The Orphan Age

©2001 Marie-Lynn Hammond
First published in Chatelaine, July 2001

I’m walking up the hill again to the hospital in Summerland, B.C., where my mother is dying. It’s a chilly April morning, but the sun carries a brilliant promise of spring, a spring that we know she will not see, because the doctors told us, after discovering an unsuspected, virulent cancer, that she would be lucky to last a few days. It’s been twelve days now, and she is still alive, still conscious, still suffering.

My two sisters and I are suffering too. Not physically, but we’re all crazed, in shock. My mother is in her late 70s, but up until a month ago she had been healthy, vibrant, full of that joie de vivre that French Canadians are stereotypically famous for. My sisters and I have always assumed she would live into her 90s, as her parents did. And we love her very much.

That same day, the other call comes, from my father’s wife in Victoria. My father (long-divorced from my mother) is in hospital too. He suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; he’s been on oxygen for seven years now, and in and out of hospital for severe infections. Now his weight is down to an alarming 114 pounds. I begin looking into flights to Victoria, wondering just how I will be able to be in two places at once if the unthinkable happens. If I am suddenly orphaned.

Orphaned? The word has popped into my head, unbidden. Why would I think it applies to me? Orphans are children, waifs and hungry street kids, right? Get over it, I tell myself. Don’t be so self-centred.

On April 12, my mother slips into a coma and four days later draws her final breath. After her memorial service, I immediately fly to Victoria, where my father is now back at home, but looking frailer than I’ve ever seen him. Exactly eight weeks to the day of my mother’s passing, my stepmother calls – my father is slipping away. When I finally hang up the phone, I feel more alone than I have ever felt in my life. And I know, now, deep in my gut, that you’re never too old to be an orphan.

If events follow their natural course, we are all going to lose our parents. It’s one of life’s milestones, like speaking your first words, going through puberty, leaving home, or having a child. And everyone who goes through it feels a version of the same thing. Becoming an orphan is like nothing you’ve ever been through before.

Nancy, a theatre director in PEI whose father passed away when she was 17, says, “When my mother died, although I was 40 at the time, I felt panic and a profound sense of aloneness.” And, she adds, she kept thinking “I’m homeless,” even though she hadn’t lived in the family home for years.

Sara, a gallery owner and curator in Toronto, told me a remarkable story. Her husband’s great-grandmother, Rose, married at 14 and gave birth at 16 to a daughter, Dora. Dora, widowed young, led a hectic life as both a mother and businesswoman, always relying on her mother for help and support. She remained vigorous into her 80s, but when Rose passed away one month before her 100th birthday, Dora began to age. “I never felt old till my mother died,” the 84-year old Dora told her granddaughter-in-law.

Dora is not alone. Most of the adult orphans I spoke to said they are now acutely aware of their own mortality. They use words like “rootless” and “lost.” My neighbour Sophie remembers her mother saying that when her own parents died it felt as if she “was flush up against death.” Nancy put it this way: “Parents are the only people on the planet who have known you literally from the moment you were born. With anyone else you have to explain yourself or provide a context – but parents are your context.”

One man said that when his mother died, he suddenly realized he had just lost his only real source of unconditional love. And Sophie, an adult orphan since age 34, says, “There’s no safety net when your parents are gone.”

That’s how I feel too – if life and death are the ultimate game of tag, then I am now “it.” Suddenly, I’m the “older” generation. But the feelings run much deeper than that. As devastated as I am by my loss (I still can’t bring myself to hang my parents’ photographs on the wall), I seem to be going through a huge and mostly subconscious re-evaluation of my life.

Alexander Levy, a psychotherapist who wrote a book called The Orphaned Adult, says, “Parents provide a unique spot on this planet, which is called ‘home.’ This spot, in the parent’s heart and in our mind, has existed from the beginning of our lives…whether parents are kind or unkind, attentive or neglectful… living in the family home or in a nursing facility.” This place, he goes on to say, cannot be imitated or recreated, and when parents die, the place vanishes.

For some of us, that place is real. We may have grown up in a relatively happy household, with parents who loved and cared for us. We may still, even as adults, count on our parents either consciously or unconsciously for unconditional love and support. The father who mortgages his house to help his son’s ailing business, the mother who faithfully visits her son in jail, the elderly couple who take in their grandkids when their single-mom daughter has a nervous breakdown – we’ve all known parents like this.

But parenting doesn’t have to be on a heroic scale to be missed. I’m thinking of my own mother right now. As she lay dying, she was still mothering me. Even through the haze of morphine hallucinations and pain, she wanted to know if I’d slept the previous night or if I’d eaten breakfast or if I had a warm enough jacket – the same kinds of concerns that had bound her to me and my sisters since we were born. As I sat beside her bed I realized, with an inconsolable pang, that when she was gone there would never again be anyone who would feel such a fierce protective instinct toward me, or have such a primal attunement to my needs.

