This past February, my 78-year-old mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. We got the diagnosis about a month after my father broke his foot and was rendered immobile. In the blink of an eye, I went from having two independent, career-driven parents to being completely responsible for their care.
When I went to see my doctor for my annual physical, something I hadn’t done in six years, she asked me how I was.
“Tired,” I replied.
“Welcome to the sandwich generation,” she said with a laugh.
It’s so hard to wrap my head around it; that I could be old enough to be responsible for my children and my parents. Just yesterday my two kids, now 11 and 13, were toddlers and my parents were driving them around and babysitting on a weekly basis. Granted, my kids no longer need a babysitter, but now I’m juggling hospital appointments and gymnastics lessons. I never expected it to happen so fast.
Truthfully, I had zero preparation. In December, my 82-year-old father sprained his ankle when he slipped in an icy parking lot. He was meant to make the seven-hour drive from Montreal, Quebec, to Kitchener, Ontario, the next day.
“I don’t think it’s such a good idea,” I said.
“I’ll be fine,” he replied. And he was the father and I was the daughter so the next day he got in the car and he and my mother drove to Kitchener.
A week later, I got a phone call. It wasn’t a sprain, but a break. So my parents were stuck, seven hours from home, with their car and no way back. My mother had spent more than 60 years avoiding driving; there’s no way she was getting on the highway now. If I had to pinpoint it, I’d say that was the moment the scales tilted. The weight was heavy. It was my responsibility to get them home.
Her cancer diagnosis came six weeks later. Since my father was incapable of taking care of my mother during those first couple of months, I became her main support system ― her advocate, her chauffeur, her note-taker, her grocery-shopper, and, perhaps most importantly, her chemo buddy.
Gone were my larger-than-life figures, the couple who have been married for 61 years and built their own business from the ground up . Now I had two elderly loved ones who needed me to take care of them, before I’d had the chance to finish raising my own children. It was a devastating blow that brought my own mortality into stark relief — along with that of my parents.
“Just yesterday my two kids, now 11 and 13, were toddlers and my parents were driving them around and babysitting on a weekly basis... now I juggle my time between hospital appointments and gymnastics lessons.”
I am not a strong person. It is my natural tendency to break down and cry, and then have a panic attack. But there simply wasn’t time for that. There was no one but me to step into the caretaker role. I have one brother who lives locally, but he doesn’t drive. My other two siblings live in the States. I’m grateful that I can be there for my mom and that my career affords me that kind of flexibility. I cherish every moment I get to spend with her and, what’s more, though I thought this new role would be difficult for me, I’ve learned that I am actually really good at it.
It sounds odd to say, but I also find the role fulfilling. It satisfies a desire I have to be needed and useful. It allows me to feel that I’m repaying my mother in some small way for all the years of work she put into me. I know a lot about ovarian cancer, but I’ve tucked that all away and I focus on her because it’s horrifying to face the idea of her mortality.
But amongst many other things, my mother is teaching me to be a realist. Death is inevitable for all of us, and what’s important is a life well lived. Having joined the sandwich generation, I can see now that we’re all meant to get here one day. My parents took care of their parents, and now I’m taking care of them. One day, my children will take care of me. It’s all part of the circle, and there’s beauty in that.
Of course, this has all taken its toll in our home. My husband has been supportive, and I have a friend who constantly comes over with food and flowers. But I must be careful: I’ve burned out twice before and I’m cognizant of the signs. I take Cipralex daily, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t go a long way towards helping me out. But aside from this, I’ve relied on three things to keep me sane.
Humor. Always an essential element in our family. We’re a bunch of weirdos and misfits ― a magician, a graphologist, a writer, a musician, an artist, an animal activist ― and humor is the only thing that’s gotten us through this life. It’s not unusual for me or one of my siblings to answer the phone and hear nothing but my mother laughing on the other end, eager to share her joke but unable to catch her breath. Finding the humor in cancer was hard, so we started with the little things, like our list of cancer perks: free lunch on chemo days, discounted parking at the hospital, and daily phone calls.
Rest. I’m not one of those people who brags about how little sleep they need. I brag about how much sleep I get. I recently bumped into an old boyfriend who told me he biked 60 km a day. I told him, “I’ll be impressed when you tell me you had a three-hour nap.” I got this from my mother and whenever I find myself calling to my kids from bed, I’m reminded of “the beckoning” from my own childhood. But when you’re taking care of two generations of people, sleep is no joke. It’s a necessity. And it’s more than just sleep; it’s knowing when to step away for a moment and take a break. Respite.
The abandonment of all expectations. I never kept a neat house or had dinner on the table seven nights a week. I cook quite a bit, and I do try to tidy up, but these are not my priorities. (See above, re: napping.) However, when I took on this new role, I had to drop all other expectations, and that was hard ― mainly because this affects my husband and kids the most. My schedule flew out the window – I write when inspired and sleep when tired. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to make things perfect for them. When dinner doesn’t get made, the kids know to fend for themselves. They also get themselves to and from school and are in charge of their own homework. On the bright side, I’ve discovered that deadbeat parenting is a great way to get your kids to pick up the slack.
Most important for me, no matter how rough it gets, is to keep everything in perspective. We all have a very short time on this earth. Some of us leave a huge legacy; others lead very quiet lives. But what we have in common is that our lives are entwined, and most of the joy we experience in this world is derived from those connections.
Julie Matlin is a freelance writer based in Montreal, Quebec. She’s raising three children, ages 11, 13 and 46, and one adorable Bernese/Poodle mix named Zoe. (Fine, the 46-year-old might be her husband.) Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, Today’s Parent, and This Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @jmatlin, on Instagram at @j.matlin, and visit her website at www.juliematlin.com.