Wednesday, April 7, 2010

On Becoming an Adult Orphan

A friend who'd lost his father years ago, recently lost his mother. He told me, "I'm an orphan."

"Orphan" conjures images of scruffy waifs in drafty, moldering institutions, not middle-aged people with spouses, homes, and children. Having never known a parent is shattering. Losing a parent too young is shattering. Losing a parent at the "appropriate" time, when you're well into adulthood and after mom or dad has enjoyed a long life is... shattering.

This is not a cheerful topic. Aging and dying parents have become an epidemic among friends in my age group. But we are the lucky ones, having had our parents for so long. They are lucky too, experiencing the natural order of life and outliving their children.  Still, a parent’s decline and death rends to the core. 

Recently, I was at the gym when an acquaintance received news that his father had died, not unexpectedly. Still, he looked broken. He was a big, strong man, yet I glimpsed the boy he'd been.

I know how he felt.  One wonders, "Who am I now?"

Ten years ago, I’d received similar news. Mine came via a phone call from my aunt. She delivered her message in the plain-spoken, direct manner of the rural north Texas plains where both sides of my family are from. She said, “Your father is dead.”

The news was not unexpected. My father’s last months were a twilight nightmare. At last, the nightmare was over.  So when my aunt’s call came, it was a blessing and yet…

I hung up the phone and moved to an easy chair where I rarely sit. That day, I sat there with both feet on the ground and my arms resting on the chair arms. The solidity of the big old chair was comforting. I sat there for a long time and thought of my father. The most resonant memories were the most mundane. As a child, holding his hand that seemed impossibly big and strong. Climbing astride his shoulders and seeing the world from so high up. Racing in the yard where I could never catch him unless he let me. 

Decades later, I sat beside his hospital bed where his body, which had seemed so tall and invincible had atrophied.  I held that same hand that, beneath the weathered skin, was still big.  I whispered into his ear. I wasn't sure he understood or even heard, but I thought that maybe my voice, my presence might make some neurons fire. Whether he heard my words or not, I needed to say them, even though there had been little left unsaid between me and my dad while he was still standing.  We'd certainly had our differences. 
"Your father is dead."  Who am I now? I stepped into a role that was new to me—fatherless daughter.

As I drove home from the gym the day my acquaintance had heard about his father's passing, I looked at the puffy clouds moving across the sky. Although ethereal, clouds seem capable of holding our hopes, dreams, and memories, our grief and prayers. I'll tell my gym pal that the human heart is stronger than it sometimes seems. He'll be able to look for his dad there. That's where I look for mine and that's where I always find him--big, tall, and fast.


  1. Sweet.

    Years pass. Love doesn't.

  2. Thanks, Petrea. You are right about love.

  3. I've been through that, as we almost all will one day.
    A reminder that this life is very, very short. Temporal. This life is a series of hello's & good-bye's.
    Travel lite as you give out your light & search for the light of others.