Last Parent Standing

I was twenty years old when my father died unexpectedly. If you know me, or if you’ve read my début novel, you know the story. At the time, I was kind of a rarity – a young woman bereft of a parent at twenty. Most of my friends hadn’t experienced that loss. Yet.

Although I missed the rituals associated with death, wake, funeral, burial, I did fly home for a week to see my mother, my sisters, and my maternal grandparents. But those days were surreal; everyone kept asking me about my time abroad, and at the end of a week, I flew back. For the next two and a half months, I tried to block out the loss, tried to go on as if nothing had changed, because in Fribourg, Switzerland, nothing had changed. I even got into an argument with my best friend, telling him, “You don’t understand!” when he tried to elicit some emotion from me about my dad.

Then, that same year, his father died on Christmas Eve. We were back at college in Rhode Island, but in the late 70’s, no one had instant communication. No email, no cell phones, and I didn’t learn of the death until we’d all returned to college after the Christmas break.  Finally, I saw my friend, and ran to him. After we embraced, he pulled back, looked me in the eyes, and said quietly, “Now I understand.”

And here we are, more than halfway through our lives, and I have but a few friends who haven’t lost at least one parent to death. My mother passed away over five years ago, after progressive dementia stole everything from her. My husband’s mother died of cancer a year before we met. His father is our “last parent standing,” and will turn 81 on Wednesday. Sometimes Jim and I shake our heads in wonderment that he’s lived this long. Oh sure, he’s tethered to an oxygen tank and takes about twenty pills a day, but he’s pretty sharp, and we’re grateful that he’s still here, to tell stupid jokes and make inane commentary on life around him.

I have another friend, whose only child was lucky enough to grow up with two sets of grandparents. I remarked to her once that it was truly a blessing for her daughter to know the love and devotion of four elders, and my friend nodded and smiled, but her eyes filled. When pressed, she admitted that the gift of their presence would only make losing them that much sadder. No matter how old you are, it’s difficult to say a final goodbye to your mother or father. And it’s a reminder of our own mortality.

Happy Birthday to you, Ray. You are one of a kind.

photo by M Reynolds
photo by M Reynolds

13 thoughts on “Last Parent Standing

  1. This was hard to read today, as I just bt a plane ticket for tomorrow to get to Maine. Hospice is in the house for my Dad. He is 90 and has a very hard time the past 3 years. I want to get there and hold his hand for awhile before he passes. My Mom passed a few years pass now. Still miss her.


    1. I’m so sorry you’re going through this, Leslie. How fortunate that you all have had your father in your lives for such a long time! Ninety years – what a wonderful life. I hope you can take some comfort in that, and know that Hospice will be there to help him in this transition.


  2. Martha, tears are running down my face. What a beautiful post. I lost my grandparents in my teens, and now that I have my own children, I wish I had appreciated them more. My children are so lucky to have both sets of grandparents who lavish them with so much love. The idea of losing my parents terrifies me, and after reading this, I will cherish every moment I have with them. Thank you.

    Samantha Stroh Bailey


  3. Happy birthday to your father-in-law! 🙂
    My four grandparents passed away when I was really young and I wish I had gotten to know them. I feel incredibly lucky to be in my thirties and have parents who (at 71 & 72) are still healthy. You made me tear up, Martha. Beautiful post. x


  4. What a very moving post – I have to admit its made me a bit teary.
    Especially now that I know that it was your own Father and his passing of which you write in your book.

    I hope your Pa-in – Law has a very Happy Birthday and, many happy returns to come xxx


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