Wednesday, September 17, 2014
About 18 years ago I became an orphan. I wasn’t even aware of it. My father had just died, and a friend who attended the funeral said, in French, “Et voila. Tu es orphelin...”
The word ‘orphan’ is fraught with Dickensian sentimentality. It is almost always applied to children, particularly small children, who have lost their parents through a monstrous tragedy--an airplane crash, an insurgency, a fire in a nursing home. The word’s origins are straightforward: it is a late Middle English noun derived from the Late Latin orphanus, which means destitute or without parents. The Latin comes from the Greek orphanós, or bereaved.
The term orphan is 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 23 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.