An Orphan's Journey

As you grow up and build your sense of self you take many roads, and some detours, on the way to becoming that future person. You can do this because at your core you have your parents as the one foundation in your life that will never change. To you, this is an absolute. The constant that has always been there, will always be there. You are young and carefree, and you think you have plenty of time before you have to worry about them aging, becoming old and feeble, dying. Life can change in a day.

I never thought I'd be an orphan before 40. That's what it feels like, when both of your parents have died. I had heard the phrase, "I'm an orphan now", and remember thinking that it sounded almost mean, as though your parents left you on purpose. Of course it really only means one thing; that they've left you.

Soon I will say goodbye to my childhood home. This is my evolving story in pictures and words.

tending the garden

One thing I noticed when my mother died, was how one's sense of time gets warped. You can't remember whether something you did was last week or 3 months ago, and before you know it, years have passed. Time goes by with little relevance, plodding on and on, until something jolts you back into the present. It could be a happy moment, a date on the calendar, a memory, another loss; but something of significance wakes you up from your haze. Something reminds you that someone you love is missing.

It's been over two years now since dad left us. That doesn't seem possible. A whole lot of life happens in two years, yet the pain feels fresh and old, all at once. The truth is, it's always there, the grief, lingering on some level. It's whether or not you choose to acknowledge it that allows it to bloom, and only you can decide how big to let that blossom grow.

There are days now when I can think about my parents and not feel sad, and a strange guilt creeps in. Have I stopped missing them? Guilt turns to panic when I think about letting go of these feelings I've kept; like a blanket I've wrapped around myself to keep me close to them. What will it mean if I don't feel sad anymore? At what point is the grief of losing them replaced with the memories of them?

All blooms whither. It is only in this fading that we can appreciate how special and delicate the bloom is, and how fleeting is its beauty and permanence. Fear, love, grief, joy - all are blooms in the garden of life. My garden is calling me, and I'm ready.


Dreams really do tell us things we don't want to admit when we're awake.

Although I thought I'd forgiven myself for not being there the weekend Dad went into the hospital and ultimately died, I realize that I haven't really gotten over it. Disappointing him and myself for not being there to hold his hand. There is a side of me that knows he wouldn't want all the fuss, that he forgives me for not being there. It's forgiving myself that is the problem.

Some dreams feel so real that when you wake up you are relieved to realize that it was in fact, just a dream. Dreams also have a funny way of mixing real life in, just enough to make you think it's really happening. My dream tricked me last night. A nightmare of sorts.

I dreamt of my dad the way he was in the weeks just before he died. He looked the same to me, he was feeling better and getting back to his old self. In my dream he was still here, and I truly believed it. I remember feeling like I was missing him, and wondered why I hadn't visited with him in a while. As my dream life was pondering his absence, I remember being relieved that I still had lots of time. I still had time to spend with him! He was sick, but hadn't died yet. Except reality was fighting with wishful thinking, and as my unconscious mind processed the truth quickly creeping in, I woke up to the awful reality - time had already run out.

The beginning of the end

It has been just over a year since my father died. He and my mother spent 37 years together in the house they bought just before I was born, or possibly just after. That's another thing about being an orphan, your historians are no longer available.

The last five years dad spent on this earth were without his childhood sweetheart and one true love. The home that once thrived with a family of six was becoming increasingly empty and sad. Slowly but surely, the house started to deteriorate around him, much the way he was falling apart himself. One could pinpoint exactly the moment when dad's decline began, and that was the day we all found out that his sweetheart had inoperable lung cancer.

Mom had smoked for many years - more than I know or that she'd admit to, and even when she was pregnant with one of us (she wouldn't say who; forever the diplomat). She quit cold turkey the day she found out her mother had lung cancer; that was 23 years ago. For many years after that I remember her carrying around a pack of Pall Malls in her purse, securely and completely encased in a thick blanket of clear packing tape. She knew there would be no way to get those suckers out without destroying them, and even if she did get them out she knew they'd be stale as all hell. She tried to tell me, and herself for that matter, that she kept them just in case she was ever at the point where she had to have a cigarette to squelch the craving. It is more likely that mom kept the cigs as a reminder of her commitment to quitting.

As far as her inspiration, my grandmother put up a valiant fight, but ultimately, died on my 18th birthday as a result of her smoking. My mother's shiny plastic bundle a daily reminder of her mother's early demise.

gone and missing...

Dad has been in my dreams for many nights now. He is how I remember him before he got sick, and at the end as he was getting better. Gregarious, funny, silly, goofy, determined, calm. Looking back through the many pictures of my dad you will notice one thing...he is always smiling. Not a cheesy 'for the camera' smile, but a genuine 'I'm happy' smile. The one you can't fake. Even in his childhood photos he is smiling, and from what little I've heard, he didn't have a lot to smile about as a kid. Through his sickness, he smiled, albeit weary at times. I am glad that he visits me this way.

