Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Y'know all that talk about the Sandwich Generation, about people caring both for children and for elderly parents? I've always felt like half a sandwich without the kid part of the equation, but today gave me a taste of the experience.

I woke up nice and early for a change (7:00! wow!) and had a liesurely knit on the deck over morning coffee. Then I wrote and practiced, and then I got down to the chore I'd been dreading and have been putting off for months now: filling in the legal paperwork to claim my share of Mom's modest financial assets.

I think I've mentioned here before that finances send me into a panic, largely because of childhood experiences around money and lack thereof. My mother was an anxious person anyway, but especially so around expenses and income. That wasn't surprising, since she was a single -- and newly sober -- parent raising two daughters without help from her ex. (My father, who descended into his own alcoholism during my childhood and adolescence, was very irresponsible with money during those years, although he became a model of thrift and prudence as a senior citizen.)

Mom grew up during the Depression. Her parents were well off, and she never lacked for anything, but she probably would have been hypervigilant on the money front even if she hadn't wound up divorced on a shoestring budget. To save money, she hand-sewed and hand-knit most of our clothing; to protect her feelings, I never told her how often or cruelly other kids taunted me for my unfashionable threads. She constantly fretted about bills, and inadvertently guilt-tripped me and my sister by telling us how much gifts and treats cost, or simply by saying that we had to take good care of what we'd been given because it had "cost a lot of money."

She also went many extra miles to make sure my sister and I had what we needed. When my father reneged on his agreement to pay for my sister's college education (a lapse we learned about only when my sister got a notice saying she was about to be kicked out of school for nonpayment of bills), my mother squared her shoulders and promised my sister that she'd scrape together the tuition money by the deadline, which was, as I recall, about a week away. She paid that bill on time, thanks to two dear AA friends, a married couple, who gave her an interest-free education loan, followed several years later by an interest-free car loan. Every December, our friends told Mom they'd forgiven the loan payment for that month, so that she could buy Christmas presents for me and my sister.

When it came time for me to go to college, my mother promised me that we'd make it work without any help from my father. We did, thanks to generous financial aid. After loans, grants, scholarships, and money from my summer jobs, my mother only had to pay $500 a year -- but to afford even that much, she had to take a second job. Part of my compulsive academic overachievement in college sprang from guilt over her sacrifices. After she was laid off from a struggling company, the household finances were so dire that, during my senior year, my university actually paid her money.

Later, when Mom was better off, she delighted in giving me and my sister large gifts. Aside from all the jewelry she bought me, she was the source of at least two expensive beds, an air conditioner, a fridge, the dining-room chairs Gary and I use every day, and various other appliances and furniture. Just as she had been during my childhood, Mom was both an unfailingly reliable source of financial support and a wellspring of anxiety about money. She was always generous, but she also always managed to make some doleful, fatalistic comment like, "Well, you and your sister will get it all when I'm dead anyway." Generosity invariably carried with it the chill of doom.

Given all of this, it's probably no surprise that just looking at a checkbook makes me hyperventilate. (And I haven't even talked about my father's side of the equation, which left me with another set of baggage.) It's probably also no surprise that the estate paperwork's been sitting on my desk since May. Last week, after months of gentle nudging from my sister -- who long since filled out the forms and received her own share -- and after getting a pointed reminder notice from one of Mom's banks, with dire language about deadlines and tax penalties, I finally figured out exactly why I've been avoiding the task.

This is my last gift from my mother. I'll never get another check from her. This is The End. There won't be any more. That finitude has kicked into high gear all of my mother's messages, unconscious and otherwise, about scarcity and limitation and famine. So even though I'll be getting money -- because I'll be getting money -- I've gone into Miser Mode. Putting off the paperwork was both my way of hoarding and my own little after-the-fact denial dance. If I don't fill out the forms, it can't really be The End, can it?

Once I'd figured out that bit of magical thinking, it was easier to move past the block. The deadlines and penalties certainly didn't hurt. This morning I finally sat down and filled out the dratted paperwork, which took all of ten minutes (including a call to my sister to ask how she'd handled tax withholding). The two forms are now in the mail, and the two checks -- my own little piece of The End, which Gary and I will promptly convert into our emergency medical fund, with a slice shaved off to pay for my viola, the new computer, and our plane flights to my cousin's funeral -- should arrive by Thanksgiving.

Even though the paperwork was simple, filling it out was draining. But since I'd already been thinking about emergency medical funds, I decided to go ahead and book Harley's pre-dental bloodwork. He needs this done before he has his teeth cleaned, since he's now a geriatric cat, but he also needs it so we can keep track of what's happening with his ailing kidneys.

So I called the vet and got a lab appointment for this afternoon. The dental work will be Friday, if the bloodwork indicates he can withstand the surgery. Gary and I hauled Harley down there as he howled with indignation inside his carrying case. One tech took him back for the testing while Gary and I stayed in the waiting room and chatted with the other techs.

The next thing I knew, our smiling vet was standing in front of us. "I just wanted to show you what's going on with his urine," she said cheerfully, and held up a test tube filled with bright-red fluid.

I yelped and jumped backwards, my hands flying to cover my mouth. Later, Gary reminded me that Harley's urine was bright red last time, too (six months ago?) and that the vet couldn't find any reason for it: no infection, no other sign of overt disease, other than the less-than-ideal kidney values. Sometimes cats with kidney disease just have blood in their urine, even though they're otherwise doing well. Last time, our vet concluded that we shouldn't panic.

I didn't remember any of that this afternoon, though. I couldn't figure out why our kind, lovely vet was showing me this gruesome specimen as casually as if it were a flower arrangement. I couldn't figure out why the techs were looking at me like I was crazy. I had a major case of cognitive dissonance to go along with my case of amnesia.

Now I can't imagine how I could have forgotten that first bright-red test tube, which was just as shocking and upsetting as the second one. But after the other things that have happened in the last six months, I think I couldn't stand to remember. Harley's very closely linked in memory and emotion to my mother, who was with me when I adopted him. She cradled the teensy kitten in her lap as we drove home from the shelter. He howled in indignation that time, too. Harley's never liked cars.

So, anyway, it's probably still not panic time. Harley's been eating and drinking well and acting his usual self (we use clumping litter, which has disguised the color changes). On Friday morning, we'll get the bloodtest results. If they're no worse than they have been, we'll go ahead with the dental work. If they are worse, we'll hold off on the dental and start figuring out what else to do, if anything. But Harley's held steady for the last few years, so I hope he'll keep it up.

Summary: Emotional day. Dead-mother issues. Sick-pet issues. This is as close as I get to the Sandwich Generation, although mine is one weird sandwich.


  1. Anonymous4:17 AM

    Thanks for posting this one about money and your mother. Our experiences were very similar growing up and only in the last few years have I dealt with financial issues without fear and panic. I signed some papers regarding my mother's estate just yesterday. The hardest thing was the day I appeared before the probate judge and was so overwhelmed with sadness I couldn't speak.

  2. Your mothers last gift to you will keep on giving in the form of good health, so, every time you need medical care you can thank your mom for her assistance. I think that is a fantastic idea. I get a cheque every month from my dads estate so his memory is fresh with me all the time. Sometimes I think it might have been best if it had been an all at once gift so I could move on.
    My husband and myself were a part of the sandwich generation for a few years and let me tell you, you are not missing a thing. The only winner for the sandwich generation is the bread; the filling (us) gets squished beyond belief.
    Poor old Harley. We will hold good thoughts for him. He is lucky to have such dedicated care givers.

  3. don't sweat the paperwork, susan. your mother will continue to give you gifts as long as you live.


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