Sandwich Mom
LEARNING AS WE GO

This was the third year in a row my Dad was not at Thanksgiving.

In truth, he was there four years ago…but not really. You see, my Dad suffers from dementia and four years ago, he was in free fall. He was sinking into the gloom of dementia and losing his sense of self (where he was, who we were…) pretty fast. It was heartbreaking to try to enjoy the simple family rituals of turkey, sweet potatoes and pumpkin cheesecake with him in that state. We were all on edge.

The next year, Thanksgiving was just about six weeks after my Mom made the wrenching decision to move him into a nursing home.

In truth, it was the only decision she could make. But Thanksgiving still had a sad pall. I think we raised a glass in his honor but mostly we tiptoed around the hole in our hearts and at the table. He was always a big personality. He was the one to make the toasts, speeches, pronouncements. But he’d been silenced.

This year, in the spirit of the Thanksgiving season, my five year old daughter Isabelle and I went to a community service day sponsored by the Saturday morning Jewish family program we love. It was called Mitzvah day, or a day of good works, and there were small projects we could all participate in — sorting clothes we’d collected for a shelter, decorating and filling craft boxes for kids in the hospital and decorating tissue boxes to take to a nursing home in the area.

When Isabelle was talking to a friend that morning, she said decorating the tissue boxes made her think of her grandpa, also in a nursing home. Hearing her talk about it — as a matter of course, but with a touch of compassion — made me tear up. And proud.

It made one of the women who runs the program cry too. But Isabelle was dry-eyed. She doesn’t remember the Thanksgivings past when my Dad gave forth about the recent election or donned a apron, threw a dishtowel over his shoulder, sharpened the carving knife and went to work on the turkey with relish.

While we have pictures of Dad holding her as a baby, even visiting us in the hospital when she was born, grinning ear to ear and gazing at the new baby, she doesn’t have those memories. While she hears me talk about him, she takes him at face-value.

In school this year, Isabelle made Gramps a part of her family book. She drew him sitting in his chair at the nursing home. When the teacher told me about it, I cried, of course.

There’s a lesson in there for the grown-ups in our family. Whether it’s because it’s too painful or uncomfortable, or we just don’t know what to say, Dad didn’t come up much in conversation at Thanksgiving or at the family party the day after.

I find myself wanting, once again, to learn from my daughter, how to easily accommodate myself to the fact of my Father’s slow and painful fade from life.

He sits about a mile and a half from me. His heart is still beating and his lungs are still drawing breath. And yet, he’s gone. For Isabelle, he is a benign presence she’s learned about, held hands with, shared candy with but never really got to appreciate.

For that, I’m sad. But for her ease with his current state…I love her and try to learn from her…everyday.

November 2011//originally posted at mariashriver.com

Originally posted on mariashriver.com

April 13, 2011

Today’s Sandwich Mom: I’ll Do It Myself

By Sara Pines

“I’ll do it myself!”

That seems to be the favorite phrase of my five year old these days – from dressing herself to making grilled cheese. Of course, some activities I let her take charge of. The grilled cheese, not so much.

I applaud her independence though, and try not to get hysterical when she scoots far away from me on the sidewalk or wades into a crowd of people. Really, I’m thrilled that she’s so self-confident and undaunted.

She comes by her independent streak honestly. After all, I was raised in the ‘70’s women-can-do-it all culture. Both my parents worked. They sent me to a Quaker school, which celebrates equality and the value of every individual.

Even my father commented on it when my daughter, Isabelle, was just learning to crawl. We were at my sister’s house and I had carefully spread a blanket on her living room floor for Isabelle, but she kept crawling off into more dangerous territory. With a sigh, I said, as I chased her away from the electric cord one more time, “She’s so independent!” My Dad looked at me and said, “Like mother, like daughter.”

Those little memories of grandpa and granddaughter are especially precious to me now that he’s been ravaged by dementia. He is infantilized. This once vital, gregarious, opinionated man can’t do anything for himself now. I’ve cut his food, wiped his face, even cleaned up his urine. And it breaks my heart.

When I announced to my dad – who, at the time, was still relatively healthy – that I was pregnant (I was 40, a network news producer, single and not dating anyone), he said, “I didn’t see that coming!” What did he expect? I was raised to do everything for myself, on my own.

But the experience of raising a young child and watching a parent disappear before your eyes has taught me a surprising lesson: how to ask for help.

