Where Am I?
I planned the poem in my mind.
Although it had been 34 years since I wrote one.
I knew it would be full of angst and dread about my secrets and fears.
The terror I remember when I was a young adult of my deepest, darkest thoughts being
Wrenched out of me, ripping me open and vulnerable.
An epic battle of will between the writer’s heart to express
And the fierce need to protect my self, my soul, my core.
But then I realized that none of that was the problem.
The real problem, the real terror was in realizing my fear
Was that I had nothing.
That life had stripped me of the energy of youth.
Had waned the passion of my early years.
Had reduced me to a catalog of practical queries:
Has the dishwasher been run through?
When is the car registration due?
How long is my sister going to hold up taking care of my stinky, cranky, irrational dad?
My sandwich years have included working multiple simultaneous jobs for a long time. One of those jobs has been in a small private school. The year my Dad died, I was tasked with teaching Creative Writing. For that course, I had lofty goals which included writing along with my students. The poem above was the first poem I had written since 1985. It was also the last since. No, I wasn’t afraid of my soul being revealed to myself, my students, or the world.
I was afraid there was nothing.
The tag line to my coaching business is “find yourself again.”
Where my parents were concerned, I was the remote sibling. In supporting women in the sandwich generation, issues with family members, particularly with siblings, is one of the most common issues I help clients deal with. Within the topic of helping clients deal with family issues, and sibling issues in particular, is the challenge of siblings who are remote by geographic location. There are issues of siblings who are remote by behavior, attitude, and actions, but this post is about being remote by geography.
I have 2 sisters, and only one of them was in geographic proximity to our parents for decades. It was a mixed blessing for everyone. I’ll be honest “up front” that our situation was not horrible. I’ve walked along with clients in which their remote siblings were hostile, judgmental, manipulative, or unsupportive. We weren’t any of those.
What we did experience, though, is that the close sibling was stressed. She was overburdened. She was also closer to our parents, not only by geography, but in heart and soul. The potential for all of that going south was possible. It could have bred:
- Disconnect between siblings
We were fortunate enough to have the bandwidth to realize we needed to be intentional to protect our relationship. This required that we anticipate how the other person was feeling, to get out of how we were feeling, to “be there” in ways we thought the other person would need.
My mom died of cancer in her 70’s. At the time, I was heavily sandwiched between the demanding needs of 3 closely spaced kids, the ending of a toxic marriage, and was barely able to “be there” for myself. To this day, I feel bad that I was unable to be there for my Florida sister and my father who walked along the side of my mother, the poorly managed medical interventions, the devastating impact of the cancer treatment, the inadequate communication of the main provider, and Mom’s pain and despair. I tried to listen when asked, to never (ever) counter their decisions because I was not there, and wtf did I know, and to support them.
The Stress of The Sandwiched Years
A decade and a half later, I was less burdened. Or maybe just more available. When our Dad had a series of falls (and we are sure there were more than he reported), and after he drove into a convenience store, we knew it was time for action. I agreed to be the one to introduce the idea of Assisted Living (because I knew that the one to carry it out would be the Florida sister.)
After a whirlwind trip to FL, we made a decision on a facility (which they euphemistically called “community”) and my FL sister moved him in. The months that followed ensued an accelerated decline, created by his failing body, reduced cognitive health, and lapsing mental health all of which was exacerbated by inadequate facility care.
During this time, I tried to answer or return every call from my sister, and use my best listening skills; just listening. I asked permission before offering feedback other than encouragement and thanks. I gave honest and sincere positive feedback for her care and fierce advocacy.
I privileged her needs to the best of my ability. My ability to help Dad was in helping her to the best of my ability. I share this blog post not because I was a superstar remote sibling but to normalize the stress and to address that the issues are real, and to give tangible and actionable suggestions on how to remote support. The superhero in this story is, by far, my Florida sibling who found personal resources and nurture skills she didn’t know she had, who treated our Dad with care, kindness, and dignity that transcended words, and who I could rely on to bridge that (unfortunately very wide) gap created by the facility and his needs.
I have walked alongside clients in the details of their sandwich; I’d love to support you to find and use the energy and bandwidth they need to be available to the people in their lives, including themselves.