The Universal Notebook: 'Now we are orphans'

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When my father died back in February an odd thing occurred to me as I sat at his deathbed with my two younger brothers.

“Now we are orphans,” I said to them, our mother having passed away seven months earlier.

We tend to think of orphans as young children whose parents have died, leaving them alone in the world. But anyone of any age who loses both parents has been orphaned. As an adult, the loss should not leave one helpless and alone, in need of assistance, but the world does feel a little different once there is no one standing between you and the grave.

When I was young I feared that the death of my parents would be devastating, precipitating anxiety, depression and existential dread, but, in fact, it has not been that way at all. There is surely a sense of emptiness, of a place once occupied by Mom and Dad being vacant now.

But there is also a sense of liberation that is part resignation and part relief. Having watched my parents die, I have seen that sickness is hard, but death is easy. I have no way of knowing, of course, exactly what my parents were experiencing when they passed on, but from the outside it appeared peaceful, even effortless, a gentle release from a long life.

I am not a big believer in an afterlife, but it hardly matters what one believes. What will be will be. If there is a heaven, I have a feeling it is not a distant celestial realm but a state of being much nearer at hand. I continue to sense the presence of my mother and father, not so much as guardian angels as lingering spirits of love and memory.

While I enjoy the magic realism of such novels as Jorge Amado’s “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” and William Kennedy’s “Ironweed,” in which the dead walk and talk among us, living their incorporeal lives and occasionally visiting ours, I don’t really think this occurs.

Still, I do drive by my parents’ grave, which overlooks a fairway at Portland Country Club, and chat with them from time to time. I am under no illusion that they are listening to me or are in any position to assist or advise, but when I talk to them I do feel as though I have been heard, much as I do when I pray.

Perhaps because it has only been a year or so, I sometimes forget that they are gone. I will suddenly think, “I ought to call Mom and Dad,” and then just as suddenly realize that I can’t and don’t need to. The obligation of care has been discharged. I have been relieved of duty. They no longer need me for anything. They are free. They are gone. That’s where the relief and release come in.

Mostly, being something of an empiricist, I stay in touch with my parents through their possessions and their images. I’ve been wearing a couple of Dad’s short-sleeved shirts all summer. They are worn soft and cool. And I wear his tan sport coat to church. Mom’s floral watercolors hang in the bedrooms of our new home.

The photograph I have of my parents here in my office was taken on their wedding day in July of 1948. It shows an attractive young couple in their twenties, with a long life ahead of them. Betty and Al are standing in front of an arbor on the farm in Windham where my maternal grandparents lived at the time. As the flowers on the arbor were not in bloom, the blossoms in the picture were supplied by a family friend who was a florist.

In the black and white eternity of the photograph, Dad is wearing a carnation in the lapel of his suit and a wan smile on his face. My father was already a veteran of World War II, and in a few years would be off to Korea. Mom is wearing a large corsage on her dress and white gauntlet gloves on her hands. She is smiling sheepishly, as though well pleased with herself. Mom and Dad are holding hands, albeit lightly.

Our family life begins in that picture. I now wear my father’s wan smile. Our grandchildren wear my mother’s sheepish grin.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.