My ex-wife was in her mid-40s when she lost her mother. Her father had died long before, even before I'd met her, but her mother had gone on to live a long life full of friends and activities. She got cancer when she was 85, went into the hospital, and succumbed fairly quickly. She was survived by her daughter, my wife, and two sons.
My wife took the loss of her mother quite hard -- partly because she missed her mother, but also largely because she said she felt like an orphan.
At the time both my parents were still alive, and while I tried to support her I didn't fully appreciate what she was talking about. "I understand how you're sad that your mother died," I said. "But you're grown up now. You have two kids of your own. How can you be an orphan?"
I realized that, technically speaking, she was an orphan in that both her parents were dead. But to me an orphan is a child. The special tragedy of an orphan is that the parents died before their time, and there's no parent left to raise the child.
And yet I could see she really felt this way, that in some sense she'd felt abandoned, and left alone in this world. Still, she had a husband, and two children of her own.
Ten years later, my own mother died at age 88. She'd survived more than one round of cancer, and suffered from osteoporosis, and the last few years of her life were pretty painful. In a way, for her, death was a relief.
Two years later, my dad died at age 91. He was healthy up until the last few months of his life, when he too got cancer and went pretty quickly. I remember getting together with my two sisters and packing up their house, getting it ready to sell. It was a very sad occasion.
I was sad that my parents had died. I missed them. But I still didn't feel like an orphan. My parents had lived long, fulfilled lives. I was now worried about my own family, my daughter in college and my son in high school. How do you feel like an orphan when you've got a kid in college?
What got me thinking about this was the book I read, and the item I posted the other day -- about relationships cut short vs. relationships that play themselves out and end on a more natural timetable.
To me, an orphan suffers from a relationship cut short. Maybe my wife was reacting not so much to her mother's death, but to her father's premature death -- he'd died when she was in high school -- although she never said as much.
Of course, death is the final parting. But there are plenty of other partings in our lives. The ones that trouble us are the ones that bring us up short, that end too soon, that leave so much unsaid and undone. (After all, isn't that what our sorrow about the Kennedys is all about?)
People sometimes wonder why I have a pretty good relationship with my ex-wife. She and I talk about our kids, and worry about them together, almost as though we were still married. I helped her move; I've helped her out financially; she's had me over to her house. I even met her new boyfriend; and she's met B.
I think the reason why we're on good terms is because we both knew, after 29 years of marriage, that we'd squeezed as much out of the relationship as we possibly could. We'd had a great run, produced two wonderful kids. But we were done. Our marriage was not cut short by some tragedy; or even by some sudden change of heart. It died of old age.
Honestly, I don't know if my ex-wife feels "orphaned" by our divorce. I don't think she does. I know I don't. There's a life cycle to everything. While it's sad when things come to an end, we know that nothing lasts forever. The tragedy is when something ends before its time.
People wonder about the meaning of life. But does something have to be permanent to have meaning? Do we have to have eternal life to have a meaningful life? I don't think so.