Right after Isabelle was born, I went to a flurry of new moms groups. And through the wonderful women I met there, I have built a community of families and friends who are all tackling the issues of teething, tantrums, preschool, now kindergarten all together, all at the same time. Our regular Friday afternoon playgroup that started when Isabelle was about 4 months old has changed shape and size through the years but is still going and still a reservoir of love and support – as are all the moms who’ve passed through it.

To deal with my father’s dementia has been just as daunting and infinitely sad. I have lost count of the number of social workers, lawyers, and health aides I’ve cried to over the phone. But the thing is, they’ve all helped me in one way or another. I’ve especially found comfort in a support group for adult children of dementia patients. Being in a room with people you know will help you pick up the pieces when you fall apart is reassuring in the moment. It also gives me the strength to tackle the next challenge that comes along, like helping my Mom find a nursing home – and now, finally, seeking hospice care for my Dad.

What I’ve come to realize is not that I can’t “do it all” on my own. I can. But I know now that doing it on your own doesn’t mean being isolated and cut-off from the world around you. It means connecting yourself to a world that is rich in compassion and support from friends (and even compassionate strangers) who are willing to help.

The trick is to know when you can tackle something single-handedly and when, like the grilled cheese, it is too hot to handle without a little help

Feminism and the 5-year-old: Not always what mom expects

By Sara Pines

Inspired by a new HBO documentary about Gloria Steinem, Katie Couric asked on her Twitter feed the other day:  Are you a feminist?

Future happy homemaker? Isabelle poses proudly with the cake that she baked with her mom, Sara Pines.

YES, I tweeted, in caps. I am now and always have been. From high school on.  I worked at the Womyn’s Center (can’t remember if they really spelled it that way, but you get the idea) in college.  I worked in various women’s organizations in the years during and after college. 

I grew up with two working parents during the 1970’s in New York City, where the women’s movement was part of everyday life.  We weren’t a politically active family but equality was just taken for granted.  I was raised to believe I can do anything I want.

And I did. I’m now a 40-something single working mom, with a great career and a beautiful daughter, working everyday to keep all the balls in the air.

So, this morning, as my 5-year-old daughter and I are walking to the playground and I steered her and her scooter around a manhole cover, she asked why it was called a manhole.  I told her, “Well, the men take the covers off and go down under the street to fix the pipes.” 

Sara Pines

Sara Pines and her daughter — who will grow up to be anything she wants to be.

She shot back, “Only men?”

I had a small feeling of satisfaction at that question as I allowed that it could be men or women.

Then, she laid it on me:  “Mom, when I grow up, I’m not going to work, I’m going to stay home and take care of the babies.”

Really?

I know that, as with many ideas in a 5-year-old brain, this too shall pass and tomorrow she’ll want to be an astronaut or a sportscaster or a showgirl.

Fresh off my viewing of the Gloria Steinem documentary, I didn’t want to over-react but I did want to send a message.  I said, “Well, honey, you can be anything you want to be.  But did you know there was a time when there were jobs people thought only men could do?”

"Like fixing the pipes?"

"Yes, or being a doctor or a lawyer or a bus driver."

"So, I can be anything I want to be."

Live Poll

Do you want to raise your children to be feminists?

YesNoVoteView Results
  • 157426Yes 51%
  • 157427No 49%

VoteTotal Votes: 332

Satisfied, for the moment, I said, “Yes.”

"I want to stay home with the babies."

Ohhhhh-kaaaaaay.  Well, I guess she told me. 

I guess feminism is all about choices, right?

Yes, Isabelle, you can stay home with the babies — as long as I get to come and play with them every once in a while.

TODAY Moms contributor Sara Pines is an editor at TODAY and has been working with the show in various capacities for 17 years. A native New Yorker, she is the single mom of a beautiful 5-year-old daughter.

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Today’s Sandwich Mom: The Book of Life

September 26, 2011

Tips for Transformation

Today’s Sandwich Mom: The Book of Life

By Sara Pines

Apples and honey for a sweet new year. For my five year old, that’s what the Jewish New Year is all about. Especially the honey. At her age, all she knows is literal sweetness.

For me, she is the sweetness. The sweetness of having her hold my hand (how much longer will she do it?) as we walk to school. The sweetness of her telling me she loves me. Of course, there are thorns, too.

But somewhere in the ten days of awe between the New Year and the Day of Atonement, if you follow the rituals, you ask to be written into the book of life for another year. It is a metaphor, of course, because life as you live it, day to day, doesn’t unfold in neat chapters or with themes you can recognize and tease out like you did in semiotics class in college (or at least I did.)

