Brand building through storytelling

Losing your parents and living better

This time of year, my husband and I go to so many movies that before long I start to forget what I’ve seen. Just the other day, while perusing the ads in the Review section, I had to ask, “Which one was Michael Clayton? What was that all about?”

My husband looked up from the crossword. “George Clooney as a fixer in a law firm, Tilda Swinton as the murderous in-house counsel.” Oh, yes, that one. An implausibly sinister concoction of the sort beloved by Hollywood producers, conspiracy theorists and more than a few critics. It gripped me in the theatre and faded from my mind within hours.

Savages Ver2At the opposite extreme, we saw The Savages, which portrays the decline of an institutionalized parent with such excruciating truthfulness that I could practically smell the disinfectant in the nursing home where his long-estranged children (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) confront their own failures while awaiting the end. All the way home, I complained about the movie: too long, too bleak, too uncompromising in its realism. “Like watching brain cells wither,” I said, fearing for my own middle-aged brain cells. If I can barely recall the car bomb in Michael Clayton, which made such a satisfying whoosh and was so gorgeously shot, what else am I about to forget?

The trivial stuff, that’s what. Far from breaking down, my mental machinery has simply become more discriminating. Like Robert Parker at a wine tasting, like Anna Wintour at the Paris collections, it has learned to ignore the irrelevant. The Savages could not be ignored. I can still see the daughter berating the nursing staff over the disappearance of her special gift to Dad, a red pillow that she wrenches from the arms of another addled old soul. Dad cares nothing for this treasure; he pushes it away. His daughter is the one on fire with caring, for to her the pillow represents nothing less than the warmth and comfort this family never knew. That’s why she dreads the prospect of his death.

And yet, when the inevitable finally happens, both she and her brother begin, at long last, to grow up. She completes the autobiographical play she’s been picking at for years—and manages to get it produced. He entertains the possibility that a woman who adores him just might deserve a permanent place in his world.

No one likes to admit that the death of a parent—even an exceptionally difficult parent—is anything besides heart-rending. A while ago a friend told me under her breath, “I hate to say it, but I think I’ll be relieved when my mother dies.” If manipulation were an Olympic sport, this woman’s pathologically controlling mother would take the gold. But a good daughter is supposed to miss her parents. The acceptable story ends here.

The real story tends to be a painfully complicated business—downright contradictory at times. There ought to be a word for a grownup with no parents, but “orphan” will have to do, and I’ve been one for 18 years. I think of my parents every day, with deep and unshakeable affection. I often think of questions I’d like to ask them, books I know they’d love, news I’d love to share with them, if only they could hear it. The older I get, the more of them both I see in myself.

I would say I miss them, but missing is too one-dimensional a word. It’s the same word we use for absent lovers and friends cut down in their prime. To use this word of my parents would suggest that that I wish they were alive, and I do not. I do not miss the constant worry that my frail alcoholic father would fall off the wagon again, or his drunken phone calls in the middle of the night. My mother, by contrast, was often more fun than anyone else I knew—a teller of wild comic tales and a shrewd, straight-talking observer of human nature. In her big hats and big jewelry, she was so large a presence that I felt overshadowed by her. After she died, my horizon shifted; I could see destinations that hadn’t been visible before. Without her, I became bolder, more attuned to my own powers. It’s a not-uncommon pattern when women lose their mothers. I can think of at least two women whose careers took wing at this juncture, and another, middle-aged, who fell rhapsodically in love for the first time.

Here’s another thing I’ve noticed, especially around Christmas. Family gatherings take on a new tone when the parental chairs have been empty for a while. The grown children relate to one another as individuals, not as siblings playing roles left over from childhood.

To lose a parent is profoundly, unalterably sad, yet it is also freeing. I used to think there was nothing I craved more than freedom, and now it is mine. In the monumental self-absorption of my teens, I could sing the civil rights anthem “O Freedom” as if black Americans’ struggle to vote somehow magnified my own petty struggles as a middle-class kid demanding the right to smoke up and have lovers. I couldn’t begin to comprehend that to be free I would have to give up the illusions of childhood. I would have to see the people in my life—including those who formed me—as the thorny characters they really were, and not as the paragons I wished they could be.

I lead a better, richer life as an orphan. But there are spaces in my life that no one can fill except those who are no longer here. The spaces remind me of clearings in a forest where trees once stood. Now only the stumps remain in the filtered sunlight. I like to contemplate these spaces. They tell me how I got here.

Posted by Rona

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