IT HAPPENED TO ME: I'm a 30-Year-Old Orphan

It’s awkward to be 30 years old with dead parents. Most people my age “just can’t imagine.” Neither could I.
Publish date:
November 20, 2015
death, parents, family drama, forgiveness, grief

Every night I dream that my parents are alive.

The dreams blend together and fade quickly once I’m awake. Sometimes there is a residue that sticks. It’s never pleasant. It never feels like they’re with me. Just like I’m working out my own psychological shit. I hope that I won’t have these dreams forever.

In the dreams, there are a lot of unexpected guests at the door, and secret passages into my apartment that I never knew existed. There are also, always, pets. Pets who are not being taken care of. Kittens spilling out of a first floor window. A too-strong dog on a makeshift leash who gets away from me.

My parents are alive, though. So however uncomfortable the dreaming world is, it’s sweeter than the waking version in one very significant way.

My father died almost four years ago. It was a shock.

He had a very invasive surgery meant to remove some benign cysts and prevent pancreatic cancer. He was in the hospital for a week. All the doctors said he was doing great. He pretended not to notice how beautiful the one woman on his surgical team was. His eyes lit up whenever he saw my mom. He loved the suits his surgeon wore.

He came home at about one p.m. on a Monday. He looked great and was full of smiles. We watched the season two finale of The Walking Dead. He and my mom fought about something while still beaming at each other. I emptied his surgical drain and he wrote down the times and measurements in his graceful handwriting.

At 2:07 a.m. he got up, in pain. He walked to the bathroom and he died there.

Two weeks later, the receptionist from his well-suited surgeon’s office called to find out why he hadn’t made a follow-up appointment. I told her he was dead. The surgeon called an hour later to tell me how sorry he was for my loss and to say “This never happens.”

(People don’t talk enough about logistics and death. About things like mail. About the number of times you have to tell telemarketers that the person they are calling for is dead. No. He’s not available. He’s dead.)

My father was great. He was funny and difficult and contrary. I loved him so easily, even when I was hurt or furious. And I knew, beyond doubt, that he would save me from danger. Despite how human and fallible he was, he stayed magical to me.

My mom died at the end of August. Her death, the days leading up to it, strangely, painfully, were maybe the best of my life.

It was scary and sad. But it was also miraculous. I choose that word really carefully. I experienced a miracle with her.

My mother believed that you choose your parents in some cosmic soul-ship kind of way. In retrospect, I think that she was right about most things, so the lines pointing toward the miracle were probably forming way back when. When I, unembodied soul me, was choosing my very beautiful, very damaged, very intelligent parents.

Maybe I knew that I was strong enough for a tumultuous life with them. And that I should jump at the chance to be in their presence, since my time with them would be relatively short.

When I was a very young child, my mother and I were so close. So connected. Pure love and compassion and understanding. One heart. And then there were at least a dozen IHTMS worth of complications and pain and toxic stress.

We were apart. We took turns being the monster. I doubted that we had anything to offer each other.

But at the end of her life, thanks to forces in and beyond my control (shout-out to guardian angels and Duloxetine and oxytocin probably), our reality completely transformed. I was filled with the pure love and compassion of my 4-year-old self. And by some perfect grace, I was also able to hold onto all the awareness and hard-fought understanding of my rocky 30 years. It was enlightening.

My mother’s hospice room was a sacred space. It was vibrating at some other frequency than the one I’m used to living at. The love cracked open my heart. And something happened that I never could have predicted. My mother and I parted in this world with no unfinished business, nothing unresolved, all forgiveness, all love.

It’s awkward to be 30 years old with dead parents. A new acquaintance doesn’t expect to be talking about death, but parents often come up in small talk; and it rarely occurs to me to lie. Most people my age “just can’t imagine.” Neither could I. I am getting used to hearing the word "orphan."

Sometimes I feel like I’m performing. I hear myself deliver the death news and ...shit. I’ve overcompensated. I sound cheerful instead of whatever I was going for.

I cry in public all the time. I duck behind a building or sometimes openly weep on the subway. I hear strangers complain about their mothers and I want to yell at them or stroke their cheeks. I notice new friends hesitate to say a harsh word about their parents in front of me. Their effort makes me feel exposed.

I ask the people who love me for help. I ask the people who like me. And the people who don’t know me very well. I used to be terrible at this, but it’s important to keep improving.

I see losses in the future. If I have children, they won’t know my parents. If I have a wedding, it will be impossible not to feel a little bit alone. If I write a book, they will never read it.

The wish for one more conversation doesn’t go away. There is a list of questions that only gets longer. What else did you love and how did you come to love it? Is there anything you forgot to tell me?

Every night, I dream that my parents are alive. I hope that I won’t have these dreams forever. But I know now that many things are true at once, so maybe I will miss them when they’re gone.