I went to a wake this weekend for a friend whose mother passed away. This is the last of her parents to pass. She didn’t say this, but I often hear people say that they feel like an orphan when neither of their parents are living anymore. The first time I heard this was in college. I had a professor who became a mentor and role model for me. She was a dynamic, intelligent, brilliant classics professor who made the Ancient Greeks look even sexier than all the movies out there. We would spend a lot of time in her office talking. She was the first of many role models/mentors/mommy figures for me. I believe she set the tone for the type of woman I needed to guide me through life. So, it struck me awkward the day she called me into her office to tell me her mother died and now she finally knows what it feels like to be an orphan. I looked at her blankly and found no words to counter. Really? A grown woman with a child, husband, career and little tangible reasons to “need” a mother, really? The 20 year old me – just burgeoning on life and having little to tether me to a family to speak of and truly had been an orphan at one time – could not relate to this sort of empathy from her. I could not relate and I felt insulted. It felt like she used the word “orphan” fast and loose.
Perhaps I covet that word too much, like the scarlet A (for adopted). It took so long to absorb all that it means to be adopted, an orphan that I don’t believe just anyone could take that on. As if it is a choice to do so.
I supppose it boils down to choice. We take on identities that personify that which we feel. But it seems odd to me to choose a label that has such negative connotations in our society and most societies. Does that mean there is a separate mourning of parental loss? I am not one to fear death so, I don’t really harbor anxiety about the mourning process. I actually feel strengthened by it and love that it allows me to feel and be present to both happy and sad thoughts. But mostly I am busy feeling grateful to have had that person in my life if only for a short while. Such a good adoptee, huh?
We don’t use the word “orphan” or “foundling” in America as much. It remains for the most part in classical literature only. But in other places orphans are a real real concept. It is a permanent status that feels like it is seared on someones chest or forehead. Perhaps I am reacting from that place. Knowing that there are others who suffer their whole life with that label, no choice of their own.