It seems a whole generation since life began piling on the layers of heartache


I AM A MEMBER of the "sandwich generation," and my families -- the one I came from and the one I made, as Hillary Clinton would describe them -- have taken so many bites out of me during the last couple of weeks that there isn't enough of me left to feed the dog under the table.

My husband left town on an extended business trip, my children have missed so much school because of poor weather and poor health that they no longer can read, and my sainted mother had the nerve to become gravely ill in a northern city during the worst winter in common memory.

I am, like, s-o-o-o annoyed at them all.

Thank God for my sisters. I'm not sure I could have made it without mine, and I am sure my mother would not have.

After making a tremendous financial contribution to my long-distance carrier and listening to each of my sisters say in turn: "Come," "Don't come," and "Do what you think best," I went.

I returned to the city of my birth, and I found at my mother's bedside my three sisters engaged in a filial division of labor.

While some daughters might have been divvying up silver and jewelry, my sisters were sorting out what each of them could best do for the mother of us all.

There was Liz, the baby of the family, who grew up to be a registered nurse. Around my mother, she was her crisp, professional self instead of her loving daughter self, and she was very scary.

While the rest of us would have spent visits straightening our mother's sheets, Liz was deciphering charts and interpreting hospital professionals.

Doctors and nurses saw her coming down the hall and immediately started explaining what they were doing and asking her if she agreed.

And while the rest of us might have fed my mother chipped ice forever, Liz had her up and taking meals in a chair when my mother was sure she did not have the strength. It was something to see.

Cynthia was there, too. With something fresh and good to eat. That girl can cater desperate illness better than anybody you ever met, although Liz put her foot down when Cynthia TC suggested that we carry in some football snacks and soda for a little Super Bowl party in my mother's hospital room.

Cynthia is also married to a lawyer, a fact we would casually mention in the presence of any health professionals who might be thinking about giving less than 100 percent that day.

There, too, was Ellen. She was in charge of insurance and optimism. She navigated this country's health care system so expertly that not only did my mother not suffer financial ruin, I think she received a 5 percent rebate for every day she spent in the hospital.

And while Liz was speaking directly to doctors, Ellen was speaking directly to God. She was not alone, and I am sure the good Lord was quite confused and was saying, as the doctors often did, "Now, which daughter are you?"

Me? I am the bologna in the sandwich generation. I was in charge of errands and entertainment. My mother introduced me to the nurses as "my daughter, the writer, who can't stand needles." She would send me for more ice whenever she required any kind of nursing care, and I could hear her tell the nurses, "She was always my most squeamish child."

I was only good for laughs. That is, until my mother's hearing aid conked out. My wit loses its subtlety when lip-read, but my mother didn't want to hurt my feelings, and so she laughed every time I appeared to be speaking. Sick as she was, she didn't want me to feel that I'd driven 300 miles to be of no earthly good.

While my sisters and I attended to this half of the sandwich, the other half was moldering badly. We were ignoring four jobs, four husbands and 11 children, and it quickly showed.

As soon as my husband returned home, I grabbed the suitcases. As I packed to leave, my son said his throat hurt so badly that it felt like he was swallowing broken glass.

"And?" I said, casting him a withering glance.

At one point during the next two weeks, my husband asked if we were really married or if I was just someone he talked to on the phone.

While I had left my family cares and chores behind me, my sisters returned each night to theirs: growling stomaches, homework crises, car-pool breakdowns and run-of-the-mill clinginess. The fatigue could be seen in their pretty smiles, which quivered too easily with tears.

When Cynthia's husband and four children became ill, she just kept having pizza delivered as she left for the hospital. She is still not sure if anyone has recovered enough to return to school because she is often gone before the bus comes.

I returned home to find that no one had bathed or changed clothes for a week, but still 18 loads of wash waited for me. The dishwasher was filled with plastic containers from Boston Market, but still the pantry was empty. When the manager of the video store called to ask if I would like to discuss a payment plan, I realized once again that I am not the fun parent.

But then Liz's daughter asked what you do when someone stops breathing. And Cynthia's daughter wept into the brownies she baked for her grandmother. And my daughter asked if I might catch what Gramma had.

My sisters and I realized that we are not a sandwiched generation, but a splintered one. We hugged our daughters and wept at our own inadequacy and made silent bargains with heaven that they never know such helpless sadness on our account.

While I was doing so, I caught sight of the chalkboard in Jessie's bedroom -- the one she uses to teach school to her dolls and leave notes for the tooth fairy and the cleaning ladies. On it, the child who so resembles her aunts that her baby pictures could take a place among theirs, wrote: "Dear God, Make Gramma Reimer better very SOON!"

And I smiled, thinking that God was probably asking yet again: "Now, which daughter are you?"

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