Approaching The Most Unsettling Part Of Life

by Katie Durkin
Originally Published: 
sandwich generation elderly parents
gpointstudio / iStock

Those of us in our mid-40s, straddled between two uncontrollable generations—one that won’t listen and one that can’t hear—are the real tweens. We are the sandwich generation and the ones who really need help, especially now as we approach that most unsettling part of life that cannot be avoided no matter how much we drink: when our parents and their peers start dying.

What does this mean for us?

It means that the people who nurtured us all our lives, who loved and cared for us from the time we were born and all the way through that unfortunate white-washed denim and blue eye shadow period are now going to need us to nurture and care for them.

It means that the tough-as-nails dad who scared our dates every weekend is now getting fragile and requires our help to get up from the table.

It means that the people who taught us right from wrong, how to parallel park without cursing, and to never mix beer with liquor, will be gone someday.

It means that our heroes are fading away, and it’s hard to watch.

It means we’ll soon be in charge.

It means that someone should convince my mother to clean her dresser because going through that underwear drawer after she dies is not on my personal bucket list.

The idea that one day our parents will no longer be available to offer guidance, advice or hard-earned bits of wisdom leaves us heartbroken and uncertain. My sandwich generation peers, are we ready to take on the job of heading up our families?

Are we ready to say goodbye?

Saying goodbye is the least of it, though. What happens as they start to slip away? Who’s going to handle the logistical issues, like paying bills and wiping feeble behinds? Who’s going to decide when it’s time to sell the house? Who’s going to help dad patrol the neighborhood and keep everyone in line?

These fears consume me at the weirdest times. Sometimes when I walk through my parents’ garage, I can’t help but cry a little. I take stock of a lifetime of accumulation: 8 luggage sets, 350 different kinds of tools that seemed like reasonable purchases after watching episode after episode of This Old House, the Deep Purple and Pink Floyd record collections, old scuba gear that hasn’t touched my parents’ bodies since Carter was in office. I say aloud, “This will all be mine one day.”

Yes, mine. Mine to clean, mine to sort, mine to decide which to dump and which to sell, mine to list on eBay, and ultimately, it will be my siblings’ lectures eight months later about how I did everything wrong and that mom should have put them in charge.

Inside the house is no picnic either. My sister recently asked me to fetch her yearbook, which is under one of the beds in mom’s house. I told her I don’t look underneath the beds in mom’s house because I don’t need 1) Christmas wrapping paper from 1975, or 2) nightmares.

This brings me to another point. I will be the one to take care of these people as they become more and more difficult. As older relatives grow even older, the qualities that have annoyed us since adolescence don’t suddenly disappear. Remember all those reasons we moved away? How they bring every discussion back to themselves and their pinched nerves? How they make faces when we suggest there is life after veal? How they watch Law & Order around the clock, with the volume set at JETLINER, and yet still can’t tell us a thing about the plot?

These quirks don’t go away when they get sick. Relatives don’t get handed a diagnosis and suddenly turn into saints who actually let us finish a sentence. We don’t wake up one day suddenly enlightened to the adorableness of audible digestion. I have to laugh. If I didn’t, I’d curl up in the fetal position and never get out of bed.

Yes, I laugh. I get annoyed. And I feel guilty on top of all of it.

But when the moment comes, I will think about that garage. I will visit and hold hands and sit through old episodes of Law & Order without complaint. I will do everything I can to ease my parents’ suffering and make everyone laugh.

I think about how I will be the aging parent one day, how it will be my kids’ turn to listen to my silly stories, tolerate my opinions, ignore my dusty old record collections, and wipe my behind.

That makes walking through a cluttered garage just a little bit easier.

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