by Leslie Morgan Steiner
My 75-year-old mother, known as “Grams” to my three kids, is dying of cancer one thousand miles away in Florida. Three months ago she was playing tennis four hours every day. Now she can barely sit up in bed to watch the Australian Open on television. Last Monday her oncology team referred her to hospice care, meaning they are halting the chemo and radiation and transitioning to palliative care.
After tears and reflection, my siblings, Grams and I decided the next right step would be for her to move in with my family in DC. We are not an ideal choice. Our household is noisy and nutty and I clearly reached the bottom of my lifetime allotment of patience long ago. But Grams lived in our neighborhood for over 30 years, raised four kids here, worked as a special education teacher at a school a few miles away, and has many relatives within 200 miles of our house. She will be with family and have many, many loving visitors. It is the right thing.
As we made the decision, my husband and I grappled with what this will mean for our family. Our household is loud and chaotic – how can our three kids, ages 12, 11 and 7, learn to respect Grams’ need for rest and quiet? How will I cope with caring for the kids, a household full of pets, and a dying mother without losing my sanity? How can we get a woman with no appetite to eat? Can we fit a hospital bed into the guest room? Can my husband jerry-rig the Tennis Channel in her room?
Then I broke the news to my kids with no small amount of trepidation. Would they resent Grams coming here? Be traumatized for life by early exposure to death? Run away to a new home free of dying relatives?
To my surprise, my 12-year-old son’s reaction was a HUGE smile. “She’s coming to live with us?”
He looked like I’d given him a new iPod.
“I’m in charge of feeding her M&Ms!” he shouted.
My 11-year-old daughter wanted dibs on supplying Grams with Dibs, her second favorite food. Later my daughter told me that she thought it would be nicer for Grams to die in our guest bedroom than in a hospital.
I explained to the kids that I love my mom as much as they love me. That I might cry a lot or be short-tempered. I asked them to help me out – in addition to sneaking Grams lots of high-calorie snacks. They agreed as if it were an honor to be asked.
When women of my generation describe being squished in the Sandwich Generation, we talk about how taxing it is to care simultaneously for young kids and ill elderly parents. I’ve never heard anyone speak of the upside to being sandwiched. Have we forgotten the kids’ view here? Maybe in our worries about the stress and trauma, coupled with instincts to protect our children from grim realities of illness and death, we lose sight of the possible joy and wisdom that come with life’s end. Ironically, sometimes our kids see life’s unexpected bonuses before we do. My children will learn important lessons about life, love, family – and yes, dying and death -- from this new reality. As their mom, I’ve always tried to teach them lasting, profound lessons about finding joy in life, nurturing longterm relationships, and doing the right thing. And come to think of it, that’s what my mom always tried to teach me.