Is it harder to lose your parents when you’re childless?

Dear friends,

My father, Clarence “Ed” Fagalde, died last week. He was 97. I have written often about needing to travel to San Jose to take care of him. It’s hard to believe I won’t be doing that anymore.

When your last remaining parent dies, it leads to all kinds of thoughts. We’re orphans, my brother noted that morning. Can siblings old enough to collect Social Security be orphans? Can adults with their own children be orphans? There’s a connotation of helplessness in the word. But then I think about “widows.” I’m one of those for sure, and the helpless thing is attached to that word, too. We hear about “widows and orphans” a lot in the Bible. By definition, they are poor and need help.

The only help I need is in dealing with my grief, with the pictures in my mind of those last hard days, and with feeling more alone than ever.

I told the hospice chaplain through my tears that I was afraid I was going to feel terribly alone. My brother has his wife, kids, and a huge group of in-laws. I live all the way up in Oregon with my dog. It hasn’t sunk in yet, but I know it’s going to hit me.

I was more attached to my father than I think most people with children are. My sister-in-law’s first thoughts when Dad died were about the effect on her grown children. She said my Facebook posts had upset them. I honestly didn’t give them one thought. I feel bad about that. Perhaps if I had children, they would have been my first priority, too.

I don’t feel as guilty for an earlier post when Dad was suffering and I really needed someone in the family to sit with him for a while. One cousin-in-law said she would come if she weren’t out of town taking care of her grandchild. From the rest, no response.

I can understand those with young children not wanting to expose them to the nursing home or to the way Dad looked toward the end. My brother and I still bear the scars of visiting our great-grandmother in the nursing home. It was terrifying for little kids. But what about the adults?

My friends called and texted often. How are you? How is your dad? After I complained that I couldn’t sleep because it was almost as hot inside my father’s house (95 degrees) as it was outside (102 degrees!), a Facebook friend I had never met said I could stay at her house. She was in the middle of moving, but she would make it work. I declined, but was deeply touched.

I’m so grateful for my friends, people like Pat W., Pat S., Fran, and Bill, who have been taking care of Annie, watering my plants, doing my church job without pay, and calling often to check on me. Now that I won’t be talking to my father on the phone every night, I want to use those times to reach out to others, both friends and family. Too often we say, “Let’s keep in touch,” and then we don’t.

If I had children, would we be having heart to heart talks, helping each other through our grief? Maybe, maybe not. They would be young, they would be busy, they would be involved in their own lives, just as I was when my grandparents passed away. I felt bad, but not the guts-ripped-out bad that I feel this time.

My brother and I have had those talks lately. Losing our father has brought us closer. In reality, siblings and friends of our own generation are the only ones who really get what’s happening. Someone said last week that we don’t begin to treasure our parents and their history until we’re older and about to lose them. That’s probably true for most of us. We’re busy with school, work, social life, hobbies, workouts, whatever. I still regret an anniversary party years ago for my great-aunt and uncle that I left early to go sing somewhere. The guests of honor died soon after, and I never got the chance to be with them again.

I may have held on tighter than most people to my parents because I didn’t have children. When my mother died in 2002, I still had my husband, and that made it a lot easier. After Fred died in 2011, my father became the man in my life again. Now, well, it’s hard. I keep waiting for the phone to ring. I’d like to think if I had kids, they’d step in to help me and my brother take care of things and distract us with the concerns of youth so we don’t dwell on aging, illness, and death. Surely it’s a comfort to my brother when his granddaughter climbs into his lap now for a little “Papa” time.

So what am I saying? I’ve got grief brain, a little PTSD, and a runny nose. I’m still having trouble believing this really happened. I’m saying treasure your family. Reach out to them if they don’t reach out to you. But also hold on to your friends because you’re going to need them, especially if you don’t have children and grandchildren.

How are you with your parents? Do you think your relationship is different because you don’t have children? If you never have children, how will you feel when your parents are gone? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

You can read more about my dad at my Unleashed in Oregon blog and also on his online remembrance page at https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/santa-clara-ca/clarence-fagalde-8829584.

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Who will sit by my hospital bed?

After a busy day of playing music for a funeral—lovingly arranged by the deceased’s grown children and grandchildren, having lunch with a friend in her 30s who has no interest in marriage or children—“I honestly don’t like kids”—and playing the piano for a Saturday evening Mass at which my three singers were all older women whose lives are completely wrapped around their offspring, I received a text message that upended my life.

My father fell on March 25 and broke his leg. It was a bad break, above the knee on the same leg where he broke his hip three years ago. When I first got the text from my brother that Dad was in the ER getting x-rayed, I hoped it was for something minor like a broken finger. No such luck. It was a bad break, requiring surgery, and Dad is less than a month away from turning 95. We don’t know whether it will heal properly. He expects to return to living on his own in the house where we grew up, but that seems unlikely at the moment. Thank God he had his cell phone in his pocket, or he might still be lying on the kitchen floor.

I spent the last week in San Jose, California, mostly sitting by his hospital bed listening to him talk and interacting with doctors, nurses and aides. My brother was there for the first three days, but he had to go home and back to work. My schedule is a bit more flexible. I was the one helping Dad transition from the hospital to a care home where he will continue to recover and work with physical therapists to get moving again. Right now he’s pretty much confined to his bed. While I was there, I could fetch the phone, the urinal, his glasses. I could run out to get help when no one responded to his call button (all too often).

When not with Dad, I was at the house, cleaning years of gunk off every surface, collecting the mail, paying bills and answering phone calls, emails and texts. It’s a house full of memories. Many of my mother’s things are still there, although she has been gone almost 15 years. In the mornings, I sat in her chair by the front window and wrote. In the warm afternoons, I sat in the back yard in the patio that my father built, looking at the lawn he planted and the sidewalk he put in around 1950. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the house now, but I’m anxious to take care of it. Hard to do when I have my own house 700 miles away in Oregon.

I’m the daughter. It’s my job to drop everything to help my father when he falls. Walking up and down the halls of the care home, I see other daughters and sons doing the same thing. One can’t help but wonder who will do this for me. My brother, yes. If he’s alive and able. My friends? Maybe, but not to the extent that my brother and I have been doing. My niece and nephew? I don’t see them helping their grandfather; would they really help me?

I pray that I will never be in Dad’s situation. Nursing homes are not fun. Hospitals are not fun. If I do wind up in such a place, I hope I will have enough money to pay for extraordinary care. I may have to depend on the kindness of strangers.

It helps to have children, but as everyone says, even if you have kids, you can’t count on them to help. Even if they want to, they may live far away like my brother and I do. Today as I type this, Dad is at the mercy of the staff at the care home because we both had to go back to work. We just pray the professionals are kind and efficient and know what they’re doing.

Dad was doing the dishes when he fell, breaking his leg and hitting his head on the wall on the way down. Here in our community, a young woman named Tracy Mason was driving to work early one morning last month when a truck slammed head-on into her car. Almost every part of her is broken. She has lost part of her vision, is struggling to keep her left leg. One minute she was having an ordinary day; the next she was helpless in a hospital bed in Portland. Everything can change in an instant.

If you don’t have children, start cultivating relationships with friends and family members. Arrange the paperwork so they can help you if something happens. And make sure you have good insurance. Then enjoy today as it is, however it is. If you are able to walk, talk and take care of yourself, life is good.

Thank you for your patience with this slightly off-topic post. It has been a long week and a half. If you’re into praying, I’d welcome your prayers for my dad and for Tracy.

As always, I welcome your comments.