One morning recently as my preschooler daughter climbed in to her customary spot for breakfast, she remarked out of nowhere, "now you don't have any family left!"
It only took a moment to clarify that she was putting together my mom's recent death with knowing my dad had died when I was 10 years old, and realizing both of my parents were gone. She said it in the same way as when she notices that furniture is unexpectedly repositioned or that some part of her bedtime routine is missed, seemingly unaware of the emotional content of her observation.
In that moment I mostly parented through (around?) the emotion by further clarifying with her that of course I still have family, between her and my wife, my sister and her family, my wife's family, my various aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, the many friends who have become chosen family to us, and on and on.
Part of me wanted to show my daughter just how long the list was, so that I could simply reaffirm to myself that I am not without family.
But the awareness of being without both parents haunted me through the rest of the day and into that night's dreams. I guess it's been haunting me on and off for the last three months after saying goodbye to my mom. Maybe in some ways the prospect of it has been haunting me for more than 30 years after my dad's death.
His passing from cancer felt earth shattering in its own ways at the time. The loss of someone so central to my every day existence. The many questions it raised about life and death, health and sickness, joy and pain. The fears about if and when I would die, or when other people I loved might go away. Apparently, as we were walking out of the hospital wing where he died, my 10-year-old self looked at the cars going by as life continued around us and said something to the effect of, "I just can't believe the world is still going on."
And so my mom, sister and I grieved and cried and clung to each other through the hardest times we had known. With many years of counseling, reflection, distraction, community support and sheer will, we found our ways forward. The grief has never fully gone away and the experience has shaped and defined me since, but the sharpness of the pain and sadness tapered off. As 10-year-old me became 20- and 30- and 40-year-old me, the death of my father became mostly a thing that was behind me.
I don't think the emotions of that time were simple, but confronting the declining health and then death of my remaining parent as an adult has felt incredibly complex. In the 30 years since he died, my mom came to play so many different roles in my life:
A single parent doing her best to raise my sister and I while working long hours to provide for us.
A complex person on her own journeys of seeking love, friendship and companionship after losing the love of her life.
A firm but loving guide through my teenage years. (Whether it was learning to drive, choosing a college or bringing home someone I was dating, she'd keep the white-knuckled grip of parental fears and concerns as hidden as she could while offering calmer words of support and guidance out loud.)
A successful business professional who modeled high standards and ferocious but kind leadership, and who encouraged me constantly in my own entrepreneurial endeavors. (The number of women who said at her memorial service that mom had given them their first real job and mentored them through the start of their careers left me speechless.)
A friend to my wife and a loving supporter of our marriage.
A grandparent to my daughter, showering her with love and gifts and silliness and craft project ideas that made a deep and lasting impression on all of us.
A cancer patient braving experimental treatments while trying to figure out what indignities she could tolerate in the name of extending life.
A world traveler. An excellent writer. A generous volunteer and non-profit supporter. A dear friend to many.
I encountered my mom through all of these lenses and more. As an adult I felt more acutely aware than I could with my dad of all the things that the world would be losing when she was gone; even after her death I'm still learning of new ways she made a difference in someone's life. And as a parent myself now, I can't stomach the thought of watching my kid watch me die.
There's no good or right way to say goodbye to our parents. I'm grateful that I had the chance at all, and that they were grounded in love and mutual adoration both times. I know for many, they don't or it's not.
It's even easy to trick myself into thinking I know more about how to handle this loss and grief, as a 41-year-old who has been through it too many times with family and friends gone from cancer, other illness, accidents or suicide. As I explain "the kind of sickness that doctors can't make go away" or "won't be able to visit again but always in our hearts" to a three year old, or as I navigate legal and financial things with mom's estate, or think about how different I am from 10-year-old me, it's tempting to claim a level of wisdom and perspective for myself that might just make it all easier somehow.
Yesterday as I stood over my mom and dad's adjacent graves, crying in the cold rain as I visited for the first time since we buried mom's ashes in December, it was just 10-year-old me again. Reliving the best and worst moments. Sobbing at the sense of loss, angry at their cancers, wishing they were still here, wondering who will take care of us, trying to know that things will be all right.