Katie Couric and I are living parallel lives. This I learned from an article she wrote for the November, 2012 issue of Woman's Day. (Yes, I am a year behind on my magazines.)
Granted, Katie makes a little more money than I do (okay--a lot more) and, I will have to admit, ranks a little higher across the country on the facial recognition scale. (In fact, Reader's Digest [June 2013, p. 95] lists her as the 37th most trusted person in America). But I consider these minor differences only.
Demographically, Katie and I are female Baby Boomers who write, who graduated from college in the 1970s, and who are mom to two kids. But the subject of her Woman's Day piece, titled "Family Ties" (p. 34), makes it clear that experience connects the two of us in such a way that her words leaped right off the page, traveled to someplace deep inside my mind, and lodged somewhere close to my heart.
Katie and I both lost our dads in 2011. In the wake of that, we find ourselves buried in what she calls "the sandwich generation," engrossed in the delicate task of looking out for our 90ish-year-old mothers. She says she "often feel[s] like the peanut butter between two slices of bread" as she works to meet the vastly diverse needs of the generations before and after hers.
Katie notes that her mother still lives independently in their old family home, as does my mom, and that she vociferously rejects the option of an assisted living facility. At the suggestion, Mrs. Couric refers to it as "God's waiting room." My mom, a little more blunt about the proposition, says simply, "I'd rather be dead."
I am thankful that Mom is able to live alone, but I worry constantly that she will fall. This concern is not entirely unfounded, as she has taken three moderately serious tumbles in the past two years. Fortunately, there have been no broken bones, but I have to wonder how long our luck will hold out. Katie worries about this too, noting that she has often found her mother's life alert necklace draped over a picture frame.
Katie calls our situation "the inevitable role reversal that comes with age." I wonder if she also misses the thing I miss most: the chance to just relax and visit with each other in the kind of carefree manner that I took for granted for so long; the chance to stroll leisurely through yard sales or face off in a heated game of Scrabble; the chance to just sit out on the porch swing with a dish of ice cream.
We can't do these things anymore because, now, it requires every waking minute to take care of business. The checking account needs to be balanced. The CDs are maturing. It requires a multitude of doctor's appointments to maintain the various systems related to a heart that has been beating for nearly ninety years.
The bathroom stool is leaking. The front bricks need patching. The kitchen sink is draining slowly. The front door knob is hard to turn. The milk jug is empty.
Sixty-six years of paperwork and mementos need to be sorted or disposed of. We need to clear the outbuildings, the basement, and the attic. Everything we do these days involves taking care of some kind of business, and some urgent task seems to rear its ugly head every single day.
Katie didn't mention things like this in her effort to keep an upbeat and positive tone. But I read between the lines of her impeccably crafted prose and know they are as much present for her as they are for others of us experiencing her "peanut butter" syndrome. The truth is, assuming the responsibility for another adult's physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual welfare can be overwhelming.
That said, I think back to a day a little over two years ago when I sat with Mom and Dad in an exam room in the cancer center of our local hospital. It was the day we learned that the chemo was no longer working, and Dad's cancer had spread past the original site in his lung. We didn't know it then, but in just a few weeks he would be gone.
I knew exactly what Dad was thinking when he looked straight at me through misty eyes. Mom's whole life had revolved unselfishly around him, and she had always depended on him for so many things. "I'll take care of her," I told him, and I meant it. I am doing the best I can.
I am confident that Katie knows all about this. She may have more resources at her disposal than I do, and her fame may offer her a broader network of support services. But at the heart of the situation is a 60-ish woman and her 90-ish mom who views her, like it or not, as some kind of lifeline.
Thank you for buoying me with your article, Katie. As you point out, ours is a situation shared by many of our generation, and you are right--there is comfort in knowing that.