Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘orphan’

We Will All Become Orphans

Sadly, I have had numerous opportunities over the last year or so to note that there is not a single language on earth that has a word or name for a parent who has lost a child. Words exist to describe a surviving spouse, and of course we have a word in most languages for a child without parents: orphan. The word conjures up Dickensonian images of waifs and wastrels in varying degrees of distress and underdress, under-fed and unloved. In reality, despite the ubiquity of this stereotype, there are many, many ways that one becomes an orphan. Indeed, in a proper order of events, each of us will be orphaned by the loss of a second parent.

It is somewhat amazing to me how many people have lost a parent early in life through abandonment. A mother or a father simply ups and leaves. No forwarding address or email, just gone forever. It hurts just to type those words. What must it feel like to live them? Still others lose a parent for years on end before that parent actually dies. Mental illnesses of all sorts, most commonly the various types of dementia, essentially wipe a loved one’s personhood off the planet long before the empty shell passes on. It’s a rather cruel joke, that, to see what looks like your Mom or Dad sitting across from you like some kind of reasonable facsimile, an avatar perhaps, but not really Mom or Dad. Mourning begins years or decades before anyone sits Shiva.

In the end, though, orphanhood comes for us all, in one way or another. My friend Bill, the surgeon, expresses surprise and a sense of something that is a bit more than frustration, though slightly less than anger, at what he calls the “final reckoning” deathbed visit. Why, he so often wonders, do so many people, so many sons and daughters feel the need to achieve some sort of closure, some sort of final peace in the last waning hours of a life? Mind you, this is a man who practices “live and death” medicine; his point, forged so close to the fire, ought not be missed.

Mothers and fathers are no more or less flawed than any other humans. For most of us their flaws lie cloaked behind the curtains of devotion in our childhood. As we ourselves age, certainly if we become parents, those curtains part and we begin to see more of the whole person who makes up Mom or Dad. Blessed are we who find more to like and love behind those curtains. One hopes at worst that what we find does not dim the glow of childhood memory. Bill’s point, or at least what I think he is saying, is that we should know that orphanhood is inevitable. There is nothing that you can say or do on death’s doorstep that cannot be said or done long before you approach the threshold of your own orphan status. Bill would say that closure is important, that he understands and supports the compulsion to make sure that your parents know that you love them. It’s just the timing he’s wondering about.

Why wait until the cusp of orphanhood? Why not discharge regrets and express your love and gratitude when you and Mom and Dad can might have time to enjoy what comes next? Together.

 

Bobby, The Extra We Lost

The Extras. OUR Extras. That’s what Dilly (my daughter-in-law) calls all of the kids who were not our natural born children but who nonetheless lived a substantial percentage of their lives in our house. All three of our own had several friends who became Extras. Over time Beth and I morphed from Mr. (or occasionally Dr.) and Mrs. to Mama and Papi for these kids. Many of them are still very much a part of our lives, reunited with our odd little extended family by weddings, christenings, holidays and the like.

Tragically, one of our favorites is now no longer.

My oldest son Dan and I attended Bobby’s memorial service yesterday afternoon. Bobby was once so close with my two older kids and so comfortable in our home that I vividly remember coming home one day to find him at our kitchen counter doing his homework. All alone. No one else in the house. He lifted his head, smiled his trademark goofy smile and flicked the largest, heaviest bangs in the history of banghood out of his eyes, said “hey Papi”, and went back to his books. Neither one of us thought there was anything remotely odd about it at all. Bobby was not one of the Extras who stayed in touch. He drifted away from us as he fell further and further into his addictions and died of an accidental overdose last week.

It’s hard to describe how awkward, how awful the service was yesterday. We recognized almost no one. Dan only knew Bobby’s parents, and I’d never met either one of them. What could I say to them at a time like this? I was really only there for Dan (and by proxy “Lovely Daughter” Megan). There is not a single language in the world that has a word or a name for what we would call a parent who has lost a child. Nothing like “orphan” for the parentless, or widow/widower for the surviving spouse. I’m not sure if either of Bobby’s parents even know that he was our Extra, or knows how much we cared about him once upon a time.

Have you been to a funeral or a memorial for a young one who succumbed to his addiction? To the great credit of everyone in Bobby’s family they didn’t evade the issue at all. Three significant figures from his unsuccessful attempts to leave that life spoke. All of the happy memories were of his very young childhood, as if the Bobby who’d lived so much of his life at Casa Blanco had died at high school graduation. What can you say about a life that was 10 years shorter than the number of years one had lived? The other funerals of youngsters who have died have been filled with the lament of potential left behind. There was none of that for Bobby, only the memories of the child and the struggle of having watched 10 years of pain.

What is it about opiate addictions in our country now? We have had other substances that have been a scourge on our society, notably crack cocaine in the 80′s and 90′s, but this is different somehow. For one thing, while crack destroyed lives it didn’t end them. 30,000 people died from inadvertent opiate overdoses in the U.S. in 2016, most of them under the age of 30. For whatever reason 1/9 of them occurred in Ohio where we live. It seems like rather a bad business model–don’t you think?–to pump up the purity and strength of your product to the point that you kill off a meaningful percentage of your customer base. And yet here we are, more and more people dying each year from overdoses.

