Sunday, June 13, 2010

Joining the Sandwich Generation

There's an extra place setting at our table, another pair of shoes by the door. One more cup in the sink, another towel draped over the bathroom rack. But for me, the most telling sign that my dad is staying with us is the light at the top of the stairs. From my room, it's barely visible, just a faint glow coming through the crack under the door. But when it catches my eye in the middle of the night it feels like the brightest, warmest light I've seen in a long time. It feels like home.

As far back as I can remember, my dad has always kept a light on at night. Usually, it was the light in his walk-in closet, gently beaming out from behind wooden slats. Just a little something to take the edge off total darkness, always visible from the crack under the door. I remember searching for it as a child, when bad dreams or thunderstorms chased me out of my own bedroom and into the safe zone that was my parents'. I remember avoiding it as a teenager, when I'd creep up the stairs after curfew (avoiding the super creaky step #8) hoping there wasn't anyone awake under that light, but knowing there probably was. Now it's mostly comforting but somehow a tiny bit sad.

While we couldn't be more thrilled to have him, the circumstances of my dad's visit aren't the best. A death in the family sent my mom overseas, so it seems somehow inappropriate to be too happy about our special guest. But you'd have a hard time explaining that to two tiny people who just know they've never in their little lives had the chance to spend so much uninterrupted, continuous time with their "Gido."

Under normal circumstances we see each other every few weeks, usually at family gatherings at our house or theirs, at church, or my least favorite venue: at a restaurant. The crowd is typically too large, the volume level too high, the food too slow to arrive, and by the time it does the 20-30 minute window of toddler patience has snapped shut and both kids begin melting into a thick mush of tantrum, crayons and buttered rolls. It's not exactly quality time.

Now Gido has been picked up and planted right in the middle of our daily routine, and as such he gets to experience so much more: the critical importance of starting the morning with both milk and muppets, the subtle but perceptible difference between a baby's first attempts at speech (buh-bee= puppy, but bih-bee= piggy) the randomly sweet, silly innocence of an almost 3-year-old boy ("Look at this, Gido! My arms are covered with SKIN!"). My heart swells as I watch him teach his grandson to make the letter "H," and see him pat down a little girl's tangled hair after her nap. And every night I'm reminded of how good it feels to see a light on at the top of the stairs.

Still, it's not easy to coordinate the movements of three generations under one roof. Between us, we span nearly 80 years. The little ones operate in only two modes: either constant motion or asleep. All day long, I race back and forth after them, trying not to trip over the giant mess of stuffed animals, household chores, and work responsibilities. My dad moves slowly and deliberately, constantly aware that he is not in his own home. When navigating through such a complex maze, it only seems logical to turn on a light at the top of the stairs.

I find myself worrying almost constantly about my parents these days, especially my dad. But in the hectic-ness that is life with two small children, I'm not always able (or let's be honest- willing) to give him the time and attention I know I should. It's all too easy to get caught in our own routines, to stay isolated in our little world. Now we're together under one roof and the worries are different. Am I doing enough to make him comfortable? Did I accidentally wipe his face with my napkin after dinner? Why do I find myself lying in bed after everyone is tucked in, unable to sleep myself? I feel a constant struggle between wanting to prove I'm an adult and can take care of him, and wanting to curl up in his lap and sleep for days. Blame it on the light at the top of the stairs.

It's been called the Sandwich Generation- a delicious sounding name for a not so tasty dilemma: those caught between caring for growing little ones and aging older ones. Personally, I'm finding this sandwich difficult to chew and somewhat hard to keep down.

In a few days my dad will return to his own home and our table will not feel the same. Our home will be marked by the absence of his shoes by the door, his cup in the sink, his towel on the rack. But I think I'll leave the light on at the top of the stairs because a life without it seems far too dark to imagine.

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