My father’s death at age 89 a few weeks ago was hardly unexpected. A Parkinson’s patient for 33 years, a nursing-home resident for 13, his otherwise perfect health made Milton Drevitch a nearly perfect blank slate on which to witness that disease’s inexorable progress on our movement and speech centers; by the end he was left virtually mute. And so his death, of pneumonia complications, seemed right and natural, although the end ironically came upon my siblings and me quite suddenly.
And yet, following my mother’s death six years ago after a series of illnesses, we were now orphans. As my wife, children and I engaged in the Jewish tradition of shiva, welcoming visitors in our home for prayers for several days following my father’s funeral, many friends broached this topic. A few people brought it up with a smile, because certainly if one had to become an orphan, having it happen in middle age after parents had lived long, even if not always happy lives, was the way to do it. But others, especially those who’d already reached the same milestone, knew it meant something more, even if it’s hard for any of us properly to define it, beyond the awareness that our own mortality is now surely one step closer.
For me, becoming an orphan so far has been akin to the feeling of walking across a bridge or along the edge of a canyon. There’s a chasm below me. I'm not quite sure how deep it is, but I fear that it could swallow me if I’m not careful to keep looking straight ahead instead of down. To try to get a handle on what’s in that void, I spoke to journalist Allison Gilbert, author of the groundbreaking book Parentless Parents and founder of a network that provides insight and support to those (now including me) who are raising our children without the presence of our own mothers and fathers.
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