Sunday, May 10, 2009


I am, and have been for the last decade, an orphan. This is a term rarely applied to adults; it has Dickensian overtones and lives in James Michener's home for the poor in Pennsylvania, or John Irving's Cider House. It smacks of tragedy and abuse, and yet it is the fate of most  humans.

A true orphan lacks not just mother and father but family as a whole. An abundance of siblings who are alive and well waters orphancy down. So does an excess of money. Orphans, ideally, are small, pale, have runny noses and worn shoes. They exist on the edge of society and are taken care of by draconian trustees who are in it for the bucks and perversions.

But in real life, most orphans have jobs and wives or husbands, children, friends. The fact that they have lost both parents is not, in the word of Oscar Wilde, carelessness. We outlive our parents and not much thought is given to the effect this may have on a grown adult. Personally, I think it's a staggering change in one's life.

For many, many years, I have believed that you cannot be truly free until your parents die--not a popular opinion, I assure you. But I think it's only then  that we can fully seek a life of our own without fear of reproach, criticism, disappointment or judgement. Most of us are so imbued with our own parents' expectations that any major decision to be made contains a strain of, "What will mom and dad think?" Often, this alone will sway our choices--we want to be what they wanted us to be, regardless of our own age and desires.  

More and more, as the elderly live increasingly long lives, we find ourselves taking care of them and--still fearful of their opinions--delaying our own dreams. What happens to a 60-year-old with 90-year-old parents? Sandwiched between having to work and raise children and, once this is done, assuming responsibility for elderly parents, he or she finds that the time to realize one's own expectations has suddenly vanished. 

When my mother died in France some 17 years ago, I brought my father to the US. Being raised in the UK and having spent many years here, he largely led his own life--until his Alzheimer's became increasingly pronounced. 

When this occurred, my life went on hold. There were midnight calls; his thoughts were such that he would often wake in the night confused and terrified. Once, while on vacation, I received a phone message telling me he had gotten involved in an altercation and was going to be evicted from his apartment in his retirement community. I drove 1000 miles in a day to find him strapped in a hospital bed; this bright, intelligent man had overstepped the bounds of what is allowed for the elderly and been relegated to the role of raving lunatic in a second-rate clinic.

For a while, every decision I made had him at the forefront. When he died following a fall from a window in an assisted living  facility, I was horrified, guilty, relieved. The last emotion was the hardest to accept. I carried his ashes back to France and let them go where those of my mother lay in Paris'  Père Lachaise cemetery. Only then--and now an orphan--did I feel I could resume my own life.

Here's installment 86 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 21

Captain Roderick Stuart’s mistress said, “I think we may be having a minor problem with one of the Gray Panthers?”

The captain’s eyebrows rose slightly. He was entering the events of the past 24 hours in the day’s log. He did this by hand at the same time every evening, shunning the computer  recently installed in his cabin. At the end of this trip, he would personally deliver the log to the company archives and accompany the records officer to make sure the volume was placed where it should be, on the shelf bearing his own name engraved on a small brass plaque.

“Or maybe not so minor,” his mistress continued. “It depends.”

“On?” The captain did not turn around, continued writing in the even hand he had learned in public school and developed over years at sea.

“On whether this particular gentleman is actually doing what one of the bartender suspects, which is selling small quantities of what seems to be cocaine to some of the younger passengers.”

“Which bartender?”

Julio Castro.”

The Captain paused, thought for a moment. He knew the name of each member of his crew as well as the number of years spent in the service of the Royal Scottish Line. Finally, he nodded.

“Castro. Won an award two years ago, saved the life of a passenger, applied CPR.”

“That’s the one.”

“Good man. And the Panther?”

“Earl Thorogood Robinson. Seventy-one. First trip.”

The Captain once again thought for a moment. “American, from Georgia or somesuch. Tall man. Full head of hair, military mustache?”

“Former professor, Renaissance Literature. Very popular with the ladies; his dancecard his full every evening.”

No comments:

Post a Comment