The Sandwich Generation

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They call it the Sandwich Generation, a moniker reserved for people who are caring for children and for elderly parents at once. It’s not a permanent label like “Baby Boomer” or “Generation X.” Instead, it’s a nearly universal title; everyone will get her turn to live in the Sandwich Generation. Whatever its challenges, it’s a great place for people watching.

I recently had lunch with four residents of a memory care home. It is always so interesting to me that when one’s memory fades, it seems as if core elements of a personality become clearer. So, I found myself on a summer day, wondering about the life of a lady I’d just met named Lilly. A phone rang in the distance, and Lilly asked if perhaps she should go answer it. A companion’s meal was late, and Lilly was all about calling someone’s attention to it. Another friend needed help cutting her meat. Lilly volunteered. She told me that she had saved all her ice cream every day that week so she was sure they must have enough now for all the children. And she couldn’t possibly eat her own lunch because how in the world would they afford it? Lilly asked me three times if the baby was up from her nap yet. And then she inquired after my health and wondered whether I was in love.

On that day, Lilly was wearing a lavender dress and long rope of fake pearls. She came to the table in a wheelchair and held herself with elegance and grace. Oh Lilly, I thought, you were a woman devoted to service, to seeing a need and jumping to fill it. I wonder if you, like me, kept a running tab of the household budget always in your mind, wondering what to trim in order to be sure the children have their ice cream (or whatever that day’s equivalent is). I wonder about all the times you sat and rocked and then gently laid a sleeping infant in her crib and crept away ever so quietly so that you could power clean the house before she awakened.

And then I wonder about me. When memory fades, who will I be at the core? What will remain to stand as a testimony to what mattered in my life? Living in the Sandwich Generation is the perfect introduction to memento mori, the practice of reflecting on death in order to tweak the details of life. Memento mori begs us to consider the transience and the vanity of life on earth in light of everyone’s eventual death. It’s not a morbid fascination with darkness. Instead, it’s an invitation to walk in the light that illuminates what really matters while there is still time to tweak the details of life.

Pondering memento mori while sitting at the table in the memory care home makes me very certain that when I die, I hope that what is remembered is a eulogy and not a resume. Eulogies are for lives lived and decisions made because of relationships. There is no doubt in my mind that Lilly lived a life of service. In the last remnants of her cognition, she was concerned with saving and sacrificing for someone else.

Who will I be when I’m reduced to my very essence? What will be revealed when all the layers of detail are chiseled away by time? When a younger woman sits next to me on a June afternoon, I hope that like Lilly, I tell her all about the children. I hope my instinct is to jump up and answer the call, to feed the hungry, to inquire about someone else’s well-being. I hope that the patterns I’m laying down in my brain right now are the ones of eternal importance. I hope I can still tell her all the ways that I loved.

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia. 

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018

@elizabethfoss