Sometime during the second four-hour round-trip to New York in so many days, while leaving behind my wife and children to care for my parents, I realized the accuracy of the term “sandwich generation.” Sharing duties with my two brothers, I was traveling to the city to visit my father in the hospital and bring my mother back to the apartment where I was raised. As a son, a husband and a father, I was positioned between two generations that needed my time and attention, unsure if my divided efforts were doing much good for either.
This situation is familiar to many baby boomers, especially those who married later in life like me and still have children in grade school. We are middle-aged ourselves, committed to careers that can take long hours and business travel, yet we seek to take seriously the commandment to honor dad and mom, even in their senior years.
It is easy for us sandwichers to feel sorry for ourselves, yet we should realize that we are blessed. Ours is not the sweet blessing of spiritual ecstasy, or even the more common feeling of accomplishment for a job well done, because our duties are far from finished. The fact is, we are often stretched by travel and exhausted by long hours spent in hospitals or nursing homes. Our patience is strained while listening to our parents repeat the same story over and over, or by repeating the same thing again and again to our own children, who aren’t listening because we haven’t had time to keep the lines of communication open. No, we are not blessed in the sense of a temporally better or more satisfying life. The blessing comes from knowing what we do not always feel — that God has placed us here, between our aging parents and our growing children, for a reason, for our good and theirs.
Perhaps by our double duty we are kept from the frivolous diversions of our culture; if left to a free weekend, we would likely waste time with television, the Internet or some self-indulgent distraction. Knowing that we are needed may boost our self-image and confidence, while realizing how little we can do to change the fact of aging keeps us humble. We may come to recognize the dignity of the human person in our father, who struggles to the bathroom on his own because he hates adult diapers, or learn the value of suffering from our mother, who still puts the comfort of others before her own. And when we come home to our own families, we long to see our spouse and our children; we appreciate the gift of their love and try to make up for the time away.
We are weighed down by the struggle and the work and the hope we pit against the stubborn fact of physical decline and death. But we are also saved from our natural presumption of good health. Watching our parents age and weaken keeps us close to our own mortality, and if we are wise, we stay mindful of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. I was privileged to be present when my dad received the sacrament of anointing and witnessed the real emotional, spiritual and even physical renewal that ensued. When I told my sons of this experience, they were sad that granddad almost died, but they were also drawn more deeply into the faith that reaches beyond the grave.
After a week in the hospital, my dad returned to the apartment to be with my mom, weak but happy to be home. On a recent Sunday, my brothers and I sat with them in the familiar living room, remembering old times and talking of the future in terms of our own children and grandchildren. Worries seemed to wash away with the laughter, yet the labors of the day remained. The sandwich generation may be stressed, but our efforts are worth it, especially if we understand that in serving two generations, we are doubly blessed.
BRIAN CAULFIELD is editor of the website Fathers for Good.