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.