When Beth Gee was 15 years old, a sophomore in high school, her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. She was unprepared for death; the thought of losing her mother terrified her.
She says: We didnt know if she was going to get to see me graduate from high school. Then we didnt know if she would see me get married or have kids.
But Beth is now grown, married and has two children, and her mother, still living, has witnessed all of those milestones. Beths sense of impending loss and fear has been tempered over time into a gratefulness that seeps into all her thoughts about family.
Maybe it was the fear of losing her (when I was so young) that means every minute you have or every second you have with them is amazing.
And so, over the years, as Beth watched her mothers health become increasingly more compromised by diabetes and a debilitating disease that leaves her in constant pain, there was no question in her mind.
I knew as long as I could take care of her, I wouldnt put her in a home. I also knew that Dad, as much as he loves her, cant take care of her.
Does that mean shell never go into a home? No. But she knows, and we know as a family, that we will live together as long as we can.
Beth is part of a sandwich generation, caring for both her children and her parents. At 37, shes statistically a little younger than most caregivers, and at 57 and 63 years old, her parents are younger as well.
When my husband married me, he knew eventually my mother or my family would live with us. Honestly, we thought that would be much down the road.
But necessity doesnt pay attention to statistics. As Beths mother, Sherryl Winslow, struggled with her health, her father was injured, was unable to work, lost his job and had to file for bankruptcy. So in 2010, Beth and her husband built a 425-square-foot addition on their house, and her parents moved in.
Sherryl: No one likes being taken care of youre the strong one; youre the mother. You want to take care of others. You have to finally say you cant do it all. You cant do it any more.
Beth: Momma will tell you she doesnt like to be a burden. Im having to remind her that shes not a burden shes my mother. Shes my kids grandmother and every day that we have with her is a blessing.
Beth is the primary caregiver for both her parents. Shes the one who takes them on doctors visits; shes the one who cares for them when theyre sick. Its a full-time responsibility added to her roles as wife and mother and to her full-time job as a program coordinator for the biomolecular sciences Ph.D. program at Boise State University.
There is someone needing something from me all the time. The time I drive from home to work, and from work to home are the only two times in my day that someone doesnt need something from me.
Thats probably been the most challenging and rewarding, because you like to feel needed. But there are times youd like to be alone.
She and her husband work as a team. Theyre both very different Beth is outgoing and effusive; Marcus is quiet and solid. Beth is the caregiver; he keeps her grounded.
When you have young kids, theyre usually the first priority. When you have a sick parent, the priority changes to them, so its forever fluctuating. Its doesnt go to Marcus, much. (But) hes always there to support me no matter what Im doing. ... Hes my rock. ...
I have felt unconditional love from my parents, but with him, I truly feel it every day.
Living together intergenerationally requires some skill. The four adults Beth and Marcus, Sherryl and Gary work hard at communication. Really hard, says Beth, balancing the need for both information so she can know, for instance, how bad her mothers pain is so she can help her and the need for space, respect and independence.
Sherryl: I learned with my own mother it doesnt matter how much you love someone even more than life itself everyone gets tired of hearing complaints of illness when its day in and day out.
You love that person so much, you want to care for them, but at the same time, your mind and your body can only take so much. There has to be a release in some way, whether it be shortness or tears.
Beth: That stress will come out in some way, and its typically towards the person that youre caring for.
What Beth and her mother share is a great capacity to laugh and a well-honed ability to talk things out.
My mom is my best friend and she has been all my life, says Beth.
Sherryl: I cant think of a greater blessing than having (my daughter) take care of me and us living together.
I cant even begin to put it into words. Not just my grandkids, but my child seeing the person that (Beth) has evolved into, day in and day out, including the struggles what she has become and made of herself. What parent wouldnt want to see that, day in and day out?
And the grandkids. Theres just no greater joy. There is nothing like being able to kiss your grandkids good morning and goodnight.
Taking care of her parents helped Beth discover her hearts work, which is caring for elderly people. This spring, she finished her masters in gerontology. Along the way, she volunteered at a hospice and with Friends in Action, where she teaches a class for caregivers (see sidebar and online links).
I took the classes to learn how to be a leader, and I realized it charged my battery as well. Im giving of myself, but I get something back from (other caregivers). I get to hear their stories; I hear about struggles. (And) because Im in the same situation as them providing care I can empathize with them.
But probably the most powerful event in her life was the death of her grandmother.
I knew I loved elderly people, but I knew theyd die on me and that scared me.
In 2008, her grandmother was three days in intensive care, alive only because of the technology that kept her heart beating.
And I knew she wouldnt want to live this way. It became very obvious that it was time for her to go.
The family agonized and made the decision.
I thought, Oh my God, Im going to be in the room with a dead body, whats going to happen? And when she passed away, I didnt feel that at all. It was very peaceful. The whole room was filled with peace.
It was beautiful. It was absolutely beautiful. Its one of my greatest memories. And it made me realize that its OK when people die, and sometimes its better when people die.
That kind of gave me the courage to say, I really like old people and Im no longer afraid of them passing away on me.
And so, death is no longer hidden in Beths family. She and her parents have had the hard talks about their passing, and her children are aware that people die even if they dont know quite what that means.
We havent talked about Mom and Dad passing away, but we dont hide death from them. They know that Nannys sick; they know that Nanny gets sick and has to go to the hospital. Thank God, weve always brought Nanny home. ...
(My mother) has always said, When I die, just remember Im not in pain anymore. We hope thats a long time away, but shes right. (When the time comes), God will help me figure out what to say Ill just tell them the same thing I tell myself: that shes not in pain anymore. They get that; they see it every day of their lives.
I think the greatest gift we can give to the kids as a family is for them to experience a beautiful death surrounded with loved ones.
Thats what I hope for everyone I know, my family and friends: that they have a beautiful death.
May that be a long time in coming, she repeats, but the inevitability of death only saturates the joy the family has in being together.
Whether youre religious or not, whether you believe in karma or you believe Heavenly Father is going to look out for you, your blessings are going to be returned. And I believe that my blessings are already being returned for all the stuff that we (get to do) as a family.
This isnt an extended family. This is a family.
Know someone living from the heart? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.