Adult orphan, senior orphan, next in line to die…these are some phrases and ideas I have run across the past few months that resonated or at least tickled my fancy enough to prompt some thoughts. First, I apologize to actual orphans that never had the support of your biological parents from a young age…I hope you found some love and support at some point in your life.
Second, this rumination started from seeing others in the family dealing with the passing of their parents and loved ones and me wanting to offer some hope that it gets better. I had thoughts on being, at least theoretically, the next one in my family to be in line to die…but as usual I meandered into a stream of consciousness over dealing with the death of parents, coping and getting through it all. This message has sat for several months with me wondering if I even wanted to publish it, as I am by no means a therapist or sage, and cannot even begin to imagine ever going to a therapist being as independent and bull-headed as I am. So, please think of this as entertainment with a smattering of hope if you are a member of the Dead Parents Club.
Senior Adult Orphan Reporting Sir!
My mother passed away in 2004, dad following her 2 years later in 2006. It seems to be the time in my life where friends, cousins and acquaintances all start working through the process of dealing with the loss of their own parents.
I have had some time to process my parent’s deaths over the last fifteen years, but memories still flood back all the time. I think you continue working things out until you give up the ghost yourself.
People that still have their parents may believe they understand the loss of a parent, but they really have no way to personally understand until it happens. They may offer you their sympathies and kindnesses for a few weeks or months, but after more time goes by they seem to just want you to get over it, which I think is human nature and I can’t blame them.
But you won’t get over it. Your parents are the ones that gave you life, your name, sustenance, really everything you needed until you developed into an individual that can exist on your own.
Initially, you are consumed with dealing with the mechanics of their deaths, especially after the last one passes and you have to deal with settling their estate (estate seems too grandiose a word for what my parents had remaining at the end of their lives). Things like selling the home you may have lived in all of your life, the months or even years dealing with lawyers, insurance companies and settling medical bills.
After the initial shock of their deaths, all of this bureaucratic stuff steals time away from the thoughts of your parents, yet the thoughts still manage to sneak through when you have a spare minute, or when prompted by a scene in a movie or even just a stupid Barry Manilow song (mom loved Barry). They come to you in your dreams, some dreams reassuring you everything is well, some leaving you wishing you had just another moment or two with them.
I hope you don’t have any unresolved issues that needed to be cleared up before they pass away, that has to make it even more difficult. I think I was in a pretty good place… I just want more info about specific points and places in time as documenting family history has become more important to me.
After a while, perhaps years, the sadness of their loss gradually loses its sharp edge and dulls a bit. But it always remains present, easily set off by the emotional booby traps of long standing family habits, rituals and certain words used by the family that have been there for a lifetime.
No matter how independent you are, and again, I am independent with a capitol “I”, the loss of the home you grew up in and all the “stuff” that surrounded you, stuff that felt like it was always there and filled with the memories they evoke, unanswered questions, not having them there for the milestones of your own family, all add to the chipping away of the solidity of your life and begin creating an enduring sense of loss. One at a time, maybe not such a big deal, but over time they just keep accumulating.
Unless you have been very unfortunate, your parents could always be counted on to be in your corner no matter what. I distinctly remember my mother telling me (many times) when I was a little feller and had gotten into trouble over something not even important enough to recall, “I will always be your mother and I will love you no matter what”. I think this is what she typically said after she busted my butt for some transgression. Dad’s wisdom was “if you wind up in jail, don’t call me to bail you out, but you’re still my son”.
Now, mom may have deemed it necessary to beat you within an inch of your life at the time but she still loved you and supported you no matter what…to give you a few bucks to help you pay rent. To send a box of food from home on a holiday when you are thousands of miles away. To give you a place to stay to get back on your feet and so many other things.
The list becomes endless over the years, but most of all, they were that lifeline to talk you in off the ledge when life seemed hopeless, or to be your biggest cheerleader to listen at the moments you feel most proud of your accomplishments. You knew they would be as proud or even prouder than you are. Then all of a sudden your cheerleaders have suddenly left the game…and are not coming back. You wonder who will ever care as much as they did. And the honest truth is, probably no one.
