Early in my ministry, I led the funeral service for a 97-year-old matriarch of the small county seat church I was serving. Leaving the graveside, Charlie, her 65-year old son and the youngest of four children, fell to pieces. As the old folks say, he had a complete “come apart”. He collapsed into my arms as I reached over to comfort him.
“Charlie,” I said, “your mom lived a long and full life. She was ready to go.” (I’ve since learned the wisdom of just keeping your mouth shut in such moments, but that’s another story all together).
“I’m an orphan,” he sobbed.
“Charlie, you’re 65-years old. You’re too old to be an orphan.”
“I’m nobody’s baby boy anymore,” he insisted. “I’m an orphan.”
For years, I have thought about that story and laughed. Charlie, a very successful attorney and business man, the strong one of the family who cared for his aging mother and widowed older brother, now insisting he was an orphan, alone and abandoned in the world.
Then, my mom died on July 14, and I became an orphan. I am 61 years old. Like Charlie, I’m too old to be an orphan.
But I am.
There is something about the loss of your last parent that leaves you feeling very alone in the world. After all, your mother always loves you, and when she’s gone, who’s going to love you like she did?
I had been dealing with the loss of my mother for the last several years. We moved her to Nashville in the fall of 2014, but I had been fighting with her about her health, safety, driving, diagnosis, appointments and living arrangements since my dad died in 2012.
My dad had been dealing with congestive heart failure for years. My mom was his life coach, nurse, nutritionist, cook, maid, counselor, wife, lover and friend twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for over twenty years. For the last two years of his life, my mother did nothing else but care for my dad. I’m certain my mom didn’t sleep for the last two years of my dad’s life.
Whenever Dad and I were alone, he would give me strict instructions on how to care for my mom. Whenever I told mom I was doing exactly what Dad had told me do, she would say that dad never mentioned any of this to her. I know he didn’t. Mom would never let Dad talk about dying. She would never think about or talk about what life was going to be like after my dad died. Thinking like that was giving up, and Mom wasn’t about to give up.
Dad also mentioned he was concerned about my mom. “Something is wrong with your mom,” he would tell me. “She’s just not herself. She’s forgetting things she shouldn’t forget. I’m afraid she’s coming down with Alzheimer’s.”
I assured him mom was fine. I thought Mom was exhausted because my dad demanded around the clock care. Whenever I would talk to my mom, that’s what she would say, “your father is just taking everything out of me. He never gives me a minute to myself. I can’t even go to the bathroom, much less take care of everything else that needs to be done around here.”“Mom,” I said, “I can help you.”
“That’s OK,” she said, “I’ll just have to work through it. You don’t understand my filing system, and it would take too long to explain everything to you.”
Filing system? There was no filing system. There were just stacks of paper all over her desk, the top of the filing cabinets and all over the floor of her office. This should have been my first clue, but when I suggested I could get this all cleaned up for her and entered into her computer, she’d push back, and she pushed back hard.
Later, I would understand this was her paranoia. This is one of the symptoms of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s. I would learn this later. I should have known it then.
When I finally got her moved out of the house, I would spend days going through her “filing system.” I would find uncashed checks stuck in books. I would find checks that hadn’t been mailed, and unpaid bills and delinquent notifications lying on the floor.
And I would grieve. My mom was known for her organization, and while her filing system may not make sense to you, it made sense to her. She could find a piece of paper in a matter of minutes. One of our family stories about her happened when their house caught on fire and after the insurance delayed in responding, Mom and Dad found out their insurance agent had been embezzling funds and had not paid their premium. According to the company, Mom and Dad had no insurance.
“Would it help if I showed you the cancelled check,” she asked the regional manager. And with that, she pointed my dad and me to two boxes and said, “It’ll be in one of these two boxes.” We found it. The check was exactly where Mom said it would be. She would never let us forget that story.
Now, her life was totally out of control, and I was having to step in. I took over her accounts. I moved her to Nashville, and according to my mom, I ruined her life.
I would like to say she gradually adjusted. She didn’t. She just forgot. And every time she’d forget, I lost a little more of her. I lost my mom little by little, and I grieved with every loss. I thought I had grieved all I could.
I hadn’t. And on that day when we laid Mom next to my dad, I thought of Charlie.
I have a fabulous wife. I have two great sons who have married well and given me three beautiful granddaughters. I pastor one of the greatest churches I know. I’m well loved, but I’m nobody’s little boy anymore.
I’m an orphan.
So, when your time comes and you realize you’re no longer anybody’s little girl or little boy, come stand next to Charlie and me.
We orphans must stick together.