My father George was killed in a car accident when I was 16. My mother Anita died from complications related to alcoholism in 2010, when I was 32. I’m not sure how I feel about my parents, or about their deaths. I know don’t feel very sad, and I know that’s not how I’m supposed to feel.
My parents have been dead for different versions of “a while,” so I know I’m not supposed to be crushed by grief, but I never really felt sad at all. That makes me feel guilty, and a little broken. When I hear about other people being devastated by their parents’ deaths I think, Shouldn’t I be as sad as they are? I don’t feel connected to those people at all—I feel a mix of pity, jealously and revulsion.
Maybe I can explain my ambivalence by saying that I wasn’t very close to them, or that since my family wasn’t a very happy place to be there isn’t much to miss. But there has to be a primal connection that makes being “close” irrelevant. Loving them is in my DNA. They are my DNA.
When my mother died and people asked how I was doing, I always said that I wasn’t sad for myself, but I was so, so sad for her. I was, and am, so sad that she went from being a world traveling, intelligent and vibrant woman to someone who drank so much that she lost most of her ability to walk and often shit on the floor. I am terrified that’s a possibility for any human being, but am I sad that my mother, who drank so much that she lost most of her ability to walk and often shit on the floor, is now gone from my life? Not really.
It’s easy and sometimes enjoyable to say that my parents were bad parents. My father was emotionally distant and occasionally abusive. My mother was resentful and selfish, and this was before her debilitating alcoholism brought out, or created, qualities in her that were much worse.
That isn’t the whole story, of course, and just because I want or need to criticize them doesn’t mean that doing so isn’t a bit ungenerous and ignorant. They definitely weren’t ideal, but a lot went wrong in their lives, and I was a pain-in-the-ass to raise.
But when I try to consider my parents as people—people who existed before I did, who didn’t disappear when I looked away—things change. The wrongs I’ve been so attached to disappear, and what emerges are two people who were passionate, successful and adventurous. My father was an international banker who worked in Africa and the Middle East and dedicated the last years of his life to helping Ukraine, his homeland, find its economic footing after Communism fell. My mother was an environmentalist and a dedicated ESL teacher. They traveled the world, and I think they had a fair amount of fun. This isn’t a new revelation, but since I only just understood that I’m too old to be complaining about my mom and dad, I suddenly have a lot of time to think about other things, such as how my parents went from being cool people to unhappily married, mediocre parents that I don’t miss, and how all of this stuff relates.
My mother’s funeral didn’t take place for a few weeks after her death, so I started cleaning out her house, my childhood home, in the interim. The house was a mess, and I spent most of my time in her study, which had become a haphazard storage room for everything from soiled sheets to unopened mail. I spent days bagging sweaters for Goodwill and organizing the incredible amount of cheap jewelry and pantyhose she’d purchased from Filene’s Basement decades before and had never worn—apparently she feared the world was going to experience a devastating shortage of clip-on earnings and pink trouser socks.
While I was going through her things, I found boxes of letters my parents wrote to each other. I found ones where my parents were goofy and love struck and cards where my mother’s friends referred to my father as “fun.” My mother had such a difficult life, and things were so grim when she died, that it was shocking to learn that things had once been different. They’d had a relationship I never knew about, and would never have imagined.
For days I sat in my mother’s filthy study, surrounded by photos, faded letters and crappy jewelry, trying to take in my parents’ lives and thinking: I don’t know these people at all. And for the first time, I really wanted to. As I went through their stuff I realized that my parents had done way more interesting things by 32 than I had. They were excited by the world, and they got to experience it with a wonder that’s hard to muster now because we are over-informed and over-stimulated. They were ballsy, and I think they were happy. But things changed, and now I’m sorting through their leftovers, trying to figure out why. They experienced real tragedy—between my sister and I they lost a son when he was ten months old. Is that enough to permanently derail a marriage? It’s probably more than enough. It’s possible they weren’t ever very happy with each other and just got married because it seemed like an okay option. But their letters show that they were more in love than I could have imagined, so clearly there’s a lot I don’t know or understand.
I spent years thinking my parents owed me something. Now I feel I owe them more than a little. Maybe I can find a way to make how interesting they were as individuals matter more than the mistakes they made as my parents, or the bad things they did to each other. I think it’s worth trying, and that’s what I’m doing here. I’m going through my parents’ things and attempting to piece them together while also trying to understand my experience of them. I’d like to figure out who they were, and maybe even find a way to be sad that they’re gone.