Not long ago, I stumbled onto an insight. It came to me as I descended the stairs at home in the dim early-autumn light. Preoccupied with random thoughts, this question failed to enter my mind: You think your right foot just landed on the last step? Think again. We’ve all tripped, even fallen. Maybe we grab the banister more tightly, or fall backward, regaining our balance, if not our pride. I kept heading west, my right foot dangling in space while my left ankle bent ninety degrees, bearing all my weight as my foot folded with a snap.
Let’s hear it for carpeting! My wails awakened my husband, and he rushed down so we could ponder various questions: Do you think it’s broken? Can you feel your toes when I do this? Maybe it’s just a bad sprain? Deciding that kind of agony deserved attention from an actual physician, we watched the clock until the clinic opened, scarfing down Cheerios at a not-so-fun picnic on the living room floor. After some torturous x-rays, the doctor declared I’d broken my fifth metatarsal, a long, thin bone running between the little toe and the outside ankle. This break is so special, it has its own name: The Jones Fracture. The outermost metatarsal lies in an area with a meager blood supply, making for slow healing. For now, I’m wearing a Star Wars storm trooper boot and getting around with a walker and a RollAbout, a scooter/walker mashup which provides blessed support to the leg that’s been injured, although neither will magically make a bathroom appear on the main floor.
It’s not the end of the world. I have a husband who cooks, and a daughter an hour away who has already been up to grant my every housekeeping wish. Friends and family have regaled me with stories of their own broken limbs. Today, they can walk just fine. As for me, right now? It hurts, and I need assistance doing everything but nap. It got me thinking about a term I haven’t seen lately. “The Sandwich Generation” was coined to describe the dilemma of caring for children (and yourself) while also trying to keep aging parents safe and healthy. The media ramped up laments, suggestions, and legal advice on parenting your parents and kids simultaneously. It’s a concept made more difficult by modern tendencies to settle far from home and have children later in life. My father died in 1992, my mom in 2000, and I know what it’s like to be in the middle of that sandwich. It can morph into a quarter-pounder with cheese once your first parent is gone, and you and your siblings (if you have them) become the deciders.
I had my children when I was 25 and 28, so they were more or less independent after Dad was gone and it became clear that Mom was entering the confusing, dangerous world of living alone with Alzheimer’s. I got her a diagnosis, and after an unwitnessed fall left her with a small but scary hip fracture, checked her into a hospital. The social worker would not let her return to an empty house. (I love social workers.) She found a wonderful elder-care home, where Mom lived in relative contentment until she fell and broke her shoulder. Just like that, she needed full-blown nursing home care. She lived out her last two years at Stonehill, asking often, “How did I end up in Dubuque?” As Mom faded away, I had to assume responsibility for my developmentally disabled older sister, moving her from her own apartment to a group home and, finally, to a specialized nursing home in Keokuk. She is my only sibling, so it got kind of lonely inside that sandwich, although Mom’s sister (my Aunt Ethel), as well as my husband and now-grown children, were enormously supportive.
Everyone says, Don’t fall! Hospitals have thick manuals, coded bracelets, and algorithm-based procedures to reduce inpatient falls. Baby Boomers think all those precautions are for someone else, the generation now called “the old old.” Seventy is the new fifty, isn’t it, and we’re all out running 5Ks right through our 60s, aren’t we? But no. With that one stumble on the stairs, that one crack of a narrow yet essential bone, I stand corrected – or rather, I sit, or lie down. I know that, even if it heals so beautifully I can resume the tap dancing I tried in my twenties, I am no longer part of the sandwich filling. Not the B, the L, or the T. Where once I was the top crust – the baby, child, and teenager receiving all sorts of care – I have made my way, in an instant, to the bottom crust.
Now my children enter the sandwich years. Just as my daughter is steering a terrific career in her chosen field, and my son and his wife begin raising twins, they can’t pretend to be riding high on the top crust anymore. We need to have The Talk, or at least start writing the script and clearing our throats for it. In the meantime, we need a better metaphor for this journey through life. Being squished inside a sandwich sounds suffocating, and who wants to be a crust? These days, hearing that “life makes us stronger in the broken places” (Ernest Hemingway), or that “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen) is less than helpful. Metaphors won’t get laundry done, houseplants watered, or leaves raked. Let’s be real. Let’s look out for each other. When a step, or a life, goes askew, don’t send Hallmark greetings. Send help. Bring dinner, even if it’s just a basket of sandwiches.