I would categorize middle age as a time of significant and defining personal, professional and spiritual milestones. It is a time in your life when you are forced to utilize all the experience and patience your gray hairs symbolically represent.
Surprises abound during middle age — far beyond the unusual aches and pains and unprecedented hair growth in the oddest of places. I have found myself in situations I would have never imagined in my youth. Today, like many people, I am singlehandedly dealing with the incredibly challenging task of raising a child while caring for an elderly parent.
According to a Pew Research Study conducted in 2013, nearly half of Americans in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child. Healthcare professionals refer to this unique demographic phenomenon as the “sandwich generation.”
No other experience has been as bittersweet. I regularly experience the drastic contrast of watching my young daughter flourish in the wonderment of her future adventures, while simultaneously witnessing the dehumanizing and undignified manner in which my father is bidding life goodbye. The situation has humbled me and drawn me closer to my loved ones.
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On Saturdays, I routinely take my dad — el Viejo — out to lunch with my daughter. Over the years, the lunches were fulfilling far beyond the media noche and Materva — they were enriching in the most familial way. I saw the transfer of culture and family history before my very eyes. My daughter queried Dad about every facet of our past. She wanted to know why we spoke Spanish, why he had blue eyes and if I ever got a bad grade in math.
Dad cherished these outings. It was an opportunity to roll down memory lane with a purpose. He took his time explaining every detail and nuance. The simple lunches in Hialeah became three-hour history courses. “Remember that our past is a jigsaw puzzle. We have to explain Cuba and our plight to this child so that one day it will make sense and she will feel whole,” my father explained.
A couple of years ago, Dad’s stories began to waver a bit. Details became sketchier, and recollection was a taxing process. Today, dementia has greatly impaired Dad’s quality of life. Caring for him has become a difficult process for my stepmother and me. The lunches are now unpredictable and tense.
Recently, my family and I experienced a terribly gratifying moment. On this particular Saturday, my father seemed alert and in good spirits. He spoke of great ball games of the past and, of course, chimed in on Cuban politics. Before leaving for the restaurant, my stepmother told me that my father was having problems with incontinence. We briefly discussed it (out of Dad’s earshot) and agreed that we would speak to his doctor the following week.
Shortly after sipping our café, I looked over at Dad. His eyes were welling up with tears. He looked at me and said, “I think I just had an accident.” Indeed, he had. What ensued was one of the most challenging — and rewarding — moments of my life. My daughter, stepmother and I carefully whisked Dad out of the restaurant without any fanfare. On the drive home we all (including Dad) managed to make light of the “accident” and had a good belly laugh. I swallowed hard and held back tears as my daughter comforted her grandfather and said, “It’s OK, Abuelo, we all have accidents.”
That evening, as I wrestled with the magnitude and the ramifications of the day’s events I resigned myself to the fact that my life was now entering a turbulent spell — sandwiched between life’s two extremes.