Category Archives: Sandwich Generation

Daughters and Dads: Love and Loss

IMG_0232I hated feeling powerless. As if there was nothing I could do to positively affect anything in the universe, let alone my dad’s pain and suffering. Yet that’s exactly how I felt as I stood beside my ailing father’s bedside after his stroke, holding his hand, attempting to interpret his garbled speech, pausing briefly to take in the jumbled masses of wires and tubes that were now heinously tethered to him, wondering like crazy why he couldn’t move his left side and why his eyes seemed drawn only to the light coming from the window and not to my face, which was surely fraught with dread.

I remember he called me “Sweetheart” when I first entered the room and he turned his head toward the sound of my voice as I moved closer. He kept straining to see the sky behind me, his dark eyes darting back and forth and looking right past me, never really focusing on anything—which seemed odd to me at the time. Maybe he was unable to see, I later thought. Again and again he tried to climb out of bed, telling us all he had things to do, occupied always with the notion that life wasn’t meant to be lived as an idle person.

He seemed so small lying there, a shell of the man I remembered from my childhood. Alzheimer’s had stolen so much more than his memory, and now the stroke had taken what was left. I remember feeling cheated—as if I were losing him in bits and pieces, and even the pieces I no longer recognized were being taken from me in some cruel twist of fate.

Just that morning I had talked with him on the phone, after his fall. It was five days before Christmas and his caregiver had called me, alerting me to the news. He seemed fine aside from a horrendous headache and a few distorted words here and there, sounding as if he were chewing on a bit of gravel as he spoke. But that was the Alzheimer’s, wasn’t it? It was also possible he had hit his mouth on something during the fall, causing his lips to swell, making it difficult to speak. Wasn’t it?

“Dad, did you bump your mouth this morning? When you fell?”

No. He hadn’t. Why couldn’t I just hit the rewind button and revisit our conversation? Did I tell him I loved him? I can’t be sure. I do remember telling him that my husband was on another phone calling an ambulance and that it would be there soon. The people at the hospital would get him all patched up. Just like new. I promised.

Not surprisingly, I had a number of angry discussions with God that week about the unfairness of it all. About how desperately (almost incredulously) I wanted things to return to the fucked-up “normal” I knew—the life that came to be defined by a certain uncertainty. Some moments in time, I was his wife. Other times, his mother. And when the Almighty was smiling upon me, I was his daughter. I’d even settle for the days during which he informed me he never had a daughter, as deeply as that hurt. Needless to say, I longed to see him get up out of his favorite chair and make his way across the living room to hug me when I visited, welcoming me with a warm and genuine embrace. Always. I could envision him in his khakis, pinstriped oxford shirt and matching sweater, the most dapper 80-year-old man I knew—clean-shaven, a splash of cologne and a smile. This was, of course, a testament to Agatha, his caregiver, who knew how important his appearance was to his happiness.

At any rate, as the week wore on I found myself bartering with God, eager to hear my dad tell me how his day was going, even if that meant acknowledging his addled state and mixed-up reality. I wanted to talk about the apple crumb pie and pumpkin cookies I planned to bring on Christmas Day, about how lovable our dogs were, about the ridiculous dearth of snow this winter. Again and again I replayed the details of the last day I had spent with him before the stroke, trying like mad to harvest it from the depths of my mind. Vividly I recall sitting next to him on the couch as darkness fell, both of our faces bathed in the soft glow of Christmas lights that enveloped the tiny tree my mom used to decorate. Who knew this would be the only year of my entire life that I wouldn’t spend at least some portion of the holiday with him? It would be only the second Christmas without Mom.IMG_0130

But the doctors didn’t know everything, did they? Surely they didn’t know my father. He had overcome a frightening bout with hypothermia and frostbite following last November’s near dawn excursion through the neighborhood—sans shoes. Hunters had found him a quarter mile from his house, huddled in a rock-strewn ditch, badly bruised and cut. Months later, he bounced back. He had survived the loss of his true love—his wife of 56 years to cancer as well as his son’s suicide almost a decade earlier. He weathered the loss of his beloved father at the tender age of 19 and battled the horribleness of dementia every damn day since his diagnosis, managing to preserve both his dignity and his sense of humor. No small feat.

