Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of my father. He died on April 19, 2002, two years to the day after my mother died. They'd been married for 60 years before she finally succumbed to cancer at age 88, and he followed exactly two years later at age 91.
I remember when my ex-wife's mother died, in the early 1990s at age 86, my wife lamented that she was an orphan. I didn't understand it. My wife was in her 40s at the time. To me, the word orphan connotes a sense of dependency -- that you have to be a child to be an orphan. But she insisted, and told me, "Just you wait."
My ex-wife's father had died of a heart attack before I met her. She didn't like her dad much. But she loved her mother, despite the fact that her mother was opinionated (especially when it came to our two kids) and could be intrusive at times. But she was warm and had a big heart and only wanted the best for us, and the only friction that was ever created was because she had some old-fashioned ideas about the role of women and mothers, and about kids and how people should live their lives. Not that we lived an unconventional life, but like a lot of parents she struggled to understand some of our modern social values.
My own parents were much more distant and cool. My dad loved his kids, for sure, but in an abstract way. He would do anything for us, but he didn't pal around with us, or play sports with us, or coach our teams or anything like that. He was more remote. He spent most of his time at work. He thought of himself as a "serious" man who'd worked his way up from a poor, immigrant family to establish a profession in the city, and a home and family in the suburbs, and he was proud of his success and judgmental about others who didn't see life the way he did.
Over the weekends, when my parents went out, they usually went out by themselves. We didn't go many places as a family, except to see my dad's relatives, or very occasionally my mom's brother, Uncle Tom. The main image I have of my dad is him forcing down a fast bowl of cereal in the morning and rushing off to work. Or else he's at home sitting in his chair, reading his newspaper or going over some papers from work, and sometimes putting down the paper to help us with homework, or peering over the top of the paper to offer advice.
I have often wondered, if this man was not my dad, but a teacher or a coach or a boss, would we have developed any sort of special relationship? The answer is: No, I really didn't think so.
But then my dad wasn't a very friendly fellow, or particularly personable. He was not the man with the joke or easy story; not one to punch you in the arm or clap you on the back. It was my mother who developed my parents' friendships, and it was only because of her that they joined friends for dinner or played cards with a group of people.
A little while after I joined up with B, we were talking about something she wanted to do -- I forget what it was or how we got started. I was trying to encourage her, but apparently not responding quite the way she had hoped. Suddenly she turned and gave me an indulgent laugh -- realizing that I was trying to help, but bungling the job. "Tom, I know you are very supportive," she told me. "But you're not particularly sympathetic.
And I realized that I had become kind of like my dad. A better version, I'd hope, or at least tempered by softer, more people-friendly character of my mom. But I guess we all carry around the qualities and characteristics of our parents, whether we want to or not.
My mom and dad died when I was in my early 50s. No, I didn't feel like an orphan. But every once in a while, I miss them. And on this day I just wanted to say hello, from across the years.