On the morning of December 6, 1997, I had no way of knowing that I was two days away from being a twenty-one-year-old orphan. That Saturday morning the sun was shining and my father was dying from cancer. My mother, a registered nurse, had been taking care of him and was prepared to do so until the very end, so when she didn’t come downstairs by eleven a. m. I went to her room to waken her.
I walked to the end of the hall and for a moment, I hesitated. I don’t know if it was instinct or fear that stopped me, but I stood in front of her door for a minute before turning the knob. In that moment of hesitation I felt that the world was about to change. I opened the door and was immediately aware of being the only living person in the room.
The minutes that followed are hard to recount, partly because they are painful but mostly because emotionally I shut down. The person who had brought me into the world had ceased to be. My father was dying and I had to tell him that his wife, my mother, was dead. There were a slew of phone calls; to emergency services, my sisters and brother, my mother’s sister in Florida, the priest, the undertaker. When it was over, I wouldn’t be anyone’s child. Soon my siblings and I would be grown-up orphans. The night of my mother’s wake, my father died and it was then that we lost our first line of defense. We were on our own.
Five years later, I was living in New Jersey, forty weeks pregnant with my first daughter and celebrating my twenty-sixth birthday with a friend at lunch. My pregnancy had been relatively uneventful with the exception of developing pregnancy-induced hypertension. The last month of my pregnancy I went for weekly blood pressure screenings and the day of my birthday was no different. My blood pressure had been high that morning and at around three in the afternoon my husband called the restaurant with the news that my doctor wanted me at the hospital and in the Labor and Delivery unit immediately.
This was the first time I had ever been admitted to the hospital. This was the birth of my first child. Everything seemed out of my hands and as I gowned up and had my first I.V., more than anything, I needed my mom. How was I going to be a parent when my parents weren’t in my life? Where would I get advice? Guidance? Unquestioning support? In the half decade since she and my dad died, there were many occasions I wanted them to be there and I felt their absence deeply, but in the labor and delivery room, helpless, scared and in pain, I selfishly needed the support and comfort only your parents can provide. In the hours before becoming a parent myself all I wanted was to be safely and securely my parent’s child again.
My husband, Dave, was wonderful. My doctor and the nurses were caring and supportive. My labor was not terrible and by all accounts, relatively quick. The moment Abigail Elizabeth was born, all six pounds twelve ounces of her, the nurses placed her on my tummy and then Dave cut the cord. After her wipe down the nurse handed her back to me. Wrapped snugly and resting in my arms this perfect little person gazed up at me with a look that said, “I know you. You’re my momma and I’m safe.” That was when I realized just how completely I could adore another person. I also realized that that was how much my mother loved me and when Dave held Abigail, and his eyes got misty and he kissed her teeny, tiny nose, I felt like I was watching my father, holding me twenty-six years and one day before.
In those precious few moments after Abigail was born, I realized that my grief was going to change. It was going to have to, if I was going to be the kind of mother my mother had been for me. Before Abigail, the pain I felt for my parents was the pain of a child grieving for her own loss. Now that I was the parent it occurred to me that my pain was no longer my number one concern. For the first time in my life, I was someone’s first line of defense, just as my parents had been mine. Holding on to the pain of a child who’s lost her parents was going to be impossible.
An old friend, Erin, lost her mom when she was ten and her dad when she was twenty-one. She and her husband are raising three children of their own. Like me, Erin has the love and support of her siblings and her husband’s mom. We talked the other day and I asked Erin what she missed the most about not having her parents around while she’s raising her children,
“I think sometimes I forget that so many other people have parents. Sounds weird, right? But I guess when I hear people talk about how their in-laws fight over who gets to watch the kids, or when someone says she’ll just ask her mom to help her, that’s when I feel it the most. There’s no one else, not even a sister, who can take that place—who you can unabashedly ask to come to your house and watch your kids for you, or cook, or clean, or whatever. I have not had that person for so long, I can’t really remember what it was like. Sometimes I think maybe she wouldn’t be that kind of mom anyway. Maybe she wouldn’t like to watch the grandkids. But I just think that because it’s easier,” Erin said.
The realization of just how much your miss your parent’s emotional support can hit you out of no where. When Amelia, our middle daughter was born, she was as wonderful and perfect as her older sister. But a few exclusively breast fed weeks later she wasn’t gaining weight. I mentioned this to her new doctor who was not at all concerned. Deep in my gut I had a feeling that I wasn’t producing enough milk, but I was told to continue with breastfeeding and that eventually she would put on weight. I did and she didn’t so eventually Amelia went to formula and she did start to gain weight. I was right, I wasn’t producing enough milk, but it took months of crying and fear to get to that knowledge and I felt like a complete failure. I couldn’t help but believe that if my mother had been around I would have been far more confident in my own gut instinct, knowing that I had her as backup.
A few years ago after a day with Dave’s parents, Abigail hit me with the big “Mommy, where are your mom and dad?” question. Such a simple and innocent question, but it hit me like a quick uppercut. How was I going to explain this to a two-year-old? I did what I thought my mom would have done. I explained that my mom and dad had died. That sometimes when people get really sick they can’t be fixed. Being raised Irish Catholic, I explained that some people believe that when you die you go to Heaven and if you want, you can watch everyone and everything here on Earth.
Many times in the last twelve years I’ve had to guess at the answers my parents would have given. The fact that we had a great relationship and that I was a grown woman when they died has helped. I’ve been able to think back on conversations I had with them long before I was a mother myself and extrapolate what their advice would be for me now. I think my answer for Abigail’s question was one they would have approved of. Even if it wasn’t it seemed to be good enough for Abigail. After I answered her, she kissed my cheek and said, “Mommy, I’m sure your parents are watching us and I’m pretty sure they like my pretty dress.” Knowing my parents, I’m absolutely positive she was right.