So, I was struck recently when I recognized a clear ending to a chapter.

Isabelle started kindergarten this year, which any parent knows is a cause for celebration and trepidation — a small step toward emancipation. More than any milestone I’ve lived through with her, it feels like the ending of a chapter, the clink-clank of a heavy door being shut forever. She and I will always be close. We are the only two in our little family. Yet those five and a half years of intense mothering — of spending every morning together (my job scheduled worked out so I had half a day with her for most of that time) teaching her about life, how to walk, how not to touch when it’s hot, how to be compassionate when a friend gets a boo-boo, of trying to make her understand that grabbing a toy or pushing a kid down wasn’t good behavior — now seems like a giant mountain we climbed together. 

All these daily lessons that pile one on top of another, so we don’t even notice them: they’re behind us now.

One of the toughest lessons that I taught over those years — and had to learn for myself — was “what’s wrong with Gramps?”

My father has been in a nursing home, ravaged by dementia for nearly three years now. He doesn’t know where he is, who he is, who I am.. and I can’t help but wonder, will he be written into the book of life for another year?

It is a cruel fate for such a lively, engaged man: to sit mute and unknowing, now unconnected with a world he loved.

But the lesson of Gramps (the answer I settled on was “his brain is sick”) was a tough one to grasp for both Isabelle and me. Will he get better? No. But her matter-of-fact acceptance of that fate for him was a good lesson for me.

His final chapter is being written. How long it will last, no one can know.

Isabelle is starting a whole new chapter and so am I. Hers I can see taking shape, as she learns to form her own words, sentences and eventually chapters.

What I’m wrestling with now is: what does the new chapter look like for me, still an active mom, less active as a daughter to my Dad? A friend asked me, was I sad to say good-bye to that intense time of mothering, full of happy playdates and the occasional tantrums. I admitted to getting a little teary on the first day of kindergarten (Isabelle was dry-eyed, and I’m glad about that). But no, I realize, I’m not sad. Wistful, maybe. But not sad.

I poured a lot of love, sweat, tears, frustration, hugs, kisses, kindness, compassion, anger, irritation, joy…all of it…into those five years. I am proud of it. Happy with it. Proud of her and happy for her.

I’m happy to be moving forward, to be seeing what the next chapter brings, for all of us…as we dip our apples in the honey in a few days.

ORIGINALLY POSTED ON mariashriver.com

originally posted on mariashriver.com 5/18/11

Today’s Sandwich Mom: Bribery

By Sara Pines

I offered my daughter a treat to go visit my dad the other day. He’s been in the nursing home, slowly dying of dementia for two and a half years now — about half her life. She’s used to going.

But in the last year or so, we’d developed a ritual of bringing candy for the two of them to share. He always loved sweets. She has the same sweet-tooth and despite the fact that he didn’t know it was his granddaughter holding up the gummi bear or Raisinette, he took it and seemed at least to enjoy it.


Until about a month ago.

We tried to feed him some candy after we roused him from a nap as he sat in a wheel chair in the day room of his nursing home. He wouldn’t even open his mouth, and only opened one eye.

His hospice aide told us, “Oh, Mr. Pines doesn’t eat solid food anymore. If he has something in his mouth he just moves it from side to side, he doesn’t know what to do with it. “
I thought I’d become immune to heartbreak from this disease. Or at least my heart had developed a pretty thick callous. But this pierced through. “He’s on pureed food now, “ she told me, gently. Another indignity on the pile. One of the last, I expect. I mean, there’s almost no dignity left. There’s certainly almost nothing of my Dad left.

After that visit, I thought I’d never bring my daughter again. It would be too painful. But for who?

Then after a few weeks, I decided it was time for us to go back. I thought after that last horrifying visit, I would need to cajole her. I pre-emptively offered a bribe. I said, “Gramps can’t eat the candy anymore, remember, but I’ll get you a treat after.” She was thrilled, but didn’t seem to need the incentive. I guess I figured she’d need something to soften the blow.

He was sleeping when we got there, mouth agape. But he did open his eyes. Isabelle held his hand for a minute. I kissed his forehead and told him I loved him. What more is there to do?

I learn from my daughter everyday. What is this lesson, though? Resilience? Innocence? Should I be more like her, in the moment, not worrying about what’s coming next?

