I ran across this review of NPR reporter, Scott Simon’s new book (which I can’t wait to read), and it stopped me dead (no pun intended). Because I realized Scott and I had a few things in common, but also because of this sentence, “We don’t fully grow up until we lose our parents.”
I lost my mother at age 32, a month after I had been told by a doctor who must have attended a bedside manner class taught by Kanye West, “Your insides are a mess, you will never have a baby,” and a month before my mother-in-law would leave my father-in-law for her high school boyfriend during a trip to Hawaii to celebrate her 35th wedding anniversary. (Yeah, that happened).
My mom was like breakfast, lunch, dinner and all the really good snacks in between. She was everything and a bag of chips because she was everything and a bag of chips, but also because my dad was an alcoholic, and although I knew he loved us, he didn’t love himself enough to get help, so she was the parent who played both roles for me. She was the one I went to, the one I spilled my guts to, the one I trusted. He was the one I had to tip toe around, worry about, cry myself to sleep because of.
When my mother died, none of my close friends had experienced losing either of the people who had brought them into the world. Nobody had yet to witness their parents fight more than the garden variety flu, while I was not just watching, but helping my mom go through the pain of lung surgery, the hell of chemotherapy, the terror of a repeated CAT scans that might reveal what day of the year she might die. Nobody I knew in the ad agency of twenty and thirty something’s I worked at was even thinking about this stuff, let alone experiencing it (in fact, many of my friends still have both parents today).
But I had been thinking about, if not for my whole life (my parents has me at 41 and 46), then at least since I was 26, when my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer. You live in an uncertain calendar, where every visit, every vacation, every holiday is maybe the last. Nobody survives lung cancer. We all knew that. So, we ate, we laughed, we shopped. We waited for the other shoe to drop.
And when it did, when it dropped at the exact moment it looked like I would never be a mother, and maybe no longer have my mother-in-law in my life, I grew into an adult in exactly one day.
The illness had been preparing me, but my mother’s actual death meant that the one person who loved me more than I had ever been loved would no longer be physically here, no longer available to offer reassurance, witty comment, or advice on how to get an oil stain out of a shirt (something her love of food laced in olive oil, had made her an expert at). Her death forced me to grow up in a way that I wasn’t ready for. It felt as if those cancer cells had shoved me out of the nest with only one working wing.
It was unspeakably painful. A pain that reached into me, woke me up at night, made me pull over in the car because my tears obliterated my vision. I was more mature than a kid, but not yet as mature as an adult. But I needed to master a certain kind of maturity quickly, because this loss made me say goodbye to the kind of carefree existence that having a parent who adores you offers. I no longer had the back-up, the unconditional love, the unique company of a person who had let me rent her body for nine months. I no longer had a fall back position.
This isn’t to say that my husband wasn’t there for me, but with younger, healthier parents, how could he really know, how could he really get what it was like to have lost the person who was my person? He had his own pain over losing my mom, who he’d taken to quickly and easily, like he’d been waiting to meet her his whole life, but there was a difference in our loss, (even though I never like to grade grief). And of course, my sisters understood the dull ache I carried with me like the entire weight area of Crossfit, but they were older, and they’d had her longer. My friends supported me the best they could. There were phone calls, and cards and flowers, but as months passed, there was a feeling of “get over it, already.” They couldn’t understand, but I knew they would have if they could have.
So, yes, Scott is right, you do indeed have to grow up when your parents die. In a way that is undeniable, and that can only happen after they are gone. When my dad, who wasn’t in my life in a way that was emotionally sustaining (only emotionally DRAINING), died 12 years after my mother, it was relief I felt, at not having to worry about him anymore, not grief. But what did jolt me, what did give me a whole new identity, was my membership into a club of people who had lost both parents, and were now, for all intents and purposes, orphans.
Losing your parents creates a separateness from those who still have both a mom and dad. I used to feel envy. I could no longer go home for the weekend, where my mom and dad would cook enough to feed seven small Italian towns. There were no more family vacation, no babysitting grandparents (hell, my mom never even got to meet my kids). But now it’s been so long, I am rather shocked by those I know who still have parents, who still live in “that” world. Becoming parent-less creates a certain frightening and exhilarating freedom. Your life is suddenly really your own. The “what will my parents think” no longer courses through your blood. Your acts are yours, and yours alone. You become the parent. You become the adult. You become the One Who Knows. You are the keeper of the traditions, the photographic evidence, the stories that are important. This passing of the torch ages you. Not in a wrinkly, nursing home way, but in a grown up, head of the household, maker of decisions, way. You become, what is known as wise.
There is gratitude, so much gratitude in having had a mother like mine. She may have made me grow up before I was ready, but she gave me a lot of tools to do it. Her unbreakable, solid, and full-bodied love allowed me to grow up and raise a family of my own. And that, that has been everything and a bag of chips.