What, though, if your childhood was painful? What if your relationship with your parents wasn’t good? Their death may bring release, but also a strong sense of loss. After the death of both parents, observes Levy, people whose bond with their parents was compromised by trauma or abuse “may be surprised to learn they had fostered lifelong fantasies of reconciliation, substitutes for that spot called home, which suddenly became impossible.”

I know what he means – I’ve been there, too. Despite my mother’s intense love, home was not always a pleasant place. My father, a military hero who fought through WW II, was an alcoholic. And alcohol released a rage in him. I made a kind of peace with my father long before his death, through therapy and by researching his family history and war experience, which helped me understand him. Still, being with him was never easy. Even in his later years, when he’d stopped drinking and could more easily express affection, I couldn’t look at his smiling face without also seeing, like a shadowy figure just behind him, the other father, the one who made us fear for our lives.

I’m free of the strain of that double vision now, and it’s a relief. The very fact I can write these lines without worry that I might shame my parents is also a relief. But I still mourn. I mourn the impossible, the father I didn’t have. And I mourn the loss of my emotional home. Because even after my parents divorced and remarried, going to visit them was still like going home. My father insisted on buying me treats, my mother couldn’t wait to do my laundry. In their presence, I could temporarily forget my adult troubles, surrender to a kind of guilt-free dependence and let myself be indulged.

That shelter is gone now. I am no longer anyone’s child, and I wonder if you can ever feel like a full-fledged adult until both your parents have passed away. Being next in line for death is sobering, but also strangely liberating. Levy says it’s not unusual for people to take a different direction in their lives once they are orphaned, although that change in tack is often misinterpreted as midlife crisis. Decisions to marry, divorce, have children, come out of the closet, return to school or travel the world often occur after parents die, though people may not always make the connection. Ironically, you can relax with a new sense of freedom once your parents are gone, especially if they required constant care for a long while, or if their views and values were significantly at odds with yours.

Laura, a journalist in Calgary, despite a close relationship with her widowed mother, notes that “my mother judged my writing very harshly, I think because she was angry and jealous that as a sole-support mother of five she was never able to have a real career. Free of her criticism after her death, I was able to become a better writer.” Another woman friend in her 50s came out as a lesbian only after both her parents died. A single Jewish man I know, whose parents were deeply religious, fell in love and married a non-Jewish woman in his late 40s – after he became an adult orphan. Such a match would have been unthinkable while his parents were living. Another woman I met reconciled with her long estranged sister.

As for me, I abandoned my unfinished novel when my parents died. After all, I keep thinking, what’s one more book in a world where objects accumulate but humans you love vanish? But just as important is the fact that I think one of the reasons I wanted to write the novel was to prove to my parents that I could do it.

My friends tell me that’s just grief talking. And it will pass. Soon I’ll be my old self again.

I think not. Because with the loss of my parents, the old self is gone. Grief itself changes you. First of all, I will be able to say that I’ve been through a terrible ordeal, and I survived. If grief has a function, maybe that’s it – to show us how resilient we are, what inner resources we possess. The nest is gone, and I’m still flying.

But flying where? Back to my “old self”? What if the old self isn’t the same? For example, until my parents died, I was a confirmed city dweller, a culture junkie with a passion for the arts scene and all that it entailed. I made my living mostly as a singer-songwriter and playwright. But now, in the wake of my parents’ deaths, I crave solitude and quiet. I want a view of fields and woods, not smog-bound skyscrapers and concrete. I think the time has come for me to heed the advice of the philosopher Joseph Campbell and “follow [my] bliss.” I want a bigger garden and smaller ambitions.

So I’ve just realized that this person who wants to live alone at the end of a dirt road with a bunch of animals is the real me, but a person who couldn’t emerge while my parents were still alive. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted a farm. My parents, however, neither of whom had been able to attend college, insisted I go to university. My mother wanted me to get a PhD. Instead, I fell in with the hippie crowd, got seduced by the muse and quit after my BA to enrol in art school. Then I quit art school to join a band. My mother was deeply disappointed; my father hit the roof.

To prove to them that art was a valid vocation, I worked obsessively for more than 20 years, lived on short rations and sacrificed a stable lifestyle – to a large degree, I see now, because I wanted to send my parents clippings of good reviews of whatever I’d produced. Even after my first play opened at the National Arts Centre, I felt I could not rest, for fear of their disapproval.

Maybe it’s in part because they’re gone that I can now put down my guitar and my pen and relax. And maybe it’s being “flush up against death” that makes me want to savour what’s left of my life in a different way. All I know is that when I leave the city for that country cottage in a couple of years to settle down with the horses and cats as I plan to do, I’ll simply be coming home – not to my parents’ home, but finally to my own.