For my dad we know what’s coming next and I no longer worry about it, for him. I worry about it for me. I thought I was doing a good job shielding my daughter from the pain of his imminent demise but she told my aunt, just this weekend, that Gramps was going to die soon. I worry that I share too much with her being a single mom with one child. Too much of my stress and grief brimming over, spilling out in tears, sometimes misplaced frustration. But that is life, too. Along with her sunny disposition, her guilelessness, her seeming endless well-spring of optimism and sunlight, there are shadows. Always shadows to give the light its due.

So, who were the sweets for? The bribery to get through the dark passage? She certainly enjoyed them but she is my treat, my light against the ever encroaching darkness. Sometimes I worry if this is too big a burden for those small shoulders. But, in the end, it’s a journey we both have to take, and it will be better if we hold hands along the way.

Will the next visit be the last? I don’t know, but the candy will help.

Sara Pines is a producer and show editor at NBC’s TODAY show and a contributor to the blogTodayMoms.com as Today’s Sandwich Mom. She is the single mother of a beautiful five year old girl and a native New Yorker. You can follow her on Twitter @sarampines.

Today’s Sandwich Mom: I’ll do it myself!

Today’s Sandwich Mom: I’ll Do It Myself

By Sara Pines

“I’ll do it myself!”

That seems to be the favorite phrase of my five year old these days – from dressing herself to making grilled cheese. Of course, some activities I let her take charge of. The grilled cheese, not so much.

I applaud her independence though, and try not to get hysterical when she scoots far away from me on the sidewalk or wades into a crowd of people. Really, I’m thrilled that she’s so self-confident and undaunted.

She comes by her independent streak honestly. After all, I was raised in the ‘70’s women-can-do-it all culture. Both my parents worked. They sent me to a Quaker school, which celebrates equality and the value of every individual.

Even my father commented on it when my daughter, Isabelle, was just learning to crawl. We were at my sister’s house and I had carefully spread a blanket on her living room floor for Isabelle, but she kept crawling off into more dangerous territory. With a sigh, I said, as I chased her away from the electric cord one more time, “She’s so independent!” My Dad looked at me and said, “Like mother, like daughter.”

Those little memories of grandpa and granddaughter are especially precious to me now that he’s been ravaged by dementia. He is infantilized. This once vital, gregarious, opinionated man can’t do anything for himself now. I’ve cut his food, wiped his face, even cleaned up his urine. And it breaks my heart.

When I announced to my dad – who, at the time, was still relatively healthy – that I was pregnant (I was 40, a network news producer, single and not dating anyone), he said, “I didn’t see that coming!” What did he expect? I was raised to do everything for myself, on my own.

But the experience of raising a young child and watching a parent disappear before your eyes has taught me a surprising lesson: how to ask for help.

Right after Isabelle was born, I went to a flurry of new moms groups. And through the wonderful women I met there, I have built a community of families and friends who are all tackling the issues of teething, tantrums, preschool, now kindergarten all together, all at the same time. Our regular Friday afternoon playgroup that started when Isabelle was about 4 months old has changed shape and size through the years but is still going and still a reservoir of love and support – as are all the moms who’ve passed through it.

To deal with my father’s dementia has been just as daunting and infinitely sad. I have lost count of the number of social workers, lawyers, and health aides I’ve cried to over the phone. But the thing is, they’ve all helped me in one way or another. I’ve especially found comfort in a support group for adult children of dementia patients. Being in a room with people you know will help you pick up the pieces when you fall apart is reassuring in the moment. It also gives me with the strength to tackle the next challenge that comes along, like helping my Mom find a nursing home – and now, finally, seeking hospice care for my Dad.

What I’ve come to realize is not that I can’t “do it all” on my own. I can. But I know now that doing it on your own doesn’t mean being isolated and cut-off from the world around you. It means connecting yourself to a world that is rich in compassion and support from friends (and even compassionate strangers) who are willing to help.

The trick is to know when you can tackle something single-handedly and when, like the grilled cheese, it is too hot to handle without a little help.

Sara Pines is a producer and show editor at NBC’s TODAY show and a contributor to the blogTodayMoms.com as Today’s Sandwich Mom. She is the single mother of a beautiful five year old girl and a native New Yorker. You can follow her on Twitter @sarampines.

Sandwich Mom: Dancing with death on Valentine’s Day

How did you spend your Valentine’s Day? I spent it with people I love… sounds perfect, right? Not 100 percent. It was a day of emotional whiplash.

