Personal Essay

The Sandwich No One Wants

Being part of the Sandwich Generation means lots of goodbyes

Mindi Boston
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An elderly woman reaches out to a sleepy baby.
Photo by Paolo Bendandi on Unsplash

Trips home always remind me of the difficulty of being part of the so-called sandwich generation.

Four days on the road, 1500 miles traveled, endless self-realizations. Each time I make this trip, I see the journey for what it is, an extended goodbye to yesterday. I feel torn in all directions–grown children, aging parents, and a body not able to stretch as far or as long as it once did. Being caught in the middle is hell.

I took my bi-annual trip “home” last week, though even calling it home feels weird. I love where I live now and the life I’ve built with my husband in a new town and state. I also love the people I left behind in the place I grew up but don’t quite fit any longer. In my daily life, a thousand miles away, I miss the touchstones of home. I miss visiting the park where I pushed my young children in swings or the school where I ducked out to skip classes with some boy of forgotten name and origin. I miss the faces I’ve known for a lifetime and the easy way their company feels like a favorite sweatshirt, comfortable and familiar. And yet, going home is always a strange mix of bittersweet memories and painful reminders that what I miss most no longer exists.

I don’t mean to sound maudlin. I see the beauty in my travels as well. I am grateful to hug the necks of those I love most. I can revisit the best parts of childhood in conversations filled with laughter and ancient anecdotes that only a few of us still remember. I show my love in tiny tasks like changing a light bulb for my mother, buying a meal for my grown-up children, and carving out lunch dates with childhood friends. The privilege of having these opportunities is not lost on me, but I also feel the pinch of being sandwiched between my parents and kids, the past and present, and two versions of home.

“I’ve been making this trip for over forty years,” I tell my husband as hour ten in the car begins, my back cramping from the many potholes and bumps along the highway. I tell him stories about dragging a sleeping baby through Graceland, not knowing strollers weren’t allowed. I watch the big-armed crop irrigators stretching across fields of corn and grain and remember marking them on a worn car bingo card. I watch for the rest-stop picnic table shaped like an oil derrick where I once ate Grandma’s cookies and egg-salad sandwiches, lovingly packed for overnight trips when the family restaurants would be closed. I can pinpoint where the best eateries used to be, where towns sprung up from one-horse stops and once bustling cities that fell to the ghosts that live there now. Some of those ghosts belong to me.

I spent most of my early summers and holidays following this same route. Each Christmas or Summer Break, my parents would load the car for the day-long trip to celebrate with family up north. Many of those trips were before fast-food chains and gas stations stayed open 24 hours. We packed lunches, tracked our gas mileage, and stopped at picnic areas in scattered rest stops along the Mighty Mississippi. In later years, I made the trip in a mini-van with a family of four, sometimes six. We caravanned in groups through snowstorms and hot July days.

This spring, I am alone, save for my husband’s voice over a Bluetooth speaker from our living room hours away. My newer model car barely requires any stops for fuel, but I can grab food from a big chain gas station that houses sub shops and hamburger joints inside, open all night for weary travelers to come inside. I’m never alone on the road with the big rigs to my right and the camper vans to my left. The busy world has drastically changed, and yet part of me laments the good old days that come with age-induced hindsight.

Progress is a ghost maker, along with the passage of time. Many landmarks have changed or disappeared. I have forgotten several others, their memories pushed aside to make room for things like instructions on my newfangled air fryer. I am no spring chicken either, trucking on the downhill slope of middle age. I often question how many more years I’ll be physically able to make this trip, considering my health and that of my parents. Will I even need to make it in the years ahead–five, ten, fifteen?

When I arrive, I walk into my mother’s open arms. Though the place she lives is foreign to me, chosen long after I left home, she feels the same. The lingering scent of Avon perfume and fabric softener smells like childhood. Her hugs feel like the safe, warm spaces of home I remember. But she isn’t the sanctuary she once was. For years she’s been readying me to accept the torch of matriarchy and the process of passing it on is nearly complete. I am here to visit her, to check on her, to make her life easier with my tiny ministrations of home improvement tasks and to-dos she wants to-done.

