Several years ago Kelly and I went backpacking in Southern Utah with our best friends, John and Sabine. On the drive back to California, we stopped in Las Vegas to spend a couple of hours. We knew exactly which tourist attraction we absolutely had to visit: The Liberace Museum. OK, so we were going for the kitsch of it.
Now, I could tell you about the rainbow of garish costumes on display, the gaudy jewelry exhibited, or even the mirror-covered car (it looked like a drivable disco ball). But what really stood out was the ginormous painting of Liberace’s mother. And I probably only remember that because two older women also visiting the museum were admiring it.
As we stood behind those women, they quietly praised Liberace for his devotion to his mother, how he took such good care of her. Then one of them paused and said, “He never did get married, did he?” The four of us spent the next several seconds awkwardly trying not to split our sides laughing.
No, Liberace never did get married, did he?
For generations of elderly woman, the best thing about having a gay son was that he would take care of you. In fact, gay kids were always the natural choice to care for aging parents since they didn’t have families of their own.
But times are changing, and millions of gay men and women with kids are finding themselves in a similar situation to their straight siblings: balancing the needs of their kids and the needs of their parents. It’s called being in the Sandwich Generation.
Well guess what? I’m a big old piece of gay meat in that sandwich.
The first time I recognized I was a member of the Sandwich Generation was when I moved five minutes away from my late aunt Tina. She didn’t have any children, and I was probably the closest thing to a son she ever had. That’s something that meant a lot to me. But it also meant a lot of added responsibility.
My aunt was visually impaired, so she needed help with a lot of everyday activities: from paying her bills and grocery shopping to getting to the beauty salon or the bank. Sometimes she just needed me to help find something in her apartment she’d misplaced. Living just five minutes away meant I was her go-to guy.
Actually, we often had a great time together. And it was really a wonderful opportunity for the boys to deepen a relationship with her, as well as a gain an understanding about inter-generational relationships.
With my parents, it’s been a much more complicated and nuanced situation. They are, after all, my parents. And no matter how old I become, nothing will ever change that.
There’s good and bad news for the boys witnessing my evolving relationship with my parents. Good news is that, although in their 80s, my parents remain in pretty amazing health. The bad news is my sons often see me being bossy and “determined” with my parents. Wait, maybe that’s not bad news for them, maybe it’s bad news for my future.
Because believe it or not, being a father has made being a caring, involved child more difficult. And not because one morning a few weeks ago I literally went from the boys’ school program to a meeting with my parents and their lawyer.
No, it’s difficult because you realize that one day the little children you’ve nurtured and cared for may in fact be telling you in no uncertain terms that those 1,000-mile road trips you were so fond of are now in the past. They may be threatening to call your doctor to ask questions if you don’t.
I know my parents appreciate the small things I’ve done for them. I know it’s not always been an easy road for us to take. It’s plain awkward, for everyone, to have the child guide the parent. But sometimes I think it also can be a relief: There are some topics that the child will raise with lawyers, doctors, financial planners, etc., that parents can’t or won’t.
This whole experience of being stuck in the middle has been stressful, yet strangely rewarding. I want my boys to understand that although they are my number one priority, I have responsibilities to other family members as well.
If some future generation of backpackers ever stumbles on a museum dedicated to me – hopefully not in a cheesy strip mall like Liberace’s – I hope that as they gaze at the painting of my parents they’d comment on what a devoted son and father I was.