In the spring of 1976, during my junior year in high school, I reached for the stars. The school musical that year was “Funny Girl,” and I set my sights on the Nicky Arnstein role. I actually didn’t do too badly in the singing audition, but those dark-and-handsome, matinee-idol looks the part demands just weren’t what I had to offer, so the role went, instead, to a sophomore who could both sing and smolder (o.k., so he was more Jonas brother than Omar Sharif, but it was a high school production, after all). I, instead, landed the twin roles of Hecky the Cab Driver and Ticket Taker #1, two transporting roles (pun intended) that pulled me just high enough above the general chorus to earn a named credit in the program.
I’m playing dual roles, yet again, these days – those of caregiver and son – in the play that is my father’s life. There’s an added challenge in this new production, however, which I never faced as I attempted to parse the varying motivations of Hecky and the ticket taker – my two current characters often are on stage simultaneously. And, as I seem to be the play’s stand-in director, as well, I only have myself to turn to, when it comes to figuring out which of these two characters should be speaking the lines at any given moment. My biggest frustration often comes from the feeling that I’ve given one of these two roles shorter shrift, at a time when either a son’s compassion or a caregiver’s detached observation would have been the better tack.
Of course, we all play multiple roles in other peoples’ plays throughout our – and their – lives. But I think some people believe the shift that happens in the relationships of parents and adult children, when those parents begin needing help, as a simple role reversal. In other words, we become our parents’ parents. Sometimes this logic goes on to assume this turnabout to be, well, fair play – with the kids now doing for parents what the parents did for them decades ago. In my experience, at least, this argument overlooks a couple basic facts. First, the role of caregiver is inherently different than that of parent, so to call this a simple role reversal misstates what actually happens. And, second, even as we’re caregiving, it’s impossible for we adult offspring to ignore that, while to the outside world we may appear to have taken on the parental mantle, inside we are still our parents’ children.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, let me be clear that my own parenting experience doesn’t reach beyond housetraining a dog and a couple of cats. So, I’m probably not the right person to make wide generalizations about the experience of being a parent. But, one obvious difference I can’t help but comment on is that – except where a child may have special needs – parents do their job assuming (if they do it right) their role will become easier and less prominent over time. The toddler they’re diapering this year will be handling the bathroom on their own in another 12 or 18 months time. The child they’re reading to tonight will be able to read aloud, themselves, in another couple years. The tween they’re driving to baseball or ballet or play practice will be driving themselves in two years. (O.k., so this one might be more terrifying than uplifting, but you get my drift.)
But caregivers of parents see only the opposite track – from driving to not driving, from reading to being read to, and from bathroom success to depending on the kindness of others to empty the overnight urinal. With decline more likely than accomplishment, this kind of caregiving requires a certain degree of sheer will – in place of hope – to make it through any given day. Professional caregivers – the nurses, aides, physical therapists and others who can help to, at least, postpone a decline – have the added benefit of detachment. Theirs is a job they approach with concern and involvement, but can (mostly) leave behind at the end of the day. However, when the caregiving “client” is also your parent, detachment becomes impossible, and that trend toward decline can lead to a decidedly depressed performance in both roles.
But one distinguishing characteristic of this particular play is that it’s completely improvisational. So, to counter the twin-role challenge it presents to me as an actor, I’ve begun to add some directorial flourishes to move the production from a Samuel Beckett downer to something that falls a bit closer to, perhaps, a Mel Brooks production. Like, wouldn’t it be great to see kick line of visiting nurses emerge behind my father as he makes his way, slowly, from bedroom to bathroom – and I bet the oxygen tubing would make a great prop!
And for my own life, I’m throwing in some Fellini, imagining a dolce vita day when I can merge my two roles back into a single “me.” When Hecky the cabdriver knocks on the door, ready to get me to the station just in time for Ticket Taker #1 to accept my fare for parts unknown. Sure, I may be taking a journey into Neverland with these imaginings, but for now I ask you a favor: Please don’t rain on my parade.