I don’t understand mid-life orphans. They complain about caregiving responsibilities, and then, when their parents pass away, they lament about being orphans. They say they feel bereft, unmoored, devastated by life without parents. Don’t they realize how lucky they are? Having elderly parents is a privilege some of us never had.
If you’re a mid-life orphan, you’ve had the pleasure of parents for most of your adult life. You danced with your father at your wedding, you shared your joy with them when your children were born. You were able to show them the person you’ve become, and your children were able to know their grandparents. As they grew older, you were able to return the nurturing and love they gave you. Instead of mourning the loss of your parents, you should be glad for the time you had with them.
I became an orphan when I was young, and there are millions like me. My dad died when I was 7, and my mom, when I was 26. I grew up in the 50s and 60s, when hardly anyone was divorced. I didn’t know anyone besides me who didn’t have two parents.
I have very few memories of my dad. For the most part, being fatherless was all
I knew. That is why I was so surprised when, a few years ago, I had such a strong reaction to simple gestures I saw between fathers and daughters. In one instance,
a father twirled his daughter’s hair. In another, the daughter played with her father’s fingers. These two acts of mindless intimacy created such a longing in me to have been somebody’s little girl, I was shocked. How could I, who hadn’t thought of my father in decades, yearn so much for what I hardly ever knew?
I was 24 when I learned my mother was dying. I was devastated. For months,
I mourned the life events we would never share: my wedding, the birth of my children, the grown up me she would never know. To this day, I have daydreams of conversations with her. “Look Mom,” I say. “Don’t worry about me. I’m OK. I have a wonderful husband and three grown children. I started a business and helped launch an industry. I have a great life. Are you proud of me? I so want you to be proud of me.” I guess we never stop wanting our parents to be proud of us. But mostly, I just wish I could be with her again, for even one hour.
I will always remember the last time I was mothered. It didn’t seem special at the time. My mom had been in the hospital for 9 months. It was my 26th birthday, and my boyfriend had done nothing, not even a card. I walked into my mother’s hospital room. “Hi Honey, happy birthday,” she said, and I burst out crying. My mother held me and I was comforted.
It was years later before I realized what a gift I had received, and perhaps also the gift I had given. For months I had been managing my mother’s affairs, dealing with her doctors, paying her medical bills, being a grown up. I so longed to feel like a child again. For months my mom had depended on others. She was the patient, the sick one. I now realize how much she needed to feel like a mother again. But mostly, I remember how exquisite it felt to be mothered. Here I am, 38 years later, myself a mother and grandmother, and I yearn for that feeling still.
So perhaps I do get it — why mid-life orphans are so devastated when their parents die. No matter our age, our parents are such a primal connection that their loss leaves us missing a part of who we are. One thing is certain: I will always remember the last time I was mothered. I know I will never be loved like that again.