05/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Backwards Dinner

There was a significant evening 22 years ago when my oldest, David, was barely four, Ellie was two and a half, and Ben was a newborn: It was 5 p.m. -- that "witching hour " -- and they all melted down at once: hungry, tired, wet, spent , and wanting Mommy. I laid them on our bed like little baked potatoes.

"What do you want?" I begged the older two.

"Ice cream," they whimpered.

And so began The Backwards Dinner: Dessert first while I cooked with the newborn in the Snugli. There were many backwards dinners after that when 'dessert first' soothed them and bought me time.

Life was simpler then. The "newborn" graduates from college in May, and has saved enough to get his own apartment. He broke the news nearly apologetically, and I'm not sure whether he was surprised, pleased, or felt rejected when I said that's exactly what he should do at 22. And yet I think about aspects of living on his own without the advantage of the college cafeteria and campus safety's patrol.

Clearly, I can no longer smooth anyone's path (or my own) with ice cream.

I take myself back to another lifetime when I lived in Miami: Chalk's seaplanes flying tourists over Biscayne Bay or back from The Bahamas, landing with a bump and then a gentle splash on the soft blue water as they glide to a stop. Back then, I feared flying, yet the Chalk Airline pilot had such control of the plane and the water was not the typical landing strip so it calmed my fears. I focus on that.

We're called the "sandwich generation." I question exactly what we are between the bread. For sure, it's nothing as simple as American cheese, and hardly gourmet or exotic. It's something we grab from the fridge and wolf down just to quiet our appetites while we muddle through.

The weekly bundle of my parents' mail arrived yesterday from the care giver. Not just bills, but notices from shops and magazines addressed to my mother: "Hi, Anna! Where you've been? We miss you!" I tear them into pieces and toss them in the trash. Just recently, I placed a photo of the two of us on my desk next to a tiny bottle of Arpege (her scent) which I found in a drawer after our last move.

Sometimes I inhale the scent of my mother as I knew her. Her condition makes me question justice, and envy people who have more faith than I do in the strange ways of the Universe and a Greater Power. I recall my mother's words when her father was in a similar state: "If this ever happens to me, promise that you'll shoot me." She was always one for hyperbole. My father was a warrior - battling not only those he wrongly perceived as the enemy, but championing those he felt needed a savior. And then there were the windmills he fought so ferociously that Don Quixote pales in comparison. At nearly 90, he remains a warrior, yet the world passes him by at the speed of light with baffling "dot coms." He clings to his 1950 Encyclopedia Britannica and, oddly, asks for my assistance - with everything.

Each day spent caring for my parents is a day of reckoning. I am not unique. I know all too many people in this position. They echo my thoughts as they wearily whisper, "It's not that I want..." without finishing sentences. No, it's not that we want them gone. It's that we don't want them to be this way, that we wish we didn't have to deal with this. And in our middle age, as we feel time fleeting, they all but consume us.

Are we running out of patience or running on empty? Perhaps both and then some, given that this is uncharted territory. All the jargon is becoming trite: "reversal of roles," "baby boomer care givers," "sandwich generation." Do we know what we're doing? Uncertainty prevails. First-time motherhood was different: A natural course where instinct kicked in.

One of my dearest friends has a child with autism. High-functioning, she says all too wryly. A few years ago after my marriage derailed and then got back on track, she stopped speaking to me. My difficulties coincided with her child's coming into middle school, and his "management" became more challenging. He was "mainstreamed," yet not accepted by the typical children, less accepted by their parents who viewed him as either contagious or dangerous, and confounded too many ill-equipped teachers. My friend crumbled one day when his school called for the umpteenth time needing her intervention.

He needs to fly on his own, I said. You won't always be there to catch him. You need a life as well.
She was furious with me.

Back then, I didn't understand that she was his parachute.

We're friends again. Now I understand her rage in response to my oversimplification. My life was only derailed. Her life was altered, forever changed, on the day her son was diagnosed. She worries what will happen to him when she is gone. Her infinite patience and selflessness awes me. I can't fathom her courage as she lives with her fears. This epiphany comes as I care for my parents - a task that requires a deliberate repression of anger and patience as the phone rings incessantly with the same questions and stories repeated much like little children ask "why" - but I don't have that maternal power to answer "Because."

Unlike my friend, the parachute who keeps her son aloft, I am the life preserver keeping my parents afloat. But floating and flying are quite different as I recall Chalk's coming in for a landing at the end of the tour.

Questions for readers:

Do you have a friendship or relationship that needs resolution?

Are you a member of the "sandwich generation" and finding little time for yourself?