Now, when I was young I thought I was a being a good son to call home once a month, not counting holidays, so it was not unusual to build up a list of stuff to talk to mom about, and check the weather back in Ohio so I had something to talk to dad about…he was not a big conversationalist until he got older. So when they first died I can’t even count the number of times I would think “I need to call mom and dad to tell them…” and remember half way through my thought that they were not there to call anymore. That is a very lonely feeling.
The void that is created when they die is like a massive black hole…emotions and feelings get sucked right in and you can feel alone even with all your family, friends and loved ones still around you. It feels like nothing you do matters much anymore, that the forces that have always mattered the most and served as your compass through life are gone.
The compass needle starts swinging wildly (can’t help the compass metaphors, I was an Eagle Scout, Cavalry Scout, mountaineer and sailor, I like knowing where I am!). You aren’t sure if North still points North and even if it does, what direction should I go now?
It gradually dawned on me that “I have become the senior adult orphan of 5 other adult orphans.” I am the next one “in line” to die in my family if the rules of life were fair. They aren’t fair of course, and I actually hope that I am the next one up and that myself and all of my brothers and sisters have long and happy lives.
That is how life should play out. I’m really not one to get lost too deeply in an existential crisis, and the irony of my choice to write all this is not lost, I just hope to show that I stared this situation in the eye for a while and managed to climb over it as we all must, and do eventually. Your needs and your path will differ from mine, but it is a path we must all travel. Your route and mileage may vary.
At some point you have to do what every child has always had to do…go on living. You think back to how your parents reacted when their parents died (although I never knew my mother’s mom) and what they did. So you go on being the wise one for your children, giving meaning to your life by providing and sharing things that are important to you.
I do know that when your parents die you become part of “the club”. It’s not a club you want to be a part of, but eventually you will. It’s a club where you hopefully try to take care of the other club members a little more, even though your own loss, at times, can be as painful as it ever was. It’s a club where when a conversation comes up concerning parents passing away, members cast a knowing glance to other members without a need to explain.
One of the reasons I started this blog was to not let myself forget the stories that are important to me as well as to prompt other family to create their own stories. As the years pass it becomes harder to recall all the memories of them. The stories begin to fade a little more every year.
I scour the internet looking for stories, documents and connections to previous family members that all have stories to continue telling I don’t want them to be forgotten, and I want to create new stories, a record, that can be passed down so grand children don’t have to wonder what tragedy and suffering as well as joy great great grandmaw experienced building her big family.
I want future family to know that great grandad didn’t just serve his country from this year to that year…that there are many stories showing he was tough and brave, a hero in every sense of the word, not only the school bus driver and janitor that some know him as.
Hopefully you can get to the point, as I feel I have, where you can remember the good stuff and laugh at the bad stuff. Maybe you’ll write stories like I do, where you see holidays, birthdays or other milestones as a chance to remember and celebrate their part in your life. Or maybe you’ll be able to sit around with your friends and family telling the stories, laughing about how crazy it used to be without the stabs of pain.
I take after my father in the sense of being the strong, tough, silent, self-reliant type, not the kind of guy that plasters good thoughts of the day all over Facebook. But I am rather sentimental. I try to bring meaning by helping my friends and family when they need it or when they can just use a hand. By sharing the things I have found value in, whether it is discovering family stories, building or making things, fostering adventure in the mountains, sailing or simply sharing a good bottle of whiskey.
I try by remembering and telling the stories of my family, if for no other reason than some person down the line may be like me, looking at names and wondering “who were those people, what were they like?”
While I am not ready to hand the reins over to the next-in-line senior orphan yet, I have seen and done things I could never imagine as a young boy growing up in a tiny mid-western town named West Carrollton. I’m not done yet, I hope I have a few more good chapters to write. To quote Jimmy Buffet (there’s a Jimmy quote for everything), “Some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I’ve had a good life all the way…” You do the same.