Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier
As I stood at my kitchen counter today, making my youngest daughter her typical lunch, peanut butter on white bread…no crust, I recalled how many times I have made that very same sandwich, not only for my daughters, but also for my mother. It’s a simple sandwich really; very plain, nothing extra, easy to make, and in that moment of consideration, I found myself relating to the peanut butter. Am I crazy? Has my life really been reduced to empathizing with peanut butter?
My name is Kirsten VanAtta, and I am what “they” call the sandwich generation. I am just one of a generation of adults caring for an elderly or ailing parent, while simultaneously raising young children.
Eight years ago, my mother was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder, with an inevitable death sentence within 2-5 years. At 56 years of age she was retired, living alone, her children grown with children of their own, and facing the inevitability of her own death. She had already begun to lose her sight, her memory, and her ability to perform simple daily tasks. Three years later, my mother was very much alive, but had lost so many abilities, that caring for her self had become a safety issue, which begged the question, what next? With both my sister and I opposed to a nursing home, my partner set to work designing and building an addition to our home, to move my mother in and attend to her growing need for care. Eighteen months later, she moved in.
In a society where our elderly are a disposable commodity I took the road less traveled; the higher road. I did the “right” thing, didn’t I?
I was a life partner, home-maker, stay at home mother to two girls, aged 2 and 5 at the time, operating a small business from home, volunteering at school, running, playing, living…My life was full. What I soon discovered was that I really didn’t know what full was. All these roles, by which I had lived and defined myself, were suddenly and abruptly replaced by the all encompassing role of caretaker. Now, I was tired, over-wrought, over-taxed, impatient, angry, empty, and stretched beyond healthy limits. It is in this way that I spent the next three years.
It has been seven months since my mother transitioned into “the dreaded” nursing home. She is content, taken care of and safe. Even now, I still struggle to balance the weighted scales of the roles that I have chosen to play, but I see my place through a new, and more forgiving viewfinder.
As I look back on my experience, I know I didn’t do it perfectly, but I have come to understand that I did it to the best of my ability, and with all the fallibility of being human. Even with all the loss and sacrifice, I have gained and benefited as well. I may have lost spontaneity, romance, easy-going days, and time for myself, but I gained immeasurable time with my mom that I would not have probably taken otherwise. I may have lost my sense of self, but I really found myself too, in many ways I didn’t know existed. I may have felt alone and lonely at times, but I have gained love and devotion from my friends, and family, that I didn’t realize I already had.
I have tried, failed, fallen, cursed, wished, hoped, dreamed, fought, cried, laughed, given up, and made it through. I have come to accept myself as the thick, sticky, nourishing gob of peanut butter that holds the bread of my life together. After all, a peanut butter sandwich, without the peanut butter, is just…bread.