What is in the news on a daily basis is the problem of addiction created through the prescription of opiates by physicians, addiction which must then be addressed on the street if or when the prescriptions end. While that scenario is certainly real and needs addressing, we hear more about it because of the irresistible angle of big Pharma companies and their profits, and the equally irresistible urge to find someone or something to blame and punish. This is not Bobby’s story. Bobby, like so many, many of his peers today and for literally centuries of todays, fell prey to an illness that could only have been treated by prevention. There are those among us who cannot resist the siren song of any number of substances once they’ve had their first taste. I do not know what gateway drug it was that walked Bobby into that world; it was an opiate that escorted him out of our world in the end. A pox on the cretins who opened the exit door.

I am left grasping at straws. What can we do to prevent these senseless deaths? While I am a physician and a student of health policy, nothing in my training or experience is helpful here. Why is there so much “hot” product out there on the streets? What is it about this substance that makes it so difficult to leave behind once the addiction sets in? Our society is one in which we are convinced that someone is always to blame, hence the vitriol directed at the manufacturers of the legal version of the opiates that so many young people are abusing. I’m sorry, but it’s not intuitive to me that going after them is going to help the Bobbys of the world stay alive. The feeling I have is one of utter helplessness.

Message? Lesson? Sadly, I’m afraid, I have neither to offer. Bobby is gone and I am sad. Had he not been lost to us, had we remained a part of his life would there have been a different ending? Well, the story arc would likely have been different, but history has shown that the ending would likely have been the same. You never know, though, and that makes me sadder, still. You never really know, right? We would have tried, Beth and I, because he was one of ours. He was one of our Extras. For many years, he was one of mine.

It seems only yesterday that he’d found us, and we, him. Now his is lost to all of us. Forever.

Everything Changed. Forever.

“Just like that, everything changed. Forever.” –Beth White

Let me tell you a story about strength and love. It’s a story about the love parents have for a child, and about what appears to be super-human strength in expressing that love. The story starts with sorrow, at a funeral, the event that marked a forever change after a life both agonizingly short and blessedly long. The details make this particular version of the story very powerful, but in the end the heroes of my story would tell you that the details only describe their own individual version of a story that is told millions of times every day in millions of families around the world. Theirs was just more than a bit harder, and so the love and the strength was just a bit easier to see.

I’ve not asked if I could tell this story in its truest form; I will shelter the family by not using their names. Yesterday’s funeral was agonizing, as are all funerals when young parents bury a child. It’s hard work to raise a child, you know. Children don’t naturally come equipped with the “software” necessary to survive and thrive in a family group, much less a town, or a state, or a country. Equal parts love and leverage must be applied to instill in a child all of the trappings of civilization, lest the otherwise unquenchable twins Ego and ID ride roughshod over any and all who come in contact with that child. “Crazy hard” is how one could describe the process with a standard issue, healthy child, but words simply don’t exist to describe what it is like if a child is challenged physically or mentally from a very young age. My only advice to young parents-to-be is to be prepared for the biggest change you can ever imagine, the change that comes along with each subsequent child. No one is ever prepared for what comes when that child requires all-day, every-day care.

Where does the strength come from? The love I get, especially from parents steeped in the beliefs of a Religion based upon and built from a foundation of love. But the strength to bring that love to bear every minute of every day in the face of the crushing sadness of a child who you know you will lose, who will never follow any kind of normal path? Where does that come from? You can’t use our typical, run of the mill metaphors for this. You know, like “ice in their veins”, because no one who projects such unvarnished and unquestioning love can be filled with ice anywhere. No…no, I think it is molten iron that flowed through their veins. Yes, that must be it. Iron.

Literature is filled with the stories of children neglected in the face of tragedy, or families torn asunder by either the suppressed pain at the injustice of an impaired child, or by the not unreasonable finite amount of love and strength in a family, with the other children, the marriage, or both left to fend for themselves as all energy is directed to the most needy family member. Not in this family. Theirs is a marriage forged in commitment deepened by their challenge. Theirs is a family tied closer because Mom and Dad never did that at all, never stopped parenting the other children, never stopped supporting those things that made each child unique in his or her own way. Never stopped working and worrying their way to preparing the other children for their own life’s journey.

Engulfed by love and raised by these iron-willed parents, this very special child lived more than a decade longer than the most optimistic expectations offered as a baby. Not just lived, though, but thrived. Because of this we attended a funeral where grief was all-consuming. A child much-beloved was lost, and we gathered in the hundreds to console his family. Will there be relief at some point? A sense of burden lifted? Of course. How can there not be? Relief, though, will not ever be the most powerful emotion for Mom, Dad, or siblings. This was a child who was loved fiercely, with ferocious strength and resolve by each member of the family. Everything has changed.

There is no word in any known language to describe a parent who has lost a child. Writing this it occurs to me that we are equally bereft of a word that would so name a sibling. Interesting, no? To have a child die before a parent is so unnatural that no part of the human race has ever come up for a word for it. This family lived for 21 years in the knowledge that it would happen to them, and yet when it did the loss was a crushing as a bolt from the blue. To feel this loss must be part of what it is to be human, no matter the details. It is the one place, the one thing that we all must certainly have in common. We need not experience the loss ourselves to have true empathy with those who have experienced it. So wired are we that understanding is unnecessary; we feel the loss as one.

We went to a funeral yesterday to share our love for a little boy who barely made it to manhood. His life was a triumph of love and resolve, of strength almost beyond belief. His parents would offer that each of us could have done it, done what they’d done if it had been demanded of us, instead. Every parent in the church checked their pulse, looked to see what flowed through their veins. In the end we all found the very same thing: tears heated by the loss we each could feel, for the little boy, his siblings, and his parents. A desperate hope that we would never find ourselves in that same place, at any time, for any reason.

Just like that, everything changed. Forever.