I had two important events on the calendar. My mom and I met with my father’s hospice team at the nursing home. He’s now officially in the final stages of dementia. It’s the kind of disease where there are no clear milestones, just a steady, agonizingly slow descent into oblivion. Before this, I had no idea a death could go on so long. So, while the doctor says we’re in the last stages and the hospice workers seem to concur — is he close to the end?

I don’t know. 

We had to confirm, once again, that we wanted an easy exit for him. No tubes, no assistance with breathing or fighting for his life: After all, what kind of life does he have? Is there anything left of his personality? The questions still linger; most days I’m no longer trying to answer them.

I do know that somehow this external confirmation that the end is around the corner (even if we’ve got a long block to walk until we reach that corner) has given me and my mom permission to mourn a little more openly. I have always been a crier, as has my dad; in fact, it’s now the only emotion that he can display, a heartbreak that has formed a sort of callus on my heart. His tears don’t automatically make me weep anymore. Only sometimes.  

And yet, there is something empowering about this new stage in the process. For the first time since dealing with this illness for at least four years now, probably longer, we are exerting some control over the long process of dying. There is something satisfying, even a little liberating, about it.

After the nursing home, my mom and I had lunch, then went on to the second big event on the calendar: my 5-year-old’s ballet class. It was an open house for the parents and grandparents. This time I was moved to tears, but in a good way. The serious faces, the pink leotards with skirts attached, the joy when they catch themselves in the mirror, the attempt to follow direction — often falling endearingly short — but with such joy, who cares? There were hugs and excitement, and then we parted ways with the little one for a little while.

It was the perfect antidote to the toxic sadness of the trip to see my father.  Now, with a little bit of a lighter mood, in fact, a warm nostalgic mood, mom and I were able to reminisce a little — especially about all the trips my mom and dad took together. From Russia to China, London to Istanbul. But his particular favorite was always Italy. We remembered trips to the hills of Tuscany, nailbiting drives taken, or avoided by paying someone else to take them down the Amalfi coast. We talked about my father’s favorites and foibles and for the first time in a long time, it was just nice to revel in the memories. For me, anyway, it wasn’t achingly sad — it was just a sweet walk in the Tuscan sun.  

Sandwich Mom: Can’t argue with that

It’s all about sharing: Sandwich Mom can’t argue with that

By TODAY show editor Sara Pines, a.k.a. Sandwich Mom

This week, I asked my nearly 5-year-old why she didn’t have school Monday and she replied, “It was three kings day.”  I said, no, it was Martin Luther King Day.  She replied, without missing a beat, “It still has a king in it.”

Couldn’t argue with that.

I asked her if she’d learned about Martin Luther King in school.  She said she had, and it was a holiday about sharing. “Everybody should have the same,” she offered. I liked that thought. I tried to explain that he wanted everyone to be treated the same no matter what they looked like or what color their skin was. That seemed to go right past her. She was pretty adamant that it was a holiday about sharing and everyone having the same thing. Then, “I’m good at sharing.”  And she is.

It was a satisfying Mommy moment.

A striking contrast to Saturday, which was a busy day for us: back to back to back activities, interrupted by a subway error on my part that forced us to walk a lot farther than expected through a pretty but unfamiliar part of Manhattan.  She was complaining. I was impatient.  She was hungry.  I was frustrated.  I was happy to spend the day with her going to our semi-regular Saturday morning Shabbat celebration, making new friends, seeing old friends, checking out a college basketball game.  But, because I was working different hours the week before, our rhythm was a little off-kilter and while there were no major meltdowns – for either of us – it wasn’t the smoothest day.

We managed to squeeze in a quick visit to my Dad in the nursing home.  This time he didn’t even eat the candy Isabelle picked out to share with him.  Since he’s in the end stages of the brutal disease known as dementia, he doesn’t speak, so I don’t know if he didn’t want it because he’d just had lunch or didn’t like the taste or just didn’t even know what we were putting to his lips.  We left after a few minute of holding his hand, a quick shoulder rub and a kiss.   I don’t cry anymore.  But I am heartbroken.

The beauty of my live-in-the-moment and generally happy daughter is that she was just thrilled to have the candy and a kiss with Gramps and was out the door and on to the next activity without any sadness or too much reflection. After all, she’s a good sharer.

Couldn’t argue with that.

And maybe I can learn something.

TODAY Moms contributor Sara Pines is an editor at TODAY and has been working with the show in various capacities for 17 years. She is a single mom of a beautiful 4-year-old daughter and a native New Yorker.

here’s an hysterical Hanukkah song.. L’chaim everyone!