When I was in my mid 20s, a woman at church, who was just a few years older than me, had gone home to bury her mother; her father had died a few years earlier. “I am an orphan,” she said upon her return. I thought it was one of the oddest things I had ever heard.
I remember not knowing what to say in response. What comfort could I offer this grown woman who was experiencing herself as an orphan?
I had always thought of orphans as children whose parents had died in war or some tragic accident. Orphans were characters in books or movies (Shirley Temple in The Little Princess probably shaped my understanding of orphans more than anything else). Yet, this adult woman was identifying herself as an orphan, and she was bereft by this change in her status.
My parents were still alive and well at that point, and I remember trying to imagine what it would be like to be without them, but I had no idea.
Her story made me realize something about self-identity. This woman seemed very attached to her identity as someone’s daughter, and now that role had been taken from her.
Her new identity was as an orphan.
Perhaps she was closer to her parents than I was to mine. Perhaps her parents affirmed her as their daughter, and so it had become a big part of her self-identity. I remember trying to figure out how I saw myself, what roles I closely identified with, or what roles defined me. Daughter was not one of them.
My relationship with my parents was always complicated, and especially my relationship with my mother. Now, almost fifty years later, my mother has died, and I am an orphan (my dad died twenty years ago).
My mom became a bigger part of my life during the last eight years of her life because I moved home to be near her. When I was looking for a house, I told the realtor I wanted to be within a ten minute drive of my mom, anticipating taking her to doctor appointments or doing her shopping. Plus, if she needed me to come over, I wanted to be close enough that I would be happy to oblige.
I ended up two miles away, close enough to ride my bike, which I sometimes did in summer.
Since the pandemic began, I was at her house six days a week. I had invited her to come live with me, but she was determined to die in her home. So, after work, I would go to her house for dinner. Mostly I would cook, especially during the last six months when she was on hospice and getting weaker.
These last few years, I realized that I had to set aside our identities as a mother and daughter and simply look at my mother as an elder who needed support. Detaching from seeing myself as her daughter allowed me to let go of her life-long criticisms of me and enabled me to care for her without resentment.
I was 69 years old when my mother died, and now I am an orphan. I miss my mom and the relationship we had developed, and I am grateful that she gave me the opportunity to care for her.
Madeline Bialecki grew up in Detroit and recently returned after living in Philadelphia for twenty-eight years. She began writing about her spiritual journey and faith life after the death of her best friend in 2012. She likes to read, knit, bake, and garden. She shares her spiritual journey here.