The year of being sixty two: the lessons of becoming an orphan
Here is the October extract from the year of being sixty two, rather late in the month!
Eventually we all become orphans, unless we die young and leave others to cope with the mess. It’s odd then that it should be such a surprise. My mother’s death though was a surprise. One day she was apparently well, if tired, coping with my father’s motor neurone disease cheerily, orchestrating a move for them into an assisted living flat with customary energy and skill. The next day we were driving desperately behind the air ambulance that was taking her to Exeter, my father talking determinedly about how they would manage her convalescence, me with a cold pit of fear in my stomach. A major heart attack. She was dead in her nightie on the bed in the recovery room when we got there, her hair askew, marks on her chest and arms from where they had tried to revive her. She looked very small and very alone and totally gone. I heard a wail of grief and rage go up from my father’s wheelchair.
My father’s death could not have been more different. Over three years or so Motor Neurone Disease rubbed him out, beginning with the joke about not being able to tie his shoelaces and ending in silence, immobility, helplessness, nappies. Prometheus in chains had a luckier time of it, at least he could shake his shackles. By the end, his face all bone, his tongue stilled, his body useless, I was desperate for it to stop. So was he I think although he could not say. After months and years of determined good cheer in those last days he closed his mouth against the spoon. Enough. Time to stop.
Gone, both of them. Shuddering shock for one, relief and release for the other.
Is it different for everyone or the same, to finally be an orphan? I don’t know. I have friends who have lost their parents but we do not talk about it. We express sympathy of course and you might allow a good friend to talk about their sadness or their relief, once maybe, twice, three times would be pushing it. But we rush back into the world of the living, caught up again in the swirl, caught out occasionally by the impulse to ring someone who is no longer there or by the shock of seeing their handwriting. Those who struggle to accept it provoke both sympathy and irritation. I have a friend whose mother died soon after mine did, nearly three years ago. She still grieves. She bursts into tears at odd moments. I see her hurt and I am sorry for it but I am running out of patience. Shit happens. Death happens.
To lose your parents is to float free, an untethered balloon. That might be good if your relationship had been a difficult one. You would at last be free to be yourself. My parents were supportive, loving, non-judgemental. They loved having a good time with good food and good conversation, children and dogs and another bottle of wine. Being with them was generally fun. Losing them is both dreadful and puzzling. How am I to live well now they are gone? Partly I seek to do as they did in living each day intensely and happily for myself. Partly I seek to do what they did for me. Carefully, consciously, I try to recreate for my children and grandchildren what my parents created for me: that sense of haven. Each family event is another weighted rope thrown out over the side of the basket, trying to tether myself again.
This is necessary because the wind blows cold when your parents are gone. There is no one ahead of you in the line, no comforting bulk taking the edge off the wind and the snow. “Walk behind me. Put your feet in my footprints” Dad said as we trudged across the common in a snowstorm. “I can’t. I can’t.” I was maybe seven. “It’s too far. Your feet are too big.” “No, look. I’m taking baby steps. See, can you do it now?” We are the ones in front now. The next round of deaths will be ours, my generation. So how to know that, how to look that in the eye and not go mad?
Glancingly might be all we can manage. If we look directly into the basilisk eye we may be completely incapacitated by our own mortality. But to look glancingly, to accept that the time that is left is much less than the time which has gone, can be the opposite of incapacitating. It can be, and for me increasingly is, energising, focussing. What do I want to do? Are there places I want to see that need the physical capacity I have right now? Are there things I want to do which I had better get on with? It helps with the hugely difficult question of what time is for to know that is it limited.
And there can be a relief too in letting go of things. In my twenties and thirties I envied people who could ski. I used to watch the glorious, graceful, swishing speed and think that it must be wonderful to be able to do it. I had friends who loved ski-ing so much that they would forgo a summer holiday to do it. And now I am sixty two and it is pretty clear that learning to ski was never important enough to me for me to make it happen. If it didn’t matter earlier it is unlikely to happen now. Articulate that thought and many people jump in: “You could still learn.” “If you want to ski get out there and do it.” They miss the point. I haven’t done it. I don’t intend to do it. When there is so clearly not enough time for lots of things you can let some of them go without guilt or much regret. Looks like I will not be ski-ing, or playing a musical instrument to a high standard or learning to scuba dive. That’s fine. Acceptance of that doesn’t sadden me, rather it is a relief a let it go.
But I need to think about the things that I don’t want to let go and try to protect them. I want to travel, adventurously as well as comfortably. I want to continue to walk distances and hills. So what I really need for as long as I can in this next twenty, twenty five years of my life, is health and strength and energy. So I am trying to use that sense of the briefness of life to look after myself and others so that we can make the day sing. Do I succeed? One day at a time.