Okay, I’m not going to walk down the city streets singing, “Tomorrow” or anything remotely as maudlin as that, and I doubt I will befriend a stray dog and bring it home, but I am understanding the character Little Orphan Annie more these days since my father passed away. Now, with both my parents gone, I must face the indisputable fact that I am an orphan.
Of course, we usually associate “orphan” with a child. Like the little red-haired girl from the comic strip, these are kids who become wards of the state and live in group homes. Hopefully, none of them have to deal with someone like Miss Hannigan, but the fact is that we usually associate being an orphan as something negative and mostly connected with childhood.
There are the famous orphans to be considered like Dave Thomas, who started the Wendy’s restaurant chain. Others include John Lennon, Babe Ruth, Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe, and Nelson Mandela. Writers Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, James Michener, and Leo Tolstoy were all orphans, as were former presidents of the United States Andrew Jackson and Herbert Hoover. Moses, one of the most important figures in the Bible, was an orphan, and in literature there is David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre, and Tarzan to name a few.
Perhaps one of the most notable orphans in recent memory is Harry Potter, the boy wizard who became a popular culture phenomenon in books and films. It goes without saying that anyone who reads J.K. Rowling’s books or sees the films knows that the driving force behind Harry’s actions is reconciling what happened to his deceased parents in order to get on with his life. In the story Harry makes quite an impression (and eventually shakes the world), as did everyone mentioned above in one way or another. Perhaps they all went on to some kind of notoriety not in spite of being orphans but because of it.
I suppose the more important part of the story may be those who took in the orphans and raised them as their own. Dave Thomas became a national spokesperson for adoption because of the wonderful experience he had, but someone like Harry Potter could explain all the horrors of living with the wrong surrogate parents. The truth is that even kids living with their biological parents can have horrific situations, and most of us learned long ago that biology has nothing to do with being a good parent.
Still, being an orphan is something that feels connected to childhood. As a culture we tend to put added significance on a child being without parents, but seem to dismiss adults in the same situation. People all over the world lose both their parents as adults. It is the nature of things. I am sure many of them do not walk around all day thinking “Now I am an orphan” the way I have been doing, but maybe that is because society has trained us not to think that way. It is convenient in the adult world to keep a stiff upper lip, put our shoulders to the wheel, and go on with things. To me that just doesn’t equate with the passing of my parents. I cannot accept that as the way of the world, even though I know it is.
As long as my parents were alive, so was my childhood. I could sit with them and reminisce about times past, share laughter and tears, and know that there was always someone there who loved me unconditionally. There are many intimate moments a child shares with both parents, and those are precious and sacred times that you can recollect together as long as your parents live. With my parents gone now, the memories remain but the opportunity to share them changes precipitously. There is a heft to even happy stories because I once experienced those times with the people I loved who are now gone.
After my mother passed away, I still had my father to sit and talk to about everything. We would trade stories about Mom and have a laugh (or a cry). When my young son did something wild or inappropriate, I’d ask my Dad if I ever did anything like that. He would nod his head and say, “Yes, but you were worse than he is.” I needed him to remind me of things I couldn’t remember like that. As long as you have even one parent, you have a precious resource that helps you make sense of who you are.
Another thing that I feel is lost is my parents as keepers of the flame. On both sides of the family there were old stories, and my folks were like historians. If I wanted to know who Aunt Jenny was or how I was related to this person, my parents were able to connect the dots. Over the years they did help me understand my rather large extended family, but I miss being able to go to them now for a quick answer. I also just enjoyed hearing them tell the stories, which they did so colorfully.
Now I feel as if I am a fish out of water, a ship without a port in the storm, or a man without a country. It is like being freshly cast out into the world to start on your own, not knowing the way out and having no place to which you can go back. It is a startling feeling to know you are alone, cast into a void, from which there is no return. This is how I feel now without my parents there. I don’t care what anyone else says – even if I am not actually lost, it surely does not mean that I am found.
I remember a scene in the great film It’s a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey (James Stewart) finally realizes that he is living in an alternate universe – it is when his mother doesn’t recognize him. Up until that point he has some false notions that things are as they should be, but when his mother sends him off into the night he becomes aware that he is an orphan, that everything he has thought about life or believed to be true is gone. I can relate to the expression on his face right now, the horror of knowing that your origins are no more.
When I had my own children, there was the comforting and reassuring notion that my parents were there as guides. How do I handle this? I merely picked up the phone to ask what to do if my child had a fever, wouldn’t eat, or cried when I woke her from a nap. This seemed to me like a safety net; I was not a parent alone or even just working at it with my wife. I had the big guns backing me up: my parents!
Now I am not only an orphan, but my children no longer have their grandparents. Thankfully, they still have my wife’s parents, but I feel saddened and almost like I have failed my kids somehow by having parents who died. I know this is crazy, but there is such a vacuum in life for me now. Those weekly visits to see Papa are gone for the kids and me. It had become such a ritual, almost like going to church on Sundays. Seeing my father was woven into the fabric of our lives, and now it is ripped away and there seems to be no way to pick up the thread and begin again.
I know I am going through what everyone must go through at some point in life. I am trying to cope with it, trying to get through to a better time and place, but I am not sure when that will happen. Perhaps as the kids get older, as the memories fade, and the routine becomes something forgotten, we will move on with our lives and things will seem less laden with emptiness.
For now, I walk the streets on a winter’s day and feel the cruel, cold wind on my face, thinking about my parents in the warmth of each other’s company now on the other side. I could be tempted to sing “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” but they gave me too many great years, all of them filled with love and support. Perhaps I am an orphan, but are we not a culture of orphans? We all lose our parents, and then we must face the next part of life when we become them. Maybe that’s the most difficult concept for me and one I am not ready to face yet, but I do know the sun will come out tomorrow, and as Little Orphan Annie sings in the play Annie, it’s only a day away!
Photo Credits: Annie – mrkstyle.com; george bailey – entertainmentguidefilm.org