Nope. The neurosurgeons didn’t know my dad. And I hated discussing his prognosis with them over his bed, so we went to a little room filled with a smattering of chairs and an enormous conference table—the place where we reviewed his CAT scans, tried to digest the awful news and cried into the box of tissues they reflexively offered. I wondered how many times they had done this before, shared the dim outlook with the next of kin, pointed to the screen and tried to make us understand that things would never be the same. My husband and I emerged from the room shaken, saddened and numb to an extent. One foot testing the waters of reality, one still squarely planted in denial.

That said, I can’t imagine my dad would have liked all the hubbub—the constant whir of activity in and out of his ICU room, the annoying buzzes and blips of machinery, the squawk of the intercom, the helicopter landings on the roof, the incessant poking and prodding of his veins, the hideous crown of wires atop his head. He seemed plagued by frustration wrapped in angst, as if he were lost in a deep forest, separated from all that was familiar and good by an impossibly dense thicket that he couldn’t manage to escape despite his best efforts. And he was trying; there is no doubt. I studied his face, even as his eyes were closed, and watched his restless body struggle amidst the tangled wood to find a way home. And I could do absolutely nothing to help him, which was the hardest part. All I could do was tousle his hair, hold his hand and tell him I loved him. On my last day at the hospital, during a rare moment when everyone happened to have left the room, I whispered in his ear the message that it was okay if he had to go. I let him know that we would be alright and told him, once more, how much we loved him. It was not a Christmas Eve message I had ever envisioned delivering to my father.

Late that afternoon, it was clear he wasn’t coming home. He had had another “neurological event,” as his failingsIMG_0211 were not-so-affectionately termed. And there were decisions to be made. Hard decisions. I remember sobbing alone in my car on the way home, pounding the steering wheel and shouting at God, at my dad, at the meadows enshrouded in fog at the edge of twilight. It was hard to see the road through my tears, let alone the milky mist that hugged the tree line, and I vowed to continue my sob-fest in the shower—the very best place to cry, apart from my husband’s shoulders.

Christmas Day was a supreme challenge. I tried to be cheery as a mom and a wife, watching my kids unwrap their gifts and graze on the ham we had planned to take to my dad’s later that day, but it was difficult. To say that I was preoccupied was an understatement. I felt impossibly torn, wanting to spend time with my family making holiday memories, wanting to be there for my dad should he rouse from his slumber-like state, somehow benefitting from my presence at his bedside.

He died the next morning, removing from my plate the awful choices I would have had to make, erasing from my mind the all-consuming worry and torment over what the future held, opening the door for me to grieve his passing and to celebrate a life well lived—which is how he would’ve wanted it, I’m sure. Looking back, I wish I could’ve been there for him at the moment of death, but it was not to be.

I never thought I’d be glad that I chose to view his broken body, but I am. His face clearly revealed that he was at peace. There were no more wires or tubes, no more struggles to swallow or to speak. No more frantic searches for the life and people he once knew. At the very least, I could be comforted by that—knowing he had made it out of the darkened woods and was finally home with those he sought for so very long.

Copyright 2016 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Love and Loss, Sandwich Generation

The Dog That Came to Stay

IMG_6064It was his eyes that got me. Deep pools of espresso dappled with specks that reminded me of caramel. I hadn’t even reached through the cage to caress his indescribably soft ears yet, a practice I would come to revere more than practically anything since it brought as much calm to me as it did to him. Never mind his sleek, black coat and grizzled eyebrows—the ones he could move independently, effectively conveying his mood, which was almost always agreeable.

The plan was to adopt a rescue dog for my dad, one that would serve as a loving companion for him as he grappled with Alzheimer’s disease. Something that would ground him as his world fell apart. The trouble was that I needed grounding, too.

Needless to say, I didn’t intend to fall in love with such a dog. Nor did I think I would be incapable of delivering on a promise I had made to my dad.

“I’ll find you the perfect dog. Just give me a little more time. I think you’ll love the one we end up with, but we have to be sure it meets all the criteria first.”

Unfortunately, none of the candidates we considered passed muster for a variety of reasons: Too lively, not lively enough, too disinterested in people, too apt to jump on people, too aggressive and so on. It seemed as though we were doomed to fail.

Then Jasper appeared as my husband and I meandered through the SPCA for the umteenth time, peering into cages in search of an answer to our prayers. Our eyes locked with the aforementioned black lab mix and the rest was history. Originally, he was supposed to stay with our family only until we felt he was ready to transition to my dad’s home. “We’ll keep him for a week or so—long enough to adjust to life outside a kennel,” I told my kids. “He’s old and needs some TLC,” I reasoned to myself.IMG_6206

Weeks stretched into a solid month and by then I was hopelessly smitten. Jasper had quietly wheedled his way into our family and had become a part of our lives we didn’t even know was missing. Indeed, there was no mistaking the bond that had formed between us and there simply was no turning back. That said, he stepped with ease into our crazed schedule and house filled with teenage drama, noise and angst, despite his dog years and inability to recognize his own name—the one the Rescue had fittingly assigned him.

