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Never Too Old to be An Orphan
“I feel rich in the friends, family and heritage departments. But I still miss my parents and who I was around them.”

Mother's Day has passed. So has Father's Day. And, as it happens, so have my mother and father. It's been quite a year.

… I should be grief-stricken, but in truth I am not….I am stalked by two new realizations.

Both losses occurred quickly. When my mother died in July, 2008, we were preparing to renovate her home to make home care easier. For years, she had struggled with heart disease, and we thought we were on the threshold of the next step. We little realized just how big a step it would be. She was 81.

My father had prostate cancer in the early 1990s, but no other illness his entire life. In October, he was still working full time as a volunteer at a refugee shelter. A single low-dose Aspirin taken daily made up his entire medical regimen. But in November, he was diagnosed with bone cancer. In February he died, having spent only eight days in hospital. He too was 81.

In the past two years, in addition to my parents, we have lost my father-in-law, two uncles, two aunts and two cousins. Others are seriously ill. To everything there is a season, we are told, and this apparently is our season of death.

I should be grief-stricken, but in truth I am not. Rather, I am grateful that my parents were spared a long, drawn-out hospitalization. Neither Mom nor Dad wanted to die; neither thought they were done with life. But both had a strong Christian conviction about life after death. Given a choice between dying or languishing in a haze with a pain pump and someone changing their clothes, they would choose to go.

My sister, my brother and I all had frequent high-quality time with our parents. Not much remained unsaid. Any long-standing family issues were neutralized in recent years. And Mom and Dad appreciated whatever we did to be with them, or for them. So my grief is moderate, and regret has little hold on me.

Yet I am stalked by two new realizations. The first is a surprising degree of loneliness. I miss my mother and father. Hardly a revelation. But I am surprised by how much I miss the small routines we shared – the same routines that, I confess, I often thought of as useful ways to meet their expectations and keep those expectations reasonable.

I might have told you before their deaths that those routines were optional and merely utilitarian. Yet I know better now. Every relationship has habits that reinforce the bond between two people. These routines are like iron posts driven in the ground to brace a tree that eventually become part of the tree itself. The patterns of a relationship add strength, colour and texture to life; they become part of the relationship. I miss my parents, and I miss our habits.

The gap is different with each parent. I miss my father showing up at my office with two small black coffees to chat about my business, world news and his latest escapade as self-appointed goodwill ambassador to tourists in downtown Toronto. I miss our café breakfasts and his relentless promotion of the refugee shelter.

For my mother, I miss her interest in where I am and what I am doing. I always called her when I travelled on business. She liked hearing about the weather in Vancouver and construction in Calgary and what I ate in Winnipeg. She especially liked hearing about remarkable flower beds and plantings.

A client in Calgary first named what I am feeling. “You're never too old to be an orphan,” she said. She's right – never mind that it's absurd to use that word for someone as well off as I am in friends, family and heritage. Regardless, I miss my parents and I miss who I was when we were together.

A second new realization is more sobering: The death of one's parents changes one's place in the universe. Living parents act as a mental buffer against death. Unless we have major health issues of our own, our parents' very existence wraps our psyche in existential bubble wrap, colluding with our own will to ignore death's inevitability. But, as one of my friends eloquently noted, “When your parents die you realize you're next up on the diving board.”

So this season of my life is marked by an inescapable embrace of my own mortality. Illnesses attack my friends as though by stealth. My joints ache, my glasses get stronger and my cholesterol count rises and falls like a personal doomsday clock. People regularly extract my blood and my doctor writes new instructions to the pharmacist. These are signals from the future, a staccato SOS that I had better come to terms with the inevitable, and sooner rather than later.

What does this recognition call for? Not that I prepare for my own demise, but that I be sure to waste none of life. I need not live in the shadow of death, nor give in to panic and try to squeeze the last drop from the lemon. Rather I choose – or will try to choose – to take little for granted, and to live with a deep sense of appreciation. It seems the wiser path.

At the very least it will help distract my children, until some day they too are taken by surprise and find themselves at the head of the line. By then they'll be ready. And until then, my life goes on.

Larry Matthews is a writer based in Toronto.

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, August 12, 2009.


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