Wednesday, August 31, 2016

I Shall Not Leave You Orphans...

I lost my mother when I was 40. My father died when I was 42.

And I can recall wondering, does this now make me an orphan? Or is a person only an orphan when they lose their parents in childhood? The word itself does imply the person is a minor--though one can speak of an "adult orphan."

The Jewish Prayer for the Dead, the particular responsibility of a son or daughter to pray on behalf of the deceased parent, is called the Kaddish Yatom (קדיש יתום). You see this translated as "Mourner's Kaddish," but yatom is the Hebrew word for "orphan," implying that, at least in Hebrew, one can become a yatom at any age.

Now, I know some people younger than myself who have lost both parents. But not many. The strong majority of people my age or even much older still have at least one parent, if not both. It's not exactly common today for someone in their early 40's to be bereft of both parents. A student of mine once, in complete innocence informed by the probability that my parents still live, asked me if I had called my mother on Mother's Day. I did my very best to relieve her embarrassment as I explained that I had not, and why.

I had a great relationship with both my parents, and I miss them dearly. And I, somewhat consciously, include the experience of orphanhood as a prominent theme in my novels.

In my novel A Place of Brightness, young twins Andrew and Stefan Valquist find themselves orphans in one night, following an accident that takes their parents' lives. And in their case, a great deal of their burden comes from the fact that they had been trained to carry on a mission they barely understood. Now that they were alone, the twins drift apart, each searching for their own meaning of life in such loss.

And that is something I will identify I felt in the wake of being bereft. In the absence of any further filial piety to perform, what does one take on as a mission for the rest of life? The ordinary flow of human life seems, by observation, to involve caring for your parents until such a time that you are close to needing that care in return. 

The orphan is left to find some purpose outside the normalcy of those around them.
In the novel In Saecula Saeculorum, Andrew Valquist has become the Latin teacher of a young man, Jonathan Drake, who lost his parents in an accident when he was a freshman. Now as a senior, Mr. Drake is very suddenly not doing well, as he is forced to see his classmates' parents at events leading to graduation. 

In Jonathan's case, his primary conflict is that he wishes he could claim the uncle who raised him as a true father now. But his uncle is so careful to not "replace his father" that he has left his nephew emotionally starved.

Both Andrew Valquist and Jonathan Drake have to simultaneously process their loss and also find strength from it to face the considerable challenges their lives of adventure and danger will entail. 

Jesus' words in John 14:18, "I shall not leave you as orphans, but I will come to you," take on a new meaning for me. I pray for my parents, and I ask them to pray for me. But until we are reunited, I am still not alone.

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