Against all odds, he learned to love our yappy, 14-pound Bichon and in the process made the latter less prone to anxiety attacks and barking seizures involving delivery trucks and unsuspecting joggers. At every turn, he modeled good behavior for our not-so-compliant, curly-haired pooch—the one we thought was beyond hope for ever acting like a normal dog. Almost daily they now play together, tossing their sock monkey into the air and racing around the house like a couple of deranged squirrels—something that makes my heart smile. Every. Single. Time.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before I discovered how comforting it was to have a big-ish dog place his head or warm muzzle in my hand as I awaken each morning. Or the soothing effect he has on all of us as he wedges his box-like body next to ours on the couch at the close of a long day, somehow sensing our need to decompress. By contrast, he embraces our clamor and chaos—celebrating both the disorder and the abundance of joy that resides within our home.IMG_7997

Needless to say, there’s something extraordinary about having this dog, in particular, around—and by “around” I mean that he has become my shadow, following me everywhere but into the shower. What’s more, he reluctantly bids me farewell when I have to leave and greets me in the doorway when I return, tail wagging wildly, reminding me that all dogs are inclined to smile. You just have to look for it.

As a result, I never feel unappreciated or truly alone no matter how empty my house happens to be—the kids running in 17 different directions and their dad expertly manning the taxi or holed up at his office. Looking back, I think it’s during those quiet times when I value his presence the most. He’s there for me day in and day out, keeping me from dwelling on the sadness that lies beneath the surface of every joy—the ever-present sorrow related to having lost my dad not in the physical sense, but by every other definition.

Somehow, I know my dog understands. It’s in his eyes.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live. Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2015 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Doggie Diamonds, Family Affair, Gratitude, Love and Other Drugs, Sandwich Generation

Ten Ways to Say “Thank you, Mom”

www.melindawentzel.comThanksgiving Day is almost upon us. Time for family, feasting and a well deserved respite from the impossible demands and harried pace of life. Time for bribing my kids to wear dress clothes, for hiding the abomination of clutter that exists within my home and for treating the reluctant gravy stains that will inevitably occur. Time for snapping wishbones, smoothing tablecloths and clinking fancy silverware. Together.

Mostly, it is time to give thanks for the many people and things deemed instrumental in our lives.

I for one recognize the wealth of goodness with which my life has been blessed. But on this particular Thanksgiving Day, my thoughts rest on my mother—perhaps because her world came crashing down this past June, perhaps because of the battle she’s now fighting, perhaps because she’s always been there for me—even still. So thank you, Mom, for so many things…

…for being a good listener in spite of the vat of foolishness I’m sure to have delivered over the years…for reminding me that you can never have too many friends or woolen blazers…for emphasizing the importance of pausing when a child speaks, allowing the void to be filled with what’s really on their minds.

…for letting me do stupid (yet exceedingly edifying!) things—like putting all kinds of time and energy into a less-than-seaworthy raft, like chewing gum in bed, quitting band, forgoing French and studying till three am for a physics test…like getting a disastrous perm, allowing gossip to consume me and dating boys with long hair and fast motorcycles.

…for tolerating my imprudence and forgiving my mistakes—like burning our water pump, which transformed our swimming pool into a pond overnight…like tormenting our sitters unmercifully, forgetting your birthday and breaking God-knows-how-many windows and flower vases…like betraying your trust by filling our house with teens and booze while you and Dad vacationed six states away.

…for encouraging me and inspiring a sense of belief in myself, teaching me to accept what I have and to handle disappointment when it visits…for helping me recognize the inherent value in power naps, mental health days and a good, long cry.

…for letting me go…on the mother of all road trips with eleventy-seven of my closest friends…to the lake with the aforementioned motley crew…to an insanely large university where I would surely be swallowed up in lieu of finding my path in life…for biting your tongue when I quit my job in the city and when I married the wrong man.

…for introducing me to the almighty crock pot, to the concept of saving money and to the notion of waiting for the real prize instead of grasping desperately for the veneer of gratification.

