I had an interesting chat today with two good souls, a mother and daughter team, who run a knitting shop near where I work. More than just knitting, there is sewing, crochet and a weaving class that I’d love to join if I can allow myself to. I walk past this shop when I leave work each day – imagine the temptations! However, in amongst the crafty chat there was deeper thought. We found ourselves talking about losing loved ones, in this case our parents. The mother, whose name I don’t yet know, lost both her parents four years ago. I lost Dad when I was 7, then my dear Ganna, who had become a surrogate parent, when I was 21 and finally Mum last year. We pondered on the way that this loss touches us daily, little things that might trigger emotions that veer between a soft, aching sorrow and an overwhelming need to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”.
Mum was a daily light in my life, despite all the trials that come with caring for a strong willed woman, who was progressively losing her connection to reality. I would go upstairs knowing that her deep blue eyes would fill with unconditional joy as she realised my presence. We argued at times, at times she could be dreadfully difficult, and the anguish of watching her get lighter and lighter as she ceased to eat, convinced that she’d already cooked herself a “lovely lunch” was at times too much to bear. Yet each day this shining smile would greet me, blue as the sky, bright as the sun. All my life I understood that she was “fragile”, though we didn’t realise the nature of that fragility until I was diagnosed, in adulthood, with the same condition, in diluted form. As a child she broke bones with frightening regularity, as had her mother, aunt and grandfather. She started breaking again once menopause set in, first a finger, then an elbow, a knee smashed to smithereens, her pelvis, sternum, spine, skull, neck. I watched her little body gradually crumple and deform as Osteogenesis Imperfecta added inexorably to the normal loss of bone and muscle that goes with ageing. Yet through all of this her soul remained gloriously strong, her smile generous and her sense of fun undimmed. She was my inspiration. And now she is gone just as, in the natural order of things all our parents go before us “into that good night”.
So we women, chatting in a small shop in Hastings, pondered on this loss and the way in which we felt, despite our years, orphaned. The dictionary defines an orphan as a child whose parents are dead. But do we not all feel, from time to time, helpless as children, frightened by the demands of life, intimidated by the responsibilities we expect ourselves to bear? I know I do, and have often in the past. Yet we put on a brave face, rarely answer the query “how are you?” with true replies, understanding the shallow nature of this reflex social patter. Why can we not feel orphaned, even as adults, when the person who has been our benchmark in life has gone forever? I miss Mum every day, in scraps and starts, between the contingencies of living. She is a hollow place in my heart. I know my daughter misses her beloved grandmother too – as I did when Ganna died. We feel bereft, while understanding that this is the nature of being. Our only certainty in living is that we will die; the only true, mindful response to this is to live our best lives while we can. But in amongst this trying and accepting, understanding and letting go, perhaps we could allow ourselves to be orphans once in a while. Perhaps that is natural response, at any age, to this inescapable loss.