Sunday, May 17, 2009

On becoming an orphan

A very old man died this past week. I barely knew him, but his death has caused me to reflect on family, on life and those losses that I have personally experienced.

My brother died in a motorcycle accident when he was only 23 years old. He was the first in my immediate family to go. His death affected all of us greatly. He was the baby in our family. He was well-liked and had a brilliant mind. No one in our family was at all prepared to have Johnny leave us at such an early age, in the prime of his life and with such a bright-looking future. It was a shocking and tragic loss.

My mother succumbed to the ravages of lung cancer ten years later. Although she was not a "young" woman (she was in her 60's), she had reached a point in her life where - for the first time - she had achieved enough financial stability that she was able to do some traveling and was looking forward to seeing many more of the places she'd only read about. My father didn't much care about traveling, so Mom and Gladys (one of her long-time friends) often traveled together.

It was on one of those trips, when Mom was forced to sit down and rest while climbing some steps, that she first realized something was wrong. When the diagnosis of a terminal illness was made, she exclaimed, "Isn't this just the shit's titties?" Worst thing I ever heard her say. She had spent almost her entire life taking care of others with little or no thought given to herself. First having to drop out of high school to help support her family when her father left her mother and youngest brother and her alone, taking the two middle children with him; then getting married and spending the next almost 40 years carefully watching the family's pennies and stretching every dollar. In those years she did not work outside the home. Instead, she spent almost every waking moment trying to figure out ways to make our lives better, to cook wholesome meals, to plan fun outings (picnics, gathering berries, sing-alongs, games), to not cry (altho I often heard her crying down in the basement). She never let on that she was hurting, and so I never told her that I could hear her crying. She was a very proud person and family was everything to her.

But, as usual, I'm digressing and I'll stop. My family is really not the main point of this post.

I can remember her often saying to us as we were growing up, "I don't want to ever be a burden. If it comes to the point where I can't take care of myself, put me in a 'home'." She was adamant on that. The idea of putting a beloved family member in a home or long-term care facility has always been abhorrent to me, but once again I can feel myself digressing.

I began this post by writing, "A very old man died this past week." How old was he? He was 97. This is not a typo. He was 97. Was he in a 'home' or long-term care facility? No. He was in a home, but it was one that had originally been purchased by his daughter (since deceased), and for the past 10+ years had been supported financially (in part) by his son and looked after by a 'caretaker' who lived upstairs. This caretaker had a full-time job outside the home, but was personally available every noon hour to make sure the 'old man' was OK. It was only in the last very few years that the old man began to show signs of his true age. He starting having trouble remembering who his son was. He developed incontinence. Overall, however, his health was remarkable, and many people thought he would live to see his 100th birthday.

His death, following very soon after a pretty good-sized heart attack, seemed to take his son by complete surprise. I would have thought - I know the son - that plans would have long ago been put in place for final arrangements (especially considering his father's advanced age) and all that would have needed to be done in such an event was simply plug the plans in and get them going. (The son is an 'organizer extraordinaire'.)

This was not the case, which brings up several questions, none of which (imo) can be adequately answered or even debated ... at least, not in specifics, only in generalities (and I'm not sure how effectively these questions can be even generally addressed).

1. What price family? 2. What price memories? 3. When do we start giving up? 4. When do we lose hope? My answers are "Priceless" to #s 1 and 2 and "Never!" to #s 3 and 4.

My most heartfelt thoughts go out to this young man who is now, in his 50's, an orphan. I empathize.


steven said...

lot of unburdening in this entry goldenrod! the four questions with which you close the entry are all answered in the same manner as i would choose in my own life. it's the quality with which you live your life that is what is left.
thanks for this.

Goldenrod said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Steven. Good, as always, to hear from you!

There was so much more that I had originally intended to say/write ... ... how the 'old man' was flirtatiously waving and winking at all the good-looking nurses even while on his death bed in the hospital, for instance ... ... how the son - even tho his father was in his late 90's - refused (in his mind) to accept the fact that his father would one day, and probably very soon, be gone ... ... how we all "hang onto for dear life" that which - really - cannot be 'hung onto' ... ... instead, I found my fingers having almost a mind of their own in composing this post.

But you saw through me, didn't you, Steven? Bless you, dear one, for your insightful comments.

Goldenrod said...

PS. I was really surprised to receive a comment from you on a Monday, Steven. Are you OK? Not ill, I hope!

steven said...

nope! it's a holiday here goldenrod. right when we need it - three weeks into may - nightime temps around zero and daytime anywhere from ten above to twenty five above (all in celsius of course). the holiday is in honour of queen victoria - want to, need to, have to know more? then go here: