I’m part of the sandwich generation, which is far less tasty than it sounds. Rather than indicating that we solely subsist on anything that fits within two slices of bread, hopefully gluten-free in my case, it means that as we aged into becoming caregivers of our children, our parents simultaneously aged into needing various stages of elder care, often requiring us to fill both roles at the same time and literally becoming sandwiched between two roles requiring us to care for others. If you’re like me, you may not even see it coming until you are firmly in the middle of it.
Fortunately for me, Mama started taking better care of herself after my father passed. Though she’s always been independent, I know she wasn’t prepared to be alone. She and Daddy were together for 34 years and would have been together at least 34 more if they had a choice. Losing Daddy was as devastating as you might expect for both of us, and more.
My mom struggled, more than I first realized, and the first few years were filled with overwhelming sadness for both of us. I stayed strong for my mother and told myself I wouldn’t let her see how absolutely wrecked I was because if I started crying, she’d start crying and we’d all start crying… You know how it goes.
It didn’t register to me that at that moment I had been thrust into the role of caregiver to my mother. She still had all her faculties and was fully capable of living on her own. I didn’t consider my role as anything other than a cheerleader.
When Miss O was born, it was so much easier to see myself as a caregiver, albeit a fledgling one. The definition is more clearly drawn for the role of parent and the expectations are more accessible. Miss O brought such joy to our family, the sadness ebbed and slipped into the background.
After a few years on her own, something clicked for my mother that made her realize she needed to take better care of herself. It may have been my pregnancy, a lecture from her doctor, or maybe the fog of mourning finally cleared a bit and she could see a different future. Whatever it was, she started walking every day and eating better. She got a trainer at a local gym and started lifting light weights and exercising. I was proud of her and also grateful. My mom was still a young 60, with her mind still sharp and her body able to move. Sure, there were some aches and pains, but mine started at 30, so I assure you it’s par for the course.
As sometimes happens, my mom needed surgery and couldn’t drive herself. It wasn’t the first time I’d chauffeured Mama somewhere, but I hadn’t been in a hospital since I delivered Miss O and I hadn’t seen a parent in a hospital since Daddy passed. It was a hard morning for me. It was harder for my mother. Thanks to an extremely talented surgical team and the most gracious nursing staff, everything went well. What struck me most was how many people complimented my mom on her health.
Beyond the flattering, “you look great for your age,” these people were genuinely impressed with the shape she’s in. They kept assuring us Mama’s good health would help with the process. The anesthesiologist team was thrilled she had all her own teeth and her throat looked good. The surgical nurses were happy with her blood pressure and hydration. Apparently, her kidneys are still doing their job, too, which you would’ve thought was a mystical feat worthy of only the most skilled sorcerers. They rechecked everything, I said good luck to my mom and they wheeled her back, leaving me to go back out to the waiting area.
As the morning progressed, more pairs arrived, one patient and one driver in each. Most were older couples, but there were a few pairs that looked like parents and children. As the day wore on, it was surprising to see who was the patient and who was the driver in each pair. When I was led back to recovery, it became apparent that out of ten pairs, I was the only child in the caregiver role that day. Most pairs, it appeared were husbands and wives. There were a couple of mothers caring for their younger children, who caught my heart at having surgery so young. I was the only adult child caring for my parent and it suddenly felt so very strange.
When I was finally called back to recovery, it was hard to control my face as I rounded the corner and saw Mama in her hospital gown, staring blankly ahead still under the fog of anesthesia. It was hard not to recall the last time I saw my dad, in a similar bed with a very different outcome. I took a deep breath, put on a smile and steeled myself hoping it wouldn’t show so I wouldn’t upset her. Thankfully, Mama was still high as a kite, though awake and alert, which gave me relief. It was then that I realized how tightly wound I had been with worry over the surgery and everything else that goes along with realizing you are now your parent’s caregiver.
The nurse was plying Mama with popsicle, to help sooth her throat after the removal of the breathing tube. Mama was struggling to eat them faster than they were melting, so I asked the nurse for a cup and a spoon. I put the popsicle into the cup, broke it into tiny chunks, and fed it to Mama with the spoon. I’m not sure either of us was entirely ready for that moment, but it did the trick.
I was reminded me of the time Daddy fed me pudding after I had all four of my impacted wisdom teeth removed at the same time. I was a sophomore in college, with tears streaming down my face, scared and embarrassed, but needing to take my medication. I was grateful Mama wasn’t crying or refusing my help. I suppose having Miss O helped prepare me for that moment. It wasn’t a struggle, it was rather automatic. Mama couldn’t hold it on her own and we needed a solution.
The next three hours passed with Mama growing steadier, me fussing when fussing was necessary, and her growing ever more antsy to leave. When 4 PM came, the doctor came for one final check and sent us home. I fixed up some soup for my mom and we watched a movie.
I realized then that I hadn’t really been alone with Mama in years. My attention is usually divided when we visit, with my main focus on Miss O. Somewhere between the waiting room and the soup, it dawned on me that I’ve been caring for her ever since I put my arms around her and told her we’d get through this. It isn’t something we aged into and I’d never really given much thought to what Mama’s older years would look like. I still don’t know what it will look like when Mama does eventually need help, but I do know I can handle it.