I was on Facebook the other day and a friend asked about the first time I'd been on a plane. As it happens, that memory has a lot of resonance for me.
My parents weren't big travelers. My dad had his own appliance store and worked 6 days a week, AND he didn't like flying. If we went somewhere, we went by car or bus. But when I was sixteen I got into an acting program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and driving there was pretty much out of the question.
My mother had a friend named Florence whose husband had a stroke when he was in his fifties. He was a wonderful man and his wife and he always seemed to be the happiest couple -- and then this terrible thing happened, out of the blue. Florence became a great caregiver, but as any caregiver can tell you, it's never easy (and can be extremely stressful sometimes, too).
When Florence found out I needed to fly to Pittsburgh, she asked my mother if she could take me. "If something happens to me, it doesn't matter," she said, and I was shocked and surprised to hear her say that. I think my mother agreed in the end because she could see how much her friend needed to get away. I don't know how they found someone to care for Florence's husband, but they did, and she got to go.
I was pretty jazzed about getting away for the summer, too. I remember packing and getting on the plane and being happy to hang out with Florence, who was bubbly and funny and full of life. I knew it had probably been a while since she'd had the chance to do something fun, even if all that meant for the moment was taking your friend's daughter to school in Pittsburgh.
I have to say I had a wonderful time with Florence and wouldn't have traded it for anything. She helped me unpack and we went out to dinner. I talked with her about theater and why I loved it so much, and I knew she understood, because she was a very dramatic person herself.
What I remember most about that trip now was not that it was a first ride; it was really my first look at how life can kick us, force us through harsh experiences and heartbreak, and how important it is to find moments to counteract that harshness and jump into them whenever we can.
When my father became ill and struggled through his last years, I spent a lot of time in caregiver mode. There were some beautiful times and I am really thrilled I got to experience them. There were also a lot of times when I cried in the car for hours because being a parent and being the daughter of a parent that needs care was really hard.
I had to learn to grab at moments of fun whenever I could and wring the happiness out of them. I know that's why caregiving sites say it's crucial that caregivers take care of themselves. There's probably a lot more I could say about the sandwich generation - usually women taking care of parents and their own kids -- but most of it is wrapped up in what I learned from Florence.
If an airplane enters your life, get on it. You may have to go home again, but you'll never regret the ride.
For more on caregiving, you might want to check out these articles:
A Story from the Sandwich Generation: Caring for Kids and Parents
The Sandwich Generation: Raising Kids, Caring for Parents
Sandwiched Between Parenting Your Kids and Your Parents
Woman and teen photo: Carissa Rogers