“Take anything you want,” she offers as I replace the feet on her dining room chairs. She gestures toward a shelf of keepsakes, the same one she pointed me to last trip and the one before that. “Might as well take anything you want now and let me see you enjoy it while I’m still able.”

I smile and shake my head. “Oh, mom.” Her wedding china already lives in my dining room at home, displayed in the cabinet handed down from her mother to her and her to me. Tchotchkes and heirloom quilts pepper my parlor and guest rooms, souvenirs from other trips where my mother insisted I go ahead and take something now rather than waiting for inheritance. “I’m good, Mom,” I promise, knowing as her only child that I will one day have my pick of trinkets to remember her by. I don’t want to think about it now, even though I know it is inevitable. I can’t imagine a world where my mother, the last vestige of my true home, ceases to exist.

A lamp that once stood on my grandmother’s dresser stares at me from atop a bookshelf, proof that we are powerless to stop the cycle of death. I wonder aloud what happens when I die–when the next generation sees no value in material remnants of lives lived and lost. My mother looks crestfallen at my observation. Her lower lip quivers and I am ashamed.

“I’ll take that lamp,” I relent before adding, “Just not today, okay?” My voice is soft but she hears my meaning. This is already hard and it is only day one.

I head to the guest room and climb into a twin bed, staring out into the night. How many years did I spend waiting to leave her home only to regret rushing? I hear a soft snore issue from next door and it is a lullaby, sending me off to sleep with a grateful respite from my aching bones and tender thoughts.

The next morning, I rise before dawn to drive three more hours to visit my oldest child, in his thirties. He is up when I arrive. We make the hospital before six a.m. In his gown and rubber-soled socks, I watch him settling in for the forced nap of anesthesia. I wonder if he knows I see through the grown-man bravado to the same scared child who lay in a similar bed after a fall at the skating rink in elementary school. The same child who came to me in tears over a scraped knee or a shunned friendship. The same child that left me behind with his childhood playthings when college called and adulthood beckoned with the promise of dreams come true.

“Thanks for coming, Ma,” he mutters, eyes fluttering shut.

I smile and pat his arm, but inside I’m dying. I suspect he never needed me here at all. I’m not sure any longer where I fit in this grand life he’s made for himself. We both know I came for the surgery because I needed to be near, to be useful, to still be relevant in his world. I wonder for the hundredth time if this is how my mother feels when I insist on ordering out instead of letting her cook for me. Does she know my reluctance to add to her chores is well-intended but I failed to consider her need to exercise her muscles as a mom? It is a bittersweet feeling to know you did your job well–raising independent and successful children who can survive without you, while never considering how empty you’d feel when it was done.

My child’s partner hovers over him, rubbing his hand and fussing with his hair. She coos softly to him while I hug my handbag closer and perch on the edge of a chair. I feel small and insignificant and yet simultaneously grateful to be allowed this glimpse into his world, miles and years from where I reside.

After long hours in a waiting room, we’re back in the car. My sleepy little boy is hungry, so we grab food before I reluctantly surrender him to his partner’s care. I offer to stay. I ask if they need food, medicine, help with anything, anything at all. But I am free to go, he says. He wants to sleep, and besides, he adds, “I know you have to get home.” That word again. Home. I promise to check in, but he makes a face saying not too much, ma. I’m a grown up and I got this.

I hit the road once more with a yawn. In three days, I’ve had five hours of sleep. Tears burn unshed behind my eyes. I worry if I let them fall, even in the privacy of my car, they’ll never stop. I pull up to the restaurant, parking next to a handicapped spot. Inside the SUV beside me, my father awaits my arrival. The walk inside is painful and slow. We order and jockey for our wallets, seeing who gets to pay this time. I let him win. I get it now. Oh, my tortured heart, I get it–the need to show my love, my worth, my care for someone who no longer needs it.

