"Losing a parent is something like driving through a plate glass window. You didn't know it was there until it shattered, and then for years to come you are picking up the pieces."
Author Saul Bellow, quoted in The Nation and reproduced in The Week
I read the above quote this morning and it really struck a chord for me. It was that feeling you get when someone has managed to take what you have thought or felt and put it into succinct, eloquent words. So instead of the feeling just buzzing hopelessly around in your head, you now have something concrete that you can point to and say "there, that's what it's like".
I'm what I call a "grown up orphan". I lost my mum when I was 26 and my dad when I was 34. I should be clear at this point that I know I'm fortunate that I had them both around through all my childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood. I know there are many people who have to cope with losing parents when they are very young, and that must be heart-breaking.
But still, I expected to have my parents around for longer. They were a little older than some of my friends' parents (mum was 40 when she had me), but I just assumed that would mean I would get to the "where are they going to live/ how am I going to support them?" stage a bit sooner. It never crossed my mind that I was going to lose them completely.
I remember when my mum died (very suddenly), a colleague asked me if we had been particularly close, had spoken on the phone every day and so on. The truthful answer was no - not that we weren't close, but more in a once-a-week kind of a way. I was newly married, only a few years on from university and excited about my new life, house, career. I was still really at that stage of wanting to pull away from home and become my own person. Did this mean I should grieve any less? The only answer I could give was "but she was my mum!"
One of the unconscious assumptions of childhood is that our parents will always be there for us, no matter what. And when that safety net is taken away, suddenly we become aware that it is a long way down.
My mother never knew my children, never saw me pregnant, never compared our bumps, never held my tiny babies. She wasn't there either to tell me it was ok and she knew how I felt for the two babies I lost. My dad got to know my first child a little bit, but his terminal cancer was diagnosed when my second baby was a few weeks old, and died one week after his 1st birthday.
Neither of them have been here to see my boys start school, earn their swimming badges, or bruise their knees. They are not there to give advice (welcome or not!), or to fill in the gaps in the memories of my own childhood. And as the boys get older, so my awareness of the loss seems to get bigger rather than smaller. I know how much my mum would love doing their junk modelling with them; how proud my akela-dad would be when my eldest said his cub promise; how he would have enjoyed being the one to take them to their first football match.
My boys don't miss out: they are blessed to have another set of grandparents who are more than happy to do extra turns. But on a bad day it only makes it seem worse for me that my parents aren't even missed, that their memories will gradually grow fainter and fainter.
Do I look back and wish I'd done things differently? Maybe a little, but there's not a lot I could have done. A few more conversations perhaps, more hugs, less adolescent angst. But I can't change the person I was then. And if I'd had kids earlier, I don't think I would have been as good a mum myself.
So this post isn't to ask you to be a completely different person either. If your parents irritate the hell out of you then you are probably not going to suddenly want to spend every minute of the day with them. But perhaps the knowledge that your time with them is limited may help you bear with their faults a little more patiently, and try to remember a few more of the good things.
As Joni Mitchell says, you don't know what you've got till it's gone...