I was orphaned in my 40s. First my dad died when he was 67, then beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, my mother followed not so long after. No one expected her to go. She was such a presence.
My mother called me every Wednesday and every Sunday for 25 years. Every vacation I had during those years was spent traveling from the east coast to Missouri, Mississippi or Illinois to see her and my dad.
Then after 25 years, there were no more phone calls, no more trips to plan.
It’s been more than 10 years since I lost my dad and my eyes still well up when I hear Hank Williams or Johnny Cash on the radio. Memories come in a flood and take me back to the Midwest. It’s dark out and I’m riding in the car with my dad and we’re going to Krey Packing House in St. Louis where he’ll drop off the meat orders to be picked up the next morning in his refrigerated truck with Cissell and Sons painted on the door. While he drives down highway 55 we talk about UFOs or what I’m going to be when I grow up.
Then it's years later and I am in my mom’s kitchen in her little apartment in Illinois, the one she moved into after Dad died. I’m a single mom and my three kids are with us. She gives me lessons on how to make spaghetti and meatballs and how to fry chicken because my kids love hers so much. She’s sitting at the kitchen table, a little out of breath and tired. She tells me to use more parmesan cheese in the meatballs. I didn’t know then that just a year later I would be with my brothers and sister listening to her ragged breathing as she came near the end in an Illinois hospital. That still doesn't seem fair.
I wish I had been prepared somehow. I wish I knew how sad I would feel once they were gone. My dad had been sick for years with congestive heart failure and a couple of different types of cancer. My mom had smoked cigarettes for more than 50 years. Did I think that wouldn’t take its toll at some point? I don’t think I really did.
When you’re 46 and your parents die, people are sorry for your loss. They send flowers and cards. If their parents are still alive, maybe it makes them linger over their next few conversations with their own parents. But overwhelmingly there is a sense of the inevitable. A sense that you should have known this was coming and should have your emotions in check. It shouldn’t be a surprise. You should get over it. It shouldn’t hurt so much. But it does.
These days, if I hear that a friend or co-worker’s parent has died, I make a point of going to them and telling them how sorry I am. I tell them that I miss my parents every day and that they may find their relationships with their siblings changing after a parent dies. I tell them this because I wish someone would have told me.
It really doesn’t matter if your mother is 25 or 95 when she dies, there will be times when you will feel lost without her. It doesn’t matter if your father is 27 or 67 when he dies, you will feel his absence in the middle of your heart probably until you take what will be your own last breath. That’s just the way it is.
Sometimes I feel very much like my parents are still with me. I just don’t see them anymore. I think of them when I hear their music, or see their mannerisms in my brothers or my sister or my own children. We keep their memory alive when we talk about them and laugh and say, “Remember the time…” All those things keep them with us in little ways. They make us feel better and make the grief a bit more bearable. We knew it was bound to happen and we know we were lucky to have them as long as we did.
I don’t care if you’re orphaned at 12 or 75, you will feel it and it hurts. You might feel a little silly if you happen to be 46 like I was, but don’t let anyone make you feel bad about that grief. Go ahead and feel it and rejoice in how much you loved them. Think of the lessons you learned and good things from them that shine through you and the rest of your family. That’s how they carry on.