US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child

Parents die and their children live on after them. But that doesn't make the grief any easier to bear.

By Maryann McCullough | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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It is in the natural order of things: Parents die and their children live on after them. If it happens and those parents are themselves young, it feels especially heartbreaking for the newly fractured family. Where will the father be to walk his daughter down the aisle? Where will the mother be when her first grandchild is born?

But when the pattern is not only natural, but typical—their children grown, the parents themselves senior citizens—it should feel sad but gently so. A short illness followed by a family-encircled departure, or even a sudden heart attack while watching a favorite team on the gridiron—those are generally regarded as “not a bad way to go.”

So when both my parents died in the fall of 1986, my father in September, my mother in November, it felt all right to me. Not good, of course, but not dramatically horrible. I believed in an even better afterlife, and in my written eulogy for my mother, I even spoke of the changes she would be suggesting once she got there. There were tears, but not copious ones. My friends encouraged me to get in touch with my emotions and weep. “Pay me now or pay me later!” these amateur grief counselors warned.

I considered the possibility that because I had been a good daughter, my grieving was somehow less necessary. There was no guilt that I was conscious of—and I believed that much grieving has to do with guilt.

Today I find myself smiling as I recall my mother’s plans for her funeral. They involved lots of white roses and all 10 children wailing, throwing ourselves on her casket—this agenda obviously preprogrammed to make us laugh at a time when crying would have been the more appropriate response.

The theme we did choose for her funeral came from the title of a Kenny Loggins’ Christmas song: “Celebrate Me Home.” It was a perfect joy-filled farewell to a woman who had loved her God and loved her life.

There had been less laughter when my father left us suddenly two months prior. Not because there weren’t plenty of great stories to lovingly roast him on the day he was placed in the ground. His was the “heart attack while watching Notre Dame” death. It was because of the realization that my mother, who was now a widow, was in the process of dying from ALS. The family’s focus was as much on helping her to manage her very challenging life as it was on saying goodbye to our father.

And then 1986 came to its natural close. Mary and Marty Shanahan were together in God’s presence. We, their children, were officially in the year of mourning. Yet it was a time of so many new and happy things—marriages for my younger brothers and sisters, homes being purchased by many of us (a part of our parents’ legacy), children conceived and born. Life was not only continuing without their physical presence; somehow it was joyfully exploding.

It has been 23 years since I last called anyone Mom or Dad. I have learned in those years that just as I won’t ever stop being a parent to my sons, I can’t quite let go of being a child, either. I miss so many things about being their daughter.

There are the proud moments, when I am dying to call them to share the latest accomplishments or adventures of my sons. “Can you believe that today Mike is in Colombia, Casey in Thailand, and Colin in Africa?!” Then there are the times of family concern—someone close to bankruptcy, someone else considering divorce, someone no longer employed, and where to turn but to the parents who have loved each of us in some God-like, non-judgmental way?

I am now 67, and I’m certain the world would not call me an orphan. I just feel like one some of the time.

Sometimes it is my father’s ear I wish for. You would call him a quiet man. He spoke less, far less than my mother, but there was always consideration and wisdom in his words. At other times—when relationships are awry—it is my mother’s ear, or, more precisely, her lap, that I need. And there are special days when their absence is most keenly felt. Every Fourth of July I belong at my dad’s birthday party. Somehow watching and listening to the rest of the nation celebrating makes me lonely.

Of course, now there is no home to go home to, except the one that I share with my husband. And that home, understandably, has its stuff—its assortment of problems and jobs and things that need attention.

When my parents were alive, going home meant removing that grown-up mantle of responsibility for a few days. It meant awakening to a streusel coffee cake that my dad had picked up for breakfast or smelling the breaded pork tenderloin that my mother was preparing for dinner—and it was all an unspoken expression of love, a celebration of my presence.

I am recalling the words of the poet Robert Frost: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in.” Though open to a humorous connotation, I read it as a statement about unconditional love. The no-questions-asked kind of love, the kind of love God has for us. It’s not negotiated for. It’s not earned. It just is. And maybe that is what I am really missing in missing my parents.

My first picture of God was one that gave him a generous lap—a place to crawl into and curl up, no questions asked. It was, of course, my parents who introduced me to this God. God’s appearance has altered as I’ve lived my life. But maybe that early image needs revisiting. Maybe this orphan will find there that welcoming lap that has been absent from her life for too many years.

This article appeared in the November 2009 of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 11, page 34).

Image: Flickr cc via Lars Ploughmann