No, You're Not an Orphan
By Joan Goldfeder
I’m at an age when my friends who didn’t already lose their parents are losing them now. Like me, my friends are mostly in their sixties and their parents are well into their eighties or nineties when they pass away. Yet, more than once, I’ve heard a friend say at the death of their second parent, “Well, now I’m an orphan.” Occasionally, it’s said with a bit of self-aware irony or humor, but more often, it’s proclaimed with a great glob of dramatic self-pity.
My mother died 22 years ago, long before it seemed inevitable and trendy, and I’m lucky enough to still have my dad. When my in-laws both died badly within three years of each other after long illnesses and dementia, awful falls and painful dislocations (skeletal, spiritual and mental), I didn’t think, “Gee, now my husband’s an orphan.” I thought, Thank goodness.
Isn’t the great reward of adulthood to be independent? To no longer be reliant on your parents? Weren’t we supposed to have known this long before our parents die in their eighties, nineties or, now, even one-hundreds? To say in a sad, little, pity-party voice, “Now I’m an orphan” at sixty-plus years of age seems to negate all of the accomplishments of adulthood – and demonstrate an epic failure on the part of the parents you’re lamenting. Orphans are small, dependent children, or abandoned puppies. They are, by definition, beings deprived of all protection and advantage.
Do I not “get” the sadness and frontline-fear induced by losing a parent? Of course I do. I’ve experienced the intense, child-like longing for my mother’s very particular touch (her fingers gently tracing the top of my ear when I’d rest my head in her lap) or the joyfulness of her laugh, the way the sound rose in its final notes. And while the acute, hourly yearning for my mother left me years ago, there have been a thousand times since she died that I’ve wished for her here, with me, with my son and with our family at our happiest times. Just as my friends will wish for their parent.
But their parents did meet their kids and see them, and theirs, fly through life at its crazy, ever-accelerating speed. They celebrated promotions and successes, and comforted after set-backs. They were here, just as we would wish them to be. And now, as we find ourselves in late middle-age, our parents are dying; naturally. They are leaving us not in the sudden, wrenching abandonment of infancy or childhood, but as they should and must.
Maybe I’m unusually sensitive to the idea of sixty-year-old orphans because my son actually was an orphan when I adopted him 20 years ago. He was living in a country with thousands of orphans. You know the kind: infants left at dreary institutions after revolutions or tsunamis; toddlers on street corners, crying for their white-shrouded mothers taken by AIDS or Ebola or cholera or drugs or poverty. You know, orphans.
So please, when you are deep into middle age and your last parent dies, you may be many things – bereft, relieved, depressed, numb, unmoored by loss, or at peace – but you are not an orphan.