Diapers to Diapers
by Barbara Quick
Sure, it's hard sometimes being the sandwich generation. No sooner do we foreswear the baby diaper aisle in the supermarket than we find ourselves darting furtively down the adult diaper aisle for our parents.
I'll never forget the day my mom and I took my grandfather — then in his 70s — to the hospital for a series of tests and were told that he had to have an enema before anyone would see him.
Already quite confused by then and afflicted with Parkinson's disease, my grandfather wasn't in any way up to doing the deed himself.
My mother looked at me helplessly. "Barbara, I can't! What are we going to do?"
There was only one thing to do. I took my grandfather by the hand and walked with him into the men's room — which, fortunately, had only one toilet and a door that locked.
Once we were in there together, my grandfather looked at me, startled. He was confused, but not too confused to know that his granddaughter had just asked him to drop his drawers.
I fought back tears. "Papa," I asked him, "How many times did you clean my bottom when I was a baby? It's my turn now. I owe you."
I did what I needed to do; and Papa did what he needed to do. And I thought, thank God I'm able to do this one small thing for this man who throughout my childhood was always there for me.
Caretaking can seem like a burden, but there's also a secret way in which it's a privilege. Those long, sleepless nights when I was trying to breastfeed my newborn son brought out reserves of strength and stubbornness I never knew I possessed.
Now my mom, always bubbling over with life and vitality, has cancer that's sending her back to her bed after each half-hour or so of activity. I'm growing close to her in much the same way I grew close to my son in his days of utter dependence on me.
Mom and I weren't close in this way before. She could go months without thinking about picking up a phone to call me. Now we talk on the phone every day. We went together to pick out a wig for her and it was the sort of mother-daughter fashion thing we never did when I was a teenager, because we were always fighting.
I'm so sorry that my mom has cancer, but I'm also grateful that we're getting this chance to be so loving to each other, at long last.
This is what it means, I think, to be family — to allow our nearest and dearest to see us at our most vulnerable moments, to let them take us by the hand and help us through.
My baby son's milky, grateful expression as he gazed up at me from my breast after months of struggle to get the whole thing working. My grandfather's eyes when he realized that he didn't have to feel ashamed. The look my mother and I exchanged in the mirror when it dawned on her that going bald wasn't going to be the end of the world for her and she actually looked quite pretty in her wig.
These are the moments that seem to tell the whole story of what it means to feel connected to those we love.
Diapers to diapers, dust to dust. We nurture the part of ourselves that never grows up as we care for our children. We ease our own passage to death with every kindness we show our ailing parents. Whether or not you believe in karma, the spiritual bank account fills up and runneth over.
Freelance writer Barbara Quick is a frequent media guest and the author of three books. She has been a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review since 1984.
Thriving in an Empty Nest
Too Much Togetherness
A Single Mom Learns to Live Again
Two Men and a Baby
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