Becoming an Orphan at 63
Early this September, my brother (David), an old family friend (Colin) and I, went on our yearly “boys” hiking trip. Growing up, my brothers and I had a tradition of yearly outdoor trips. When I was 11, my two older brothers and I went on a 5-day canoe trip down the Delaware River in New Jersey. When I was in college, we always went on summer backpacking trips. On one trip, David proposed to his girlfriend—they have been married now for 41 years.
We took a break, when our kids were little, but started up again when they were older. Some years, we took along my oldest daughter (she was 15 the first time), and then later, our oldest family friend Colin and my friend Tracy. It’s a tradition that we look forward to. My wife calls us the “Cascade Cadets”. Now, as we have aged, we rent a cabin, go on day hikes, and come back to hot showers and a glass of wine.
But this year was different.
My mother passed away in March at 91, Colin’s mother, Ruth, died a couple of months later at the same age. She was one of my mother’s closest friends. Ruthy was one of the most important adults in my early life. Dorothy, another close family friend died one month later at 93. And finally, Shirley my mother’s best buddy in Florida died at the tender age of 95. They all passed away within four months of each other.
My mother had a circle of friends that her grandchildren affectionately called “the amazing ladies”. They were. These women, like giant cedars, could not be felled by wind or storm. They had roots that went deep into the earth. But, they were defenseless against time. The lived long, full lives and became role models to their children and grandchildren. It is hard to imagine our future without them.
On the ride to the North Cascades, the three of us talked about our mothers. We all grew up together. We reminisced about the distant past. Collin lived with us for 6 months in the 1950’s, when his mother was in the hospital. In the turbulent 1960’s I spent many weekends during my teenage years, coping with my parent’s divorce by staying at Ruth’s apartment in New York City. She spread her enormous branches over me during a vulnerable time in my life.
The three of us, now spread across our 60’s, are orphans.
Our parents have passed away and now, we are without mothers or fathers. It is a strange feeling that I have not really adjusted to. During this outdoor adventure, we talked and shared our deepest feelings, in ways that we hadn’t before. We realized that we are now alone in a manner that we weren’t before. We recognized that we needed each other in respects that we hadn’t before. On this trip, while standing on mountain passes, surrounded by the jagged peaks of the North Cascades, we felt the poignancy of our loss. It’s hard to imagine that these women, these giants, are no longer.
The loss of our last parent, whether it comes early or later in our lives, is a bell weather moment for adults. Even if our parents are not part of our daily adult lives, they have both a real and symbolic meaning to their grown-up children. If they were lacking as parents, the possibility for change ends when they pass away. They will never become the mothers or fathers that we hoped they could be. If we weren’t the adult children of their dreams, it’s too late for us to be redeemed. Did we have the opportunity to apologize to them? Did they have the chance to make amends for their limitations? Sometimes the sudden, or unexpected loss of our parents makes it impossible to share our deepest sentiments. The angel of death does not make appointments. And if we were fortunate, and they were a rich part of our lives, we have to say goodbye and accept that we will never see them again as we grow older.
I have been fortunate that my parents lived into their late 80’s and early 90’s. I also had the opportunity to be a good son. I did have the occasion to share with them my deepest feelings. And now, I too join the legion of older adults without parents.
It’s going to take me awhile to get used to it.
The lesson—when your parents are still alive, share your most important sentiments with them—positive or negative. You will not regret it.
Let’s hear from you.