I pick at my food, my emotional dam showing signs of catastrophic damage. My stepmother stares at a space above my head. I ponder what she sees there in the ether as the conversation lulls. Her thoughts struggle to find speech. It is difficult to watch. Sometimes, the pauses and patient smiles speak more than our words ever could.

My father watches as she rises and goes to sit in the car alone. “She does that sometimes,” he says absently, watching her stumble near a curb. “It’s part of the dementia. Don’t worry, she’s fine. I just don’t want her to fall.”

“Fall is a dirty word,” I retort. She’s had several, he tells me. My father has had a few more, my mother a half-dozen. Quad canes, walkers, and cracking joints illustrate the truth–that the path to old age is a slippery son of a gun, not for the faint of heart.

“You good, Dad?” I ask when he returns his focus to the room. He raises his eyes to me. Sadness lives in his gaze like a parasite.

“Tired,” he offers one word.

I can only nod. I see it in his posture, his face, the faraway look in his eyes not so dissimilar from his wife.

“Went back to the Midwest last month,” I say, changing the topic. I already told him a few weeks ago, but I think he forgets. He asks me about the burger joint where he took my mom on a first date, the cemetery where my grandparents are buried, and the university where generations of our family attended. Sometimes, he gets the names wrong. Other times, he forgets the people and things from the past. I’ve learned not to get sad or frustrated. We all forget. We all change. We all move on.

“It looks like rain,” he says, staring at the sky through the smudged glass door.

I know that is code for “time to go.” When I rise to hug him, he cannot stand. I am no match for the man who once seemed larger than life. A stranger sees our struggle and comes over, wrapping his arms around my father in a bear hug. I watch him helplessly get hauled to his feet. Propriety saves me from a gasp of anguish. Instead, I thank the stranger profusely. My dad doesn’t seem surprised or embarrassed, so I suspect this has happened before.

“Should’ve brought my walker,” he mumbles, mostly to himself.

I hug them both goodbye and watch the vehicle pull away. I am barely alone before the sobs escape. I give up fighting and let them flow. My soul is tired. My body aches. My mind is overwhelmed. As the first big drops of rain splatter the windshield, a warm wave of defeat settles into my cold joints. I sigh, swiping at the ruined mascara. I cannot fall apart. Falls are bad.

I start the three-hour drive back to my mom’s place. I have been up for almost twenty hours straight and have little reserve left. I try to remember the last time I was this exhausted as the odometer steadily ticks off the miles. Maybe the time we moved to the big house in the country? Maybe the time my infant daughter spent months in a lonely hospital room? I feel a hundred years old as the sun retires beneath the horizon and the gas gauge warns me to stop.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” I respond to no one. “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.” I speak Robert Frost’s words aloud and chuckle to myself. It is a wry laugh, nothing mirthful in it. I can probably make it to my exit if I don’t speed, and I need sleep and rest more than I need gas. I dial a number on my cell phone and a husky voice answers.

“You okay, dear?”

“Tired,” I answer, the same one-word answer my father offered only hours before.

“Yeah, I bet you are.” His voice is gentle, but I hear the concern beneath it. “You grabbing dinner with your mom and then getting some sleep?”

“Yeah,” I manage, my voice cracking beneath the enormity of my week. “And tomorrow, I’m heading home.”

Home. A weird parallel between where I’ve been and where I’m headed. Just like my generation is torn between caring for parents and letting go of our kids, I am sandwiched between two worlds, two places that feel familiar and foreign at the same time.

Tonight, I will rest. Tonight, I will enjoy our final supper together. Tomorrow, I’ll drive another thousand miles and put some distance between me and goodbye. Hopefully, somewhere between, I’ll learn to build a better sandwich for the next generation.

Brand art by Gael MacLean

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Mindi Boston
Contemplate

Mindi Boston is a novelist and freelance writer out of the Midwest. For more information, visit www.mindiboston.com