hardware store to pick out a few tools; he was adorably absorbed in testing stepladders, in case he needed to clean the gutters.

My father can't climb a ladder anymore. The doctor also put a stop to the use of power tools or anything with a sharp blade.

Watching my son launch himself into the first stage of adult life where everything is new, everything is exciting (even stepladders), I can't help but catch his youthful enthusiasm. I remember that time so well; I remember when every chore was tinged with a new awareness of how adult I was, how important, how independent. I was so proud the first time I successfully broiled a pork chop, I had to phone a friend. The first time I scrubbed my very own bathroom, I assembled an arsenal of cleaning tools and rubber gloves better fit for a Silkwood shower than an apartment bathtub. And I put them away in my very own linen closet that held all of two towels -- but those towels had been chosen with great care from the local KMart, and purchased with my very first credit card.

All this seems like it happened just yesterday, and it's tempting to think that it did. I watch my son with a mixture of nostalgia and envy -- wishing, just a little, that I had everything in my life to look forward to again. I wouldn't give up anything I've learned since then, but I also wouldn't mind thinking that cleaning a toilet was the neatest thing ever.

Yet I do have everything to look forward to, compared to my parents. And if it really was just yesterday that I was making my first car payment, then it must be tomorrow when I will be putting away the keys for good. Watching my parents struggle against being launched into the last stage of adult life, I can't help but catch their sadness.

Even though the doctors have expressed confidence this is just a temporary situation, my father's voice broke the other day. We were in the garage putting away the extra groceries bought, in anticipation of my leaving. "I've been independent all my life," he said, so softly I almost didn't hear it. He stopped to brush his hand against the door of his car, as if to brush away dirt. But I knew better. He was touching his life; he was testing it, to make sure it was still there. He was thinking ahead to his tomorrow, to the day when there is no longer a car in his garage -- no longer a garage, indeed -- no gutters to clean, no bed to make, no dinner to prepare. He can't help but think ahead and now, neither can I. When will I have to put my father into a nursing home?

When will I need my son to drive me around?

I'm stuck between these two generations: the one starting out, the other winding down. And because I don't want to look forward to tomorrow, I can't allow myself to look back at yesterday.

So I'll hang on to today, as best I can. It's the only thing anyone can really do.

It's just harder for us in the Sandwich Generation.