grumpy about death… again (not ready for orphanhood)

Last night I lay awake in one of my morbid moods. I watched Nick sleep peacefully and pondered at large, as I’m wont to do, about the inevitability of all of our demises. Will we live long? Will my children lose me or Anthony before they’re grown? What if, heaven forbid, I were to lose one of them? My thoughts ranged through disease, pestilence, war, famine, bus hits, freak accidents. Nick dreamed as I stroked the hairs on his temple, praying to anything listening that he and Jesse be allowed to live long, peaceful, happy lives.

Last month while I was in California, my mom and I spoke about some estate planning issues. Her ducks aren’t quite in a row.  Now that she’s in her 80’s, it’s probably time to arrange them properly. It felt wrong, somehow, to bring it up. My family has never been open about death, about how to help life go on smoothly here on earth after one of us is gone. But as the only lawyer in the family and a daughter among sons, it makes practical and emotional sense for me to guide Mom through this.

But I don’t want to help Mom plan ahead for her death. I pointed this out to her. I don’t want you to die. I’m counting on you sticking around for a long, long time to come. She held up her hands, fingers out in a counting or quieting gesture. “Ten years,” she promised me, in a matter-of-fact tone as she nodded knowingly.

Ten years. I only get to see her about once a year these days. She seems unwilling to travel since her stroke, so she hasn’t made it out here to Wisconsin in some years. For my part, it’s difficult to get out to California with the kids because of time commitments and the hassle of traveling so far. I could go alone, but Mom wants to see her grandkids. So does that mean I’ll only see her ten more times before she’s gone? My chest and stomach clench in pain when I try to wrap my head around that.

When my grandma died, Mom was of course broken-hearted. It was a different kind of sadness than when Dad died. With him, she waded through the bitter suffering of a lost mate, a companion who was present day after day like the rising sun. But with grandma, her loss was a quiet and soft thing, something deep and young. In the months after grandma’s death, Mom spoke to me almost in whispers about her grief. One day she murmured slowly, “Oh Carla, my mommy is gone. I’m an orphan now.” It felt like a little poem, an elegy.

I heard in her voice, even over the telephone, all the longing and desperate need of a child hunting for her lost mother. Mom was 70-something, and she still wanted and needed her mother on this earth as much my little Nick wants and needs me. I wish I had been with Mom in the body just then, so that I could have held her. We could have cried together; and though I’m her daughter, perhaps I could have stood in the shoes of her mother for a moment and filled her cup with the gifts that loving parents bequeath to us.

But I know a day will come when I’ll never be able to hold her again. And what then?

I’m not ready for orphanhood. I won’t be ready in ten years. I need to remind Mom next time I talk with her. Don’t leave me, Mom. I still need you. I’ll always need you.

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