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On Becoming a Member of the "Sandwich Generation"

By Dawn Dankner-Rosen


The heart monitor was screaming as people in green scrubs ran behind the curtain. I leaned over to see what was happening behind the white fabric that separated my father from me, and what I saw was like a scene from a movie. The shadow of a man lying on a bed surrounded by people intent on saving his life with their movements on his chest. There were a lot of mutterings and grunts, and then, the exclamation that seemed to echo: “We lost him.” A few minutes later, a doctor came out from behind the curtain. “His heart stopped, but we got it going again,” he said to my mother and me. “However, his blood pressure is frighteningly low. I think you need to call your family right away.


My mother started to sob, grabbed my hand and gripped it tightly. I squeezed her hand in return and then felt my own hand shaking. I felt panicked and nauseous, and ran quickly to the nearest rest room to vomit uncontrollably. I realized then that my life would change forever. I was petrified and felt like I was watching myself from a dark corner.


My father died at the age of 69 -- only three hours past the time of this scene. It was 4:20am, October 17th, on the morning of my twentieth wedding anniversary. “It will be fine,” I heard myself say to my mother in a surprisingly calm, steady voice.


What followed were a series of almost mechanical movements. Purchasing a cemetery plot, arranging a funeral, delegating the phoning of countless friends and relatives to my dear friend Sheryl, writing a eulogy, calling a caterer to coordinate a three-day Shiva…This all seemed so comfortingly occupational, and was a flow that helped me feel confident, calm, and professional.


But, I still hadn’t cried for my father -- even after telling the news to my four kids and giving several pep talks to my mother. Even while comforting my younger sister, who became hysterical when she saw my father’s casket down in the ground at the cemetery -- I still couldn’t cry. I felt so incredibly composed and in control of myself -- as I believed I should be in the new role I was assuming.


Two days later, my oldest son, Alex, was sitting alone in his room getting ready to return to college that evening. His face looked so hurt and pained. It was only then that my tears began to flow. My son listened as I poured out stories of an often confusing childhood and a barrage of mixed emotions about my father. My son put his arms around me and comforted his sobbing mother, and I realized then how it all works. “I’m so glad you’re here,” I said to him as I continued to cry into his shoulder. It all felt so comfortable and natural. This moment became a marker for me as our mother-son relationship took a new and wondrous turn.


Once my emotional faucet was turned on, it seemed impossible to turn it off. My husband and children became my life source. I found myself reminiscing for hours about my childhood with my husband each evening, and each afternoon wandering into the bedrooms of my sons, Ethan and Lucas, to feel their comfort. The range of feelings seemed manic and unending.

It seemed so unlikely and unfair that I should be joining the so-called “sandwich generation” that I had heard hyped so much in the media lately. I never dreamed that I would be eligible to join this new marketing group of baby boomers who care for their parents and for their own children at the same time. I felt way too young. Afterall, I am really at the very tail-end of the baby boomer category, having been born in 1962. And, I have a four year old daughter and am still a member of the preschool parent crowd. How then could I possibly fit into this unappealing group of middle-aged people? How could I be old enough to have a parent that is “elderly” enough to die and leave a spouse completely lost and alone?


But, oddly enough (and quite a surprise to me) it seemed like I was a natural fit for this sandwich generation. My biggest priority became learning to juggle and integrate my mother’s world into the one that I had already created with my husband and children. I felt so overwhelmed at first, as if I no longer had the time to parent my children the way I had before my father’s death. I found myself turning the TV on for my daughter way too often (and much more than I had ever allowed for any of my four children) while I spent more time than I have in decades on the phone consoling my mother, helping her move to a new apartment, find a new job, and start a new life.


It was finally one day after the zillionth Noggin episode of “Wow, Wow, Wubzy” and “Wonder Pets,” that I decided to stand up, turn off the TV and get off the emotional roller coaster that I seemed to be riding on way too complacently. I finally understood what had happened and why. My father’s death – so sudden, so sad, and way too soon in his life and ours – was a wakeup call for the rest of us. I realized then that I wanted to really appreciate all that I had and everyone who I cherished in my lifetime.


I played back in my mind those sad days following my father’s death, especially the day of his funeral. I began to “re-select” the scenes to flash back on. I saw all my friends and family who rushed to support me at his funeral and replayed the days that followed when such devoted, loving friends and family gave their time and their love to me so generously. I can see now that my friends are also my family, that my family are also friends, and that my husband’s parents and family are truly my own.


I said “I love you” to my husband a few weeks ago and knew that I meant it and that he really is the “one.” It felt so liberating and wonderful to be able to say this to him so easily, freely, and now, quite often. I also asked him to “remarry” me on June 28th (the day we first met our daughter in China) so that we can forever change our anniversary date. I want the anniversary of our marriage to be a special and joyous celebration for us, not one to be shared with the day my father died. I can’t wait to buy my wedding gown and walk down the aisle with him once again.


I make sure now to tell each of my children how much I love them – everyday. And, I am no longer putting off certain conversations or activities with them until the “next day.” There’s no need to wait. What could be more important?


And, I am shamelessly – without any inhibitions -- reveling in the mother-daughter relationship I have craved with a daughter my whole life. I find myself remembering how it was yet another tragic event -- the death of my grandmother – that paved the road for my journey to China four years ago. I found my destiny then with my precious daughter, Annie (named after my grandmother who inspired me to dream and encouraged me to do). I bought Annie a big princess bed a few weeks ago, partly for me, so that I can lie with her under the covers, snuggle, and have “girl talk.” Every morning now, we take pains to choose her outfit together, pick out the right jewelry and style her hair. More than anything, I am hoping to have a mother-daughter relationship that can be solid and special, one that is cemented now and that will endure.


A “thread” that had been hanging way too long has been my best friend from high school. She was the bridesmaid at my wedding and had been there for me through every broken heart, failed exam and for all the happy stuff too. We had a silly argument 18 years ago and hadn’t spoken since. It was finally time to make the call… and it was incredible when I did just a week ago. We spoke as if the days and years never passed. I told her that I’ll never let our friendship go now that we finally have it back.


My mother and I have had a strained and struggling relationship all my life and somehow this new interaction and the changed dynamics works for us. I see her through different eyes now and can tolerate the mistakes of the past and leave them back in time where they belong. I am finally able to appreciate the so, so many good things that I’ve learned from her and the love that I felt from her and my father – a love that had been there all along.


When I first heard the term “sandwich generation,” I envisioned a helpless, harried individual squished between two slices of bread (your surviving parent and your kids). I now feel like I can have what I’ve always wished for -- if I just keep my eyes open wide enough to appreciate all who surround me… I am now truly and happily a member of the “coveted” sandwich generation… not merely wedged between two slices of bread, but surrounded by a soft and warm, cozy, fragrant covering of people who I care so much for and who care so much for me.

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