What hadn't occurred to me was to be "parentless"— for them both to be gone, and to have a profound "orphan" feeling, even though I'm way too old to be traditionally orphaned.
It also made me realize, in retrospect, how both my mother and father made dramatic changes in the lives when their "last" parent died— my mother "shipped me off," never to return, and my dad made significant decisions both in his profession and love life. They both had parents who died decades apart from one another, and I'd never thought of the cumulative effect.
I was fortunate to receive a book in the wake of my parents' deaths— it was about a year and a half apart— that mesmerized me on this subject.
It's called Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents, edited by Alison Gilbert.
It's a series of interviews with people who you've never considered in this light: Barbara Ehrenreich, Geraldine Ferraro, Dennis Franz, Yogi Berra, Ice-T, among many others.
The "celebrity" stories are in a different voice than any of the tabloid muck we read— they're intimate and entirely real. There's also people's stories you're almost too afraid to open, like the teenager who lost her mother to cancer one week, and then the next, on 9/11, her policeman father died at the Twin Towers.
I asked Allison if I could share two stories with you, Ferraro's and Ice-T's.
Ice-T... who knew that his VERY NAME is based on that fact that he lost both his parents at a very young age?
I’ve always felt like an outsider. Every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, it was me, sitting at someone else’s table. It was that vibe like when you’re over at somebody’s house and they’re whispering in the kitchen, “Why is he here?”
I came into life so hard that when I see other adults who say they need or want their parents, it seems corny to me. When there’s nobody to hug you when you cry, eventually you stop crying. I think that’s how I ended up getting called “Ice.”
Gerry Ferraro... I hadn't thought of her since her heroic, but ill-fated nomination for vice-president. She is an amazing storyteller, and her history tells you more about the roots of the Democratic Party, as well as her poignant relationship with her parents, that anything I've read in years.
One morning, when I was eight years old, I woke up and went into my parents’ bedroom, and was surprised to find my father still in bed. He looked at me, and my mother said, “Gerry, leave the room.”
When my mother came out of the bedroom, she told me, “Daddy’s gone to heaven.” He had died of a heart attack.
I never went back in that room.
I told Allison I wish I could buy a truckload of her books and hand one to every single person I know who loses a parent, regardless of whether they had a loving or hateful relationship, close or distant. It's a certainty that whatever you envision about the aftermath of your parents death, you are guaranteed a significant surprise. This book gives you an inkling and a solace for what those revelations really mean. I can't recommend it enough.