Sometimes I look back on my childhood and wonder if it was all a dream. Other times I am convinced it was real… but am certain that it must have happened in another life. Nothing from those days is present in my current reality — at least not in the way it existed then.
On the outside looking in, my younger years were idyllic. It felt mostly perfect too; my biggest complaint then was not having a sibling close in age to share life’s experiences with. But as the much younger child in our family the hefty anxiety began mounting from a very young age, as did my preference and comfort level for being around adults rather than kids my own age.
Having these older siblings and parents was like a preview for what was to come: I saw that my parents, in particular my dad with heart disease and a penchant for heavy, cholesterol-laden food, were older than my friends’ parents, and as such, had various health issues that parents of other kids my age weren’t yet dealing with. And through my siblings I witnessed firsthand the excitement and angst of teenage life; later curfews, dating, plans with friends, school dances, driving, and so much more. And yet there I was, stuck at home, watching them go– wishing, more than anything, that I was old enough to do the same. Not realizing that the life I was living wouldn’t last forever; that the warm, safe cocoon of my childhood — with two parents who I loved so much and were always there to offer hugs and kisses — would one day (way too soon) disappear.
Yet here’s the thing: I did realize it. Cue my anxiety that started way, way too young. From the deep, dark depths of within, I had a strong, scary inner knowing. I just knew that at least one of my parents wasn’t going to be around to see me grow all the way up. As young as age 8 I remember telling friends very matter-of-factly that I probably wasn’t going to have a mom and dad when I got older. I can still see their shocked faces staring at me when I spoke those words. I mean, at 8 years old no kid is thinking about their parents’ imminent death and worrying about how they will survive once they’re gone. But I was… and I fretted about it often.
As I grew older, the reel that played in my mind most often was that of a tiny baby bird falling from its nest. Within moments, that poor, helpless baby bird once totally cared for by its parents suddenly had to fend for itself. Yet, it could not fly, gather food on its own or keep itself safe. That bird was me. I viewed myself — the dependent baby in my family — as utterly helpless and, if push came to shove, unable to protect and keep myself alive.
I remember a particular haunting night while I was living alone in my studio apartment in NYC (a life decision I made after college to prove to myself I COULD manage life on my own… ). It might have been my first ever panic attack. I woke breathless, with a racing heart in, drenched in a pool of sweat. I just knew it was looming near — the era of parentless-ness was fast approaching, and there I was, mid-twenties, single, in a job I knew wasn’t forever, with no family to call my very own (aside from my parents and siblings who, by now, each had their own spouses and families).
The feelings of despair and doom utterly enveloped me. What if I lost parents before I was done needing parents? I remember worrying endlessly about the fact that I still couldn’t cook, didn’t know the first thing about financial planning or saving for the future (I lived in NYC where “saving money” wasn’t an option, after all… ), and that I still craved the advice of my mom and dad, even if I didn’t always (or ever) take it.
I needed them.
The day my dad passed away was like no other. It was, to this day, the most brutally painful experience I have ever endured. When I learned of his untimely and wholly avoidable passing, it felt like someone kicked me in the gut 200 times. It was the cruelest, most awful news I’d ever received. And yet… I knew instinctively that it was coming. I did not foresee the way he died, but I’d always feared he’d pass before he could walk me down the aisle or meet my future children.
But here’s the thing, and it rings so true: the day he died my best friend said to me, “If there’s any solace, it’s that this was the thing you were worried for your ENTIRE life, and now it happened. And you’re still here, and you’re going to be OK.”
It’s hard to explain, but I felt such intense pain, grief and despair mixed with… relief. Because she was right — the thing I’d worried about forever had happened. I could finally let go of that all-consuming panicky fear.
But in the 14 years that have followed his death, something else happened that I most certainly wasn’t prepared for: the ambiguous loss of the other parent.
I truly cannot fathom losing a spouse. I used to imagine my mother and father riding a Ferris Wheel together, taking in all the adventures life has to offer as a team. And then one day my dad suddenly got off the ride, leaving my mom to fend for herself, and take the journey alone.
That kind of sudden and unexpected loss changes a person. Well, really, any kind of loss changes a person. Loss also changes the dynamic between people — between family members, close friends, etc. I used to think of me, my mom and my dad as this tripod… my parents, the steady bottom parts of the pod, with me, their child, held firmly in place at the top. When my dad died, the whole thing came crashing down. Roles, relationships, responsibilities… everything dramatically shifted. I was 27 at the time and for all intents and purposes, an adult. But honestly, emotionally, not so much.
I never wanted to put more on my remaining parent than she already had to handle. It didn’t feel fair or right. I just wanted to do what I could to help relieve the pain, anguish, fear and burden. I quickly jumped from child into a new role — partner. I deeply felt the need to become a partner to help my parent survive. To be clear, she never asked for this or made me feel that this was my job or something I had to take on. It just was what it was — a leftover role I adopted in childhood that felt familiar and thus… comforting.
As the years have gone on and and our roles have shifted even more (I now have my own spouse and am a parent of three), I find myself missing my parents, and the seemingly idyllic way things once were, often and obsessively.
I am 41, but what I wouldn’t give to see my dad one more time; to call him on the phone when I’m sad or stressed, to have him remind that I’m capable of doing things even when I feel like I can’t, and that I’m so much smarter and stronger than I give myself credit for. I miss those millions of kisses and bear hugs — the ones that, as a teenager, I used to wipe off and push away. I miss pondering the meaning of life with him, and sharing our many theories on why we exist at all. I miss the way my mom used to hug me tightly when I was crying and upset, and the way she used to send me weekly letters and care packages to summer camp and later college. I miss the incredible surprise parties she would throw, paying attention to every single last detail making sure the guest of honor felt incredible. I miss my childhood – spending an inordinate amount of time with these two parents of mine.
Lately I find myself quietly observing those whose parents are alive and well, and who continue to play the roles of parents, and now grandparents, so effortlessly. These interactions bring tears to my eyes; they warm my heart and make me happy, yet at the same time remind me of my own deep, internal longing for the same. It’s a cavernous void that cannot be filled.
Last night I asked my husband for a hug. Not the kind of hug a husband gives, but the kind a parent offers when you really need someone to take care of YOU for a moment. I needed that last night. I’m 41, but I needed that. As warm and wonderful as that hug was, it wasn’t what I craved — and that’s simply because what I crave no longer exists.
And as I closed my eyes and began to fall asleep, I pictured with nostalgia my childhood, a mix of wonder, joyousness, delight and that ever constant, foreboding anxiety, and wondered: was it ever real? Was it this life, or another? And I hugged both parents tightly, with tears streaming down my face, as I drifted off to sleep.