…for underscoring the importance of writing thank you notes, of spending time with my grandparents, of talking to babies and of liking myself—even when I’m least likeable.

…for teaching me how to sort laundry, to deal with a loathsome roommate, to make a mean pot of chicken soup, to soothe a grexy baby, to contend with a rebellious teenager, to find a great pair of black flats…to appreciate the patina of a genuine antique and the untold merits of a good iron…to instinctively know when to opt for eggshell (as opposed to ecru)…to own my decisions, to list pros and cons and to always weigh my options carefully.

…for loving your grandchildren with as much ferocity as you loved me, for implanting within me the seeds of faith and for instilling me with the impetus to seek solace within the pages of a good book and nurturance within the arms of a good man.

…for letting me be there for you and Dad this past summer—likely fouling up your checkbook and misplacing things in your kitchen forevermore, but being there nevertheless.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (giving thanks). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2010 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Mushy Stuff, Sandwich Generation

Sweating the Small Stuff

www.melindawentzel.comContrary to some of the most sensible advice on the planet, I sweat the small stuff. Every. Single. Day. And although my left-brained, logical self is keenly aware of such a destructive penchant, it seems I cannot help myself.

Sadly, said sweating goes far beyond the garden-variety neuroses I’ve described in the past, eclipsing my obsession with the worst-case scenario game I play as a matter of course. It also exceeds the bounds of reason with respect to the picayune nature of my parenting gripes. That said, I sweat the small stuff in a very large way. And at no time does this particular foible become more apparent than now—as I’ve recently joined the ranks of the Sandwich Generation, a group of individuals who try (and often fail spectacularly) to attend AT ONCE to the many and varied needs of a young family and aging parents.

Indeed, this is perhaps the worst time to be stressing over the notion that my husband forgot to rummage through backpacks for important school papers virtually every day that I was gone (i.e. in and out of hospitals helping my parents)…or that he allowed our brood to pile sinful quantities of their beloved schlock upon the kitchen table at will…or that he let them wear skinny jeans (gasp!) to basketball practice.

Not because they had nothing suitable or clean to wear, or because our dear children suffered a mental lapse regarding the whereabouts of their shorts, but because I wasn’t there to flatly deny said request, to enlighten all interested parties that “dark jeans will transform perfectly wonderful underwear into hideous-looking, permanently ink-hued garmentage you’ll vehemently refuse to wear ever again.” “Besides, jeans don’t breathe especially well, and by wearing them you’ll get teased (read: mocked unmercifully) for committing a heinous crime of fashion.” Mister Mom apparently caved on the hotly contested ponytail-wearing issue, too. I can only imagine my charges’ unbridled manes flopping across their faces as they raced around the gym in a euphoric state of defiance. Oy.

Stupidly, I let this sort of thing bother me, along with the deluge of homework that was completed “differently” than I would’ve liked over a 10-day span, and the vat of laundry that was folded and arranged in a manner that offended my sensibilities—as if it really mattered how the fucking socks were mated and the shirts were stacked. Never mind the library books that may or may not have been returned on time or the journal entries that fell embarrassingly short of the standard three-paragraph length I routinely insist upon. It’s rumored a 22-minute telephone rant involving the aforementioned points of contention may have occurred. I blame my sleep-starved condition, an intolerable dearth of sunshine and an incapacitating need to control my environment.

As a result, and as a complete fool for the duration, I heaped mounds of undeserved criticism upon my husband—sending him the stingingly clear message that he was somehow “doing it wrong,” never mind the impossible task with which he had been charged—to parent, to provide and, at all costs, to resist the urge to tackle the laundry aside from folding and stacking it incorrectly. Of course, in my absence he also lobbied hard for the release of a certain pet frog into the wild (and succeeded!), held a funeral service for yet another frog that met an untimely demise, dealt with a plethora of thorny pre-adolescent issues, got our progenies to bed at a reasonable hour each night and onto the school bus each morning with a smile, faithfully delivered them to an ungodly number of sporting events and/or music rehearsals and, perhaps most impressively, removed that which had become the bane of my existence for much of October (i.e. the unsightly mass of pumpkin carnage whose stench and associated ooze were known far and wide).

Needless to say, the man deserved a medal—not only for his solo parenting feats, but for providing me with a soft spot to land. It’s good to be home.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (still sweating the small stuff). Visit me there at www.facebook.com/NotesfromPlanetMom.

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Sandwich Generation, We Put the Fun in Dysfunction