Life as a Balancing Act--in Double Time

If a child--like a tree--grows slowly and inexorably, how is it that this process can be observed only in sudden, striking events?

One day, the child can barely reach the knob on the silverware drawer; the next, she is peering over the top, inventorying for herself the forbidden tines and sharpened blades. One day, the child is a wobbly toddler; overnight she becomes a terror on three wheels.

We had one of those sea changes of childhood in our house this week, when our little girl bid us adieu and went off to college.

Seemed like only yesterday I kissed her owies and sang her to sleep.

Ah, did I say college?

Make that preschool.

Turns out it was only yesterday I kissed her owies and sang her to sleep.

Then why does it feel so monumental? And why should a parent feel so blue?

My suspicion is that it's a matter of timing, which, as we know, is everything. (Well, timing and location. But let's leave the real estate market out of this. Aren't we depressed enough?)

In a world-class example of bad timing, I've just stepped into the maw of the Big Squeeze--that uncomfortable spot occupied by the many of us who are caught between the demands of raising children and caring for aging parents.

It's a balancing act.

And I'm no Mary Lou Retton.


To explain how this happened, let me turn back the clock to a particular overcast morning two weeks ago on the Westside. We have decided, finally, that it is time for the child to get out into the world. We are on our way to meet the director of our neighborhood preschool, mindful that we are to approach this event with utmost seriousness and that a child's earliest school experience can set the tone for the rest of her academic life.

The school is in a converted house around the corner. I like the idea of a kid walking to school. It harks back to my own idealized childhood, when we trudged several miles through the sleet and snow to get to Northridge Elementary School.

And, it turns out, I like everything about this place--that certain preschool funkiness, the raves from other parents, the philosophy espoused by the woman who runs it, the antibacterial soap in the bathroom. My daughter is so ready for school it is almost pathetic. I try to feel happy but my stomach hurts.

We walk home, I get in the car and one hour later, I am standing with my mother in the foyer of a retirement home on the east side of town.

My mother--who has made an extraordinary recovery from brain surgery 2 1/2 years ago, who has through sheer grit re-qualified for a driver's license--wants me to see this place. It's great, isn't it? she asks. Wouldn't it be wonderful if she could just move right in?

I have just spent one hour touring a place full of short people who have trouble walking and talking; now I am touring a place filled with tall people who have trouble walking and talking.

I am still reeling from the idea that my nestling is ready to take wing, when I am hit in the solar plexus by the thought that my mother is ready to give up.

It's too much.

"Mom," I say, "you are too young for this place! You aren't even 70! Most of these people are in their 80s and 90s! Why? Why do you want to give up? Why?" (I admit it. I am bordering on hysteria now. In my voice are echoes of my daughter's tantrums on days she misses her nap. I would have broken down sooner, but what kind of impression would that have left on the preschool director?)

My mother, whose logic is nothing if not unique, looks at me and shakes her head.

"I'm tired of cooking," she says.

My head begins a slow throb.

My baby is leaping into the world; my mother is shrinking from it.

Frantically--and angrily--I start throwing solutions at her: Let's hire a cook! Let's call the doctor and talk about depression!

What I really want to say cannot be said: You're my mom. I need you to be young for a while yet. You can't be old. You can't give up.

I drop my mother at her house and head to work.

An image comes into my head: I am standing in the middle of a room as the floor and the ceiling start moving toward each other. I can't leave the room. I am going to be crushed.

At my computer, I scan the news wires. The real tragedies of the world--war, murder, mayhem--are at my fingertips.

My sorrow ebbs; my perspective is renewed.

Please, though. Don't hold me to this when we start talking kindergarten.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World