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An Open Letter to the Overwhelmed Writer Who Just Learned of a Parent’s Illness

[1]Dear Fellow Sandwich Generationer:

When you found out you’d become an official caregiver for two generations of people (one older, one younger), and hence a member of the “sandwich” generation, did the news come via a phone call?

Mine did, as I sat writing in the deceptively soft, grey light of a winter morning.

It made me perilously close to becoming a cliché, too, for when I hung up, I remained at my desk as my coffee grew cold. If another person had been present to notice, or I’d had convenient access to a mirror, no doubt my gaze would have been recorded as “vacant.” For you see, among all the pressing concerns of that morning, I worried about my writing time. Would it be lost when only just claimed?

But that phone call happened a while ago and I’m doing much better than anticipated—on all counts—which is why I’m reaching out to you.

Are you out the other side of your grief yet?

I hope you know that’s what you’re experiencing at first: simple, honest grief.

All that shock, rage, guilt; all that difficulty sorting out what’s given through duty and what’s offered through love—all those emotions, especially the dark, socially-unacceptable ones that roil in your belly—those are grief, my dear. If you don’t cling to them out of misguided shame, they will pass.

Soon, life will regain most of its former texture. Soon you’ll be as irritated as you once were by the sight of dirty dishes in the morning sink. (Mr. Nobody continues to prefer the lemon squares reserved for school lunches over the fresh fruit on the counter.) You’ll still feel a stabbing chest pain when you hear teenagers squeal over Snooki’s book. You’ll thrill to see a romance friend’s new cover art with its gratuitous display of man-candy, particularly if his biceps are sculpted.

As for writing, maybe you’ll be like me in that your word count will creep up to its pre-existing level and you’ll surprise yourself, on occasion, with a well-turned phrase.

So, dear Fellow Sandwicher, right now, though you might feel like falling to your knees, casting your gaze to the sky and shouting, “Nooooo,” refrain for two reasons:

  1. Except in Jim Carrey movies, nobody appreciates this kind of overacting.
  2. You’ll want to save this gesture for the first time one of your kids brings home a dubious partner. Don’t tip your hand.

Have you decided to choose the role? If you’re going to take on the care-giving, it’ll go easier if you embrace the decision. Own it. Trust that the same qualities which allow you to be present as a care-giver will provide depth, complexity, and maturity to your writing.

If you don’t choose, you’ll risk becoming a victim. That mindset doesn’t vanish when you sit to write, read critical reviews, or receive rejections from agents and publishers.

In addition, self-pity is a convenient way to avoid putting butt in chair. Know when you’re milking the drama llama as a means of bowing to Resistance.

Being proactive and responsible means you get to make some choices which will protect your career. Namely:

With respect to your writing, pick both what must be done and what is most personally fulfilling. Take note of your choices. If the day comes when things settle down and your schedule develops blank spots, you’ve gained clarity on which projects and relationship matter most.

Invite metaphoric cats to judiciously explode.

The reference comes from a Neil Gaiman quote: “When writing a novel, that’s pretty much entirely what life turns into: House burned down. Cat exploded. Did 1500 easy words, so all in all it was a pretty good day.”

Along with adequate sleep, rest, good nutrition, and exercise, is writing a part of your self-care? Is it a keystone habit that makes you happy and resilient? You’ll need these two qualities in the months and years ahead if you are to stay reliable and accessible to your loved one.

Claim writing as your job, even—and especially—if you’re presently unpaid.

If you don’t put your writing on the table as a “must,” why should anyone else respect it?  You’ll never get to be a pro if you act like your work is disposable or make your timetable as flexible as a politician’s ethics.

Also, due to the inherent nature of a parental illness, prepare to face all the unaddressed family dysfunctions: sibling rivalries, financial stressors, pre-existing familial roles… Congratulations. You have an opportunity for a do-over. When everything is in flux anyway, why not make healthy boundaries part of the deal?

Lastly, take heart, because you’re never really off the job. Story is everywhere.

Need examples of conflict and antagonist forces? Look no further than the family issues mentioned above. Afraid of infirmity and death? Be prepared for them to be rubbed in your face over and over. Don’t forget the strained healthcare system, apathy, and the occasional medical person who loves their job for the power trip, and who’d favor carrying a riding crop over a syringe.

Happily, you’ll find no shortage of hero material.  You won’t. Heroes are everywhere: in the cratered faces that beam when a child visits the ward; in the professionals who practice both art and science of medicine; in every person who sees past fear and limitations to craft a new normal; and in the Aged P whose illness began this whole journey in the first place.

In short, Fellow Sandwicher, you’re in for one heck of a ride. But take heart; you’ll be a pro when you’re done with the first parent. Now you only have to do it another three times.

Some of you have been caring for aging parents far longer than I. Has this been your experience? Has your writing and world shifted, yet become as solid? How have you made your sandwich experience a whole wheat one?   

About Jan O'Hara [2]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [3] left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories (Opposite of Frozen [4]; Cold and Hottie [5]) and contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.