Quick note: I promise I’ll be back with my regularly scheduled silly content tomorrow and will leave the serious stuff to serious people. But stick with me for a bit and help me work through this.
I woke up one morning in a hospital bed and realized that both of my parents will one day die. This may seem like a spectacularly stupid realization, and of course I always knew they would die one day. Nobody lives forever, least of all in my family where heart disease knocks you out early. But the reality of one day losing my parents never felt particularly real for one reason or another. It just felt like something that happened to other people’s parents.
I went to my great aunt’s funeral a month or so ago. I only got to meet her once or twice, but my dad was very close to her. They shared a birthday and inside jokes, and he flew here, to New York, to attend. For some reason, I spent the entire funeral planning my own parents’ funerals, which I imagined separately and with a lot of detail. We would ask for donations to the non-profit my mom works at instead of flowers. My dad’s would have music–probably The Beach Boys or Etta James. My sisters and I wouldn’t speak, just sit there, holding hands, like we have at funerals in the past. Like we will again. Is it normal to plan this out in advance? When did I become so obsessed with my own parents mortality?
The night of my great aunt’s funeral, I ended up in the emergency room with what was eventually revealed to be an inconsequential chest infection. However, the ER doctors spent the first 12 hours of my visit thinking I had a blood clot, which meant it was a somewhat stressful experience (although, I’ve had worse). Around hour 10, a suspiciously young radiologist told me that the dye they’d need to inject into my blood for a CT scan might make me “feel like my insides were on fire” or make my throat close up such that I’d need to be intubated. I totally lost it–maybe it was the mix of exhaustion and fear, but I became a crying mess. I wouldn’t stop apologizing to him, saying “It’s really not your fault! I went to a funeral today but it’s fine I barely even know her, but it’s just been a weird day!” while he patted me on the shoulder. I’m a fairly independent person, but I did something I haven’t done in a long time–I called my dad for help. By some miracle, he was still in New York City and was able to come save the day, which wouldn’t have happened under any other circumstances.
I’m not particularly close with my parents. We haven’t gotten to that point of being friends, we just kind of coexist and catch up and everything’s whatever. But for the first time since moving out, I felt like I needed a parent. I felt like a little kid. I think of myself as quite the little adult–I pay own rent and bills and live on the opposite coast from from my parents, starting my own life and family with my boyfriend. These moments remind me that I am so, so young, and that I still need to be parented. It reminds me of how much I’m floating out here, and how those two people 3,000 miles away are anchors.
He came to the Brooklyn ER, talked to the doctors, and I fell asleep. I woke up an hour or two later and realized that normally, he wouldn’t have even been here, because he lives in California. And then I realized that one day he would die.
When I was a little kid, I was always afraid of the world. I had significant anxiety that kept my nerves constantly elevated, and I always thought the world was one moment away from swallowing me alive. I feared earthquakes, fires, masked gunmen, gang violence that I somehow thought I’d be the victim of, tornadoes, kidnapping, car accidents, cancer, AIDS, and terrorism. But despite all these fears, I only ever thought I’d be the one to get hurt. I never thought my parents would be the ones to die in the drive by, just me. They’d always be fine–they had something protecting them from the world that I didn’t. And so I didn’t worry about their safety or their mortality, even as I watched friends’ parents grow sick and die. I always thought my parents would be fine. Nothing could touch them.
But here I am, suddenly obsessed with their mortality. I insist that they see doctors and bully them into exercising. I call more frequently but finding talking to be more painful. I plan their funerals. My mom has always loved lavender. Is that an appropriate funeral flower? I don’t care, that’s what we’re having.
My dad was 21 when his dad died, which is almost five years younger than I am today. It’s too hard for me to even think about. It’s too much to bear. My sister, L, was 11 when her mom died. My dad spoke at the funeral while we held hands. Last year, we found that somebody had transcribed the speeches from her funeral into a document for L, and she, my other sister, and I sat on the floor, while she read to us what our dad said. We’re going to have to do this again, someday.
This is not a new idea. Your parents are going to die, or maybe they already have. I will die. You will die. There is nothing revolutionary about this. You’ll leave children behind, or maybe they’ll leave you. Everybody leaves somebody. Everybody had a parent at some point.
It’s not worth stewing over, because it’s an inevitability and a part of life. In a few days, I’ll snap out of this and go back to ignoring my parents’ phone calls while I’m at bars and forget that life has an expiration date. But right now, it’s hard to stomach the fact that one day my parents won’t be able to come in and save the day, stand next to my hospital bed for hours while I sleep because the ER ran out of chairs, and be the parents I still desperately need.