My mother is scheduled for surgery next month. Again. This time it will be a complete ankle fusion—last year they replaced her left knee in the spring and fused three of her vertebrae in the fall, while my father underwent two surgical procedures of his own. And I wish I could say last year was unique, but it wasn’t—in fact, so far I figure they’ve racked up something like 23 major surgeries between them. It’s beginning to feel endless from my perspective, I can’t imagine what it must feel like from theirs.
The kicker here is that both my parents are relatively young, with longevity programmed into their DNA, so it is not unrealistic to assume surgical interventions will continue to play a major role in their collective futures. Definitely not great news for them, and also not great news for their adult child who is (and always has been) largely responsible for their post-operative care: me.
My role as Post-Surgical Caregiver stems from the fact that I have lived the majority of my adult life within a few miles of my parents. It was a conscious decision, made when I was newly married, because I wanted my (then future) children to grow up around their grandparents—a luxury I never got to experience. But by default, that decision meant I would always be around, available to sit at the hospital, deliver meals, clean house, run errands, check on progress, offer encouragement, and shuttle to appointments.
So when I got wind of my mother’s latest operation, I groaned.
According to the Pew Research Center, one out of every eight Americans find themselves wedged between raising still-at-home kids and too-quickly-aging parents, hence The Sandwich Generation. And like everyone else who finds themselves lodged in this situation, I have a very full plate. Sure, I could go on and on about just how full that plate really is, but I will resist because your plate might be even fuller than mine and then you’d be tempted to discount my angst as unfounded, or else you’d feel as though I’m asking for pity, which I am not.
All I’m saying is that I don’t sit around the house twiddling my thumbs waiting for my parents to call and say they’ve scheduled another surgery so I can leap into Super Woman (aka caregiver) mode.
So yes, I groaned.
Partly because it seems like only yesterday that I finished up the last go-around, and partly because this procedure will result in a marathon—a full 12 weeks of recovery time. And that’s assuming no complications, for which my mother is renowned, so it could easily turn out to be much longer. Realistically, I could be looking at three full months of providing meals, cleaning house, watering flowers, supplying encouragement, weeding gardens, and driving to appointments.
Which makes me tired. Bone crushingly weary, in fact, since it means helping my parents manage their lives and home when it feels like I’m barely treading water at my own.
The first thing I do is call my older sister, who moved to town several years ago but somehow managed to avoid taking on the mantle of Primary Caregiver for herself—the clever girl. I ask if she’ll be in town for the surgery and pray the answer is yes. It’s no—she’ll be away for at least the first eight days, maybe more. My second call is to my younger brother who lives in a neighboring state. Any chance he might be able to visit and help out? No such luck.
While I fervently wish I could write about how I accepted my fate with dignity and aplomb, I regret to inform you that I did not. Instead, I fought the overwhelming urge to be nasty and petty—to say forget it to my family—you guys figure this sh** out, I’m flying to Tahiti! As if I could afford the ticket.
I wanted to be angry. Enraged, really, at:
FATE: for causing my parents to have all these physical ailments in the first place.
TIME: for there never being enough of it
MYSELF: for not being kinder/gentler/stronger/better
MY PARENTS: for living in a home that requires so much work to maintain when they’re out of comission
MY SIBLINGS: for not demanding I give up my role in order for them to take over
It’s ugly, feeling this way, and I hate being the kind of person who thinks of herself first--the inconvenience of laying out additional time, energy, and resources--instead of immediately responding with compassion and grace. So I suppose it's a very good thing I recently concluded life is like a muscle because clearly the Universe is letting me know my life-glutes could use some serious conditioning.
This is not who I want to be.
So I give myself a mental shake and decide to talk things over with my husband (famous for his wisdom and counsel) and the two of us discuss options for making this latest development work. His initial suggestion: what if my siblings and I divide up the 12 weeks into chunks, each of us being responsible for whatever my parent’s might need during that 4 week period?
I try to envision this working and feel exhausted. Besides, how would my brother handle his four weeks from a distance?
His second suggestion: what if my siblings and I divide the caregiver tasks into three main categories--driving, cooking, cleaning--and each of us takes responsibility for a single area?
This feels doable.
For my brother who lives far away, perhaps the cleaning because he can easily hire the service out for the duration? For my sister, who will be home about the same time as follow-up visits and physical therapy appointments commence, perhaps the driving? And for me, the cooking, along with the requisite vigil at the hospital and the obligatory visit on the day she’s released to make sure she’s settled.
Could it really be that simple?