When my mother died, I’d like to believe that her passing enabled a reunion with my father who died a little under seven years prior to that. While still digesting the news of her death, I received numerous calls and emails providing support and an active ear. Many of those responses included a word I had not really thought about in all my preparedness for this moment — orphan.
The term is generally not used for adults. But technically with the death of both my parents and my relatively young age — early 30’s (given that our life expectancy has jumped significantly), perhaps that is the correct term. After all, I am a single man with no children. All the major events of my “adult life” are likely still ahead of me. I will not have my parents there at my wedding. They will not be there for the birth of my first child. They will not be there for that child’s 1st birthday. They will not be there for those important moments. Of course, I’ll also not have them for the tiny moments, the tragic moments, and the tough moments. I won’t have their voice, their name, or their presence to provide any kind of comfort. Without my parents, I’ve also lost my home.
My sister lives halfway around the world. Despite our six-year age difference, our lives couldn’t be more different. She’s had those major moments. She has been married for over 15 years, has 2 children and thankfully for their sake, they were both blessed by their grandparents. While their memory may fade, they will forever have photographs of their grandfather (some) and grandmother (many). While a picture may not mean the world, it is an everlasting reminder of what was. Despite the countless pictures I store, not one will ever be a shared moment between my wife, my kids and my parents.
I try to think about the future. My extended family and friends tell me that life will go on and I will survive. It’s true. I am lucky in a lot of ways. A friend of mine lost his parents in a tragic car accident a few years back. While he was lucky to have them for his wedding and the birth of his first child, he shared something with me the day after my Mom died. He welcomed me to the club — the orphan’s club.
At first I didn’t know what to think. The word took me to images of impoverished children in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet the more I thought about the meaning of the word, I realized that perhaps I too now share something in common with those children. As my friend stated, whatever happens from now on — it’s my fate. I will never be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I will never carry guilt for what I am doing or not doing. I will have peace that I did absolutely everything I could for both of my parents until the day they died.
While it may not be a club that anyone wants to join or become associated with in his or her life, the reality is that we are all likely to become card-carrying members. With the loss of our parents, we lose a part of ourselves — our security, our past, our childhood — our identity. It’s a frightening prospect to think that I solely hold the key to who I am. While others may help shape the image, there’s nothing like a parent to set things straight and be there to remind you of who you are and who you’ve become. They are also the live-action living reminder of who you could become.
I feel cheated that my future is so wide open. My memories will be shaped by the good that I have to hold onto in order to keep me staying positive. But my memories will also be the glue that I’ll have to use to stick to every future relationship in order to ground me. It’s hard being in charge of who you are. From now on, my memory is my home.
I worry how my friendships will change with people around me. Most people my age are only now starting to see their parents’ age. While they bitch and complain, they also love and enjoy their company. I’ve already found it challenging when friends would whine about their fathers after losing mine — I always thought how ungrateful they were. Now, that becomes that much more difficult. I know it’s not their fault, as they are living, and any active relationship carries emotions. But it’s just hard to hear.
I also worry about being in a relationship. I’m likely to meet someone with a family of her own. While I’m sure that will be a silver lining for me, and hopefully the relationship will be one strengthened by my lack of one, but I wonder about the loss for my kids. Will I be cheating on my family if I only spend time with hers? There will never be a conflict about where to go for Christmas. My kids will never really hear about all the love they would have had from 2 sets of grandparents. For them, my family will be stories. Stories will be their home.
I guess the orphan’s club has no rules. It’s hard to live without order. They call that anarchy. There is a lot more self-regulation and discipline required for survival. While perhaps the judgment is gone, so too is the safety net. In a time when things become obsolete in 6 months, will my memory and stories last me? It seems the more we accumulate, the more filled up our past becomes with trivial things. Some would say that makes those stories or rare photos that much more important but with time, the interest in them decreases.
I don’t like being part of the orphan’s club. Even if it were to have come later in my life, I’m sure I would have felt the same way. I am angry that I can’t be angry with either one of my parent’s deaths. While I know it was premature in both of their cases, their deaths were peaceful and without pain. I hate that I have to hold onto the memory of their actual death in order justify the loss.
With time I know the membership will become easier. I know others will join me along the way. I also know that life and living alone are no guarantee that my parents would have given me all the things I expected from them for the future that I had envisioned with them in. I also know that because of my club status, perhaps I will try even harder to ensure that their legacy continues. With practice, I’ll be able to not question but just believe that when my mother closed her eyes forever — she reunited with my father. I was orphaned but I stand here as proof of who they were and who they wanted me to become in life.