One can never predict how much they will miss someone. We all imagine it at one time or another, but nothing can truly prepare you for it. Dad drifted away from us for a while after mom died, and I have to admit that in our collective confusion over her sudden death, we were all too busy missing her to miss each other. I know my dad felt lost without her, as much as he tried to tell us he now felt free to be the man he wanted - a church-going, motorcycle riding, beard growing, cigarette smoking hellion; I guess.

She never wanted to go to church, although she insisted on us kids being baptized Protestant and going through confirmation. She worried over him riding a motorcycle, so he gave it up after an accident when Scott was young. She hated his beard when he grew it ala Grizzly Adams style in the 70's, and as far as the smoking, he was supposed to have quit along with her when grandma died.

One can understand his rebellion, in a way. Even the best marriages can build resentment over time for the sacrifices and choices made in the name of the family and the marriage. But it was the manner of his swift and decisive rebellion that I found hurtful and confusing. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn't mom's control he resented, it was her departure.

all that's left - the piano

The house is empty now as I take this picture. Dad quickly did his fair share of cleaning things out right after mom died, dispensing of the reminders of her absence. Of course we all felt very confused by his actions and couldn't see the reasoning in his decisions to randomly give things away.

But now, I have never seen the house so empty, and it seems so strange on many levels. I remember looking at old pictures of the house taken when I was a baby and thinking how sparse it looked. That wasn't the house I remembered growing up in. The house of my childhood was pretty much cluttered and messy most of the time, although clean. My parents weren't ones for being overly organized. Don't get me wrong, the phone book went on the second shelf in the cupboard over the microwave along with all the bills, the checkbook, and the stamps, but that was about the extent of the organization in our house.

So many years of building a home together, choosing furniture, hanging wallpaper, remodeling. My parents did things once and only once. They couldn't afford to redecorate with the changing styles. So when furniture came in, wallpaper got hung, and walls got knocked down, it stayed that way. That was home - always the same. Although the crazy wallpaper mom decided to hang one day while I was in high school still adorns the dining room, the furniture is gone and the house is empty; except for the piano, and the gauzy curtains.

the piano - part II

My mother had always wanted to learn how to play the piano. So one day, she and my dad brought home a player piano. I have no idea how they got it home, or where it came from; it just showed up one day around the time of third grade.

We had never seen a player piano before. How cool that you could put a on a music roll, pump your feet furiously, and the keys would move magically to the music flowing out. The faster you pumped, the faster the song and the more animated the keys. It was magic!

The first song that puffed out of that wooden machine was the song "Windy". The words were even printed on the roll, so you could sing along. To this day whenever I hear that song I think of being in that porch room singing to the tune while my mother pumped away on the pedals. Who was Windy? I always wondered.

My mother was a determined woman. "Don't let anyone ever tell you you can't do something", she used to say to me. She sat at that piano and taught herself the fingerings and how to read music, and she had never played an instrument before. The first song I remember her learning was Michael Row Your Boat Ashore. Even now when I hear that song it reminds me of when I used to hear her humming along as she played (she would never sing), gentle and soothing.

the address book

Denial is a strong and powerful emotion.

Austin was poking around in my latest cell phone when he stopped; "You still have grandpa's number in your phone." "Yeah." I sighed. It was a revelation to him as much as it was a statement to me.

I was trying to call my brother last week when instinctively I called dad by mistake - their numbers only differ by the last two digits. I hung up before anyone could answer. More likely I hung up before hearing the emotionless voice informing me that this number is no longer in service. A reminder I didn't want or need to hear.
The truth is, I still have his phone number in my address book too. Don and Alice. I can't even cross it out. That would be too final.

Austin asked what would happen if we called grandpa's number? Would anyone answer? I suppose someone else could've been assigned the number by now. I admitted how I had called grandpa's number by accident, but that I hung up right away. We left the conversation at that. My mind doesn't really want to know if someone else lives in that number now - to me that number is that house. My house, my childhood - and dad's house. How strange that you can associate so much with a simple phone number. The identity it gives you is astounding to me.

That night, just before I fell asleep, a night where my dad ended up visiting me in my dreams, I wondered what it would be like to call the number and actually hear him answer.

A story seed was rolling around inside my head. Doesn't everyone have that desperate desire to communicate with a deceased loved one? One last conversation, apology, words of love or forgiveness. What would you say if you could have one last talk? What if you could continue talking; would talking be enough? That seed is carefully germinating in my head at night.

In the back of my mind I'm thinking that maybe someday I will call, and if anyone answers, just maybe, I'll ask for Don. For the time being, I'll just have to keep tending to that seed, believing he's still there, as he is, in my address book.