Getting Over My Fear of Orphan Life

Sara in "A Little Princess"

Late Thursday night, my BlackBerry rang. Having been unable to sleep due to immense anxiety, I leaped out of bed to grab the phone. Before answering the call, I breathed a sigh of relief as the word “MOM” spread across the screen in large print. Upon hearing her voice on the other line, I began to sob.

This isn’t how I normally react to phone calls from my mom, but I’d been worried sick about her for nearly 24 hours. She typically calls or text messages me numerous times each day, so on the rare occasions I can’t get a hold of her, I fear something horrible has happened. It may sound crazy to you, but if you knew my mom’s constant correspondence with family members, you’d be puzzled by extended absence on her part, too.

“Why are you so upset?” she asked. “I hosted a dinner party and kept my phone upstairs.”

“I was scared you were in trouble,” I said. “I don’t think I could take it if you died.”

“I’m fine, Laura,” she said. “I’ll do my best to stay healthy so I can be around at least another thirty years for you, but even if I’m not around then, I’d hope you would realize you have a lot of people in your life who love you.”

You may think I jumped to conclusions by assuming my mom’s MIA status meant she was no longer with us, but there are many reasons why radio silence from her end would put me in a state of panic. As many of you know, I lost my dad to cancer in high school, so burying another parent now would make me an orphan at 23. In the 1800s, it wasn’t so unusual for people to be parent-less at this age, but times have changed quite a bit since then. With the “emerging adulthood” phenomenon, many of us lack the funds and maturity to fully break away from our parents. With the exception of phone service (thanks mom!), I’ve been financially independent since October, so money wouldn’t be a problem if my mother were to meet her demise. I wouldn’t, however, be mature enough to cope, and I’d probably end up following my New York friends around like a puppy. I’m not going to even mention how much it would crush me not to have my mom in my life.

I’ve spoken to several friends about this, and they’ve all said something along the lines of: “Your dad passed away when you were just a teenager, so wouldn’t losing your mom in your twenties be easier?” Absolutely not. In fact, I’ll venture to say it would be much harder for me to lose a parent as a young adult than in high school, as I was well taken care of and attended to when my dad died. I led a comfortable life in suburban northern California and was months away from starting college. While waiting for the birth of their first son, my brother and his wife looked out for me all the time during that difficult period of my life. So did many others. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case now. I live on a different coast than my older brothers, who have always been more like parents than siblings to me, so I’d be apart from the relatives who could help me most. You lose a parent as a child and everyone wants to take care of you. You lose a parent as an adult and everyone expects you to handle the logistics and believes you’re grown up enough to deal with tragedy.

Sara and her father in "A Little Princess"

This wasn’t the first time I worried something had happened to my mom. A few months ago, I received a phone call from a hometown neighbor who said she spotted my Jack Russell Terrier, Roxy wandering around some of the lawns on our block. The night before, high winds had whipped through the state of California and destroyed lots of property, among the damage being my backyard fence. After that blew down, Roxy escaped and explored the rest of the neighborhood. Thankfully, my neighbor found her and took her in, but was calling to see if my mom had gone on vacation.

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“Because we’ve been trying to reach her for hours and she hasn’t answered the phone,” she said. “No one is answering the front door, either.”

“Well, she’s probably at work,” I said.

But I couldn’t reach her, either. It was then that a million possibilities rushed through my head. What if she’d finally been defeated by Highway 17, the deadly, foggy road she had been taking to and from work for 15 years? The stretch of freeway is known for taking the lives of the unprepared, distracted, or just plain unlucky, as its a windy road nestled in  mountains where deer frequently cause vehicle pileups or accidents. I worried my mom had joined many others in becoming a victim of Highway 17 during bad weather.

You’d think my worries would annoy my mom, but she has vowed to text me every single day to keep me posted on her agenda. She left a voicemail for me last night that went something like this: “Hi, Laura, I’m just calling to let you know that I’m okay.” I laughed a little, realizing how silly she must feel about notifying me everyday that she’s still breathing.

That was when it dawned on me that I cannot sit around worrying about becoming an orphan. It is going to happen eventually (if I’m lucky, because let’s be honest, it’s wrong for parents to survive their kids), and fretting about it will do nothing to prepare me for the awful day that hopefully won’t come for several decades. But even if it does, I have many friends and family members who would help me get through my loss, just as they did when my dad lost his battle to the c-word. A fearful life does nothing for my relationship with my mom, so I’m promising to just accept things as they happen from now on and have faith that I’ll be able to endure whatever comes my way.

I'm free!

Tell me, friends, what is your biggest fear, and are you going to liberate yourself of it?

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7 thoughts on “Getting Over My Fear of Orphan Life

  1. Laura, thank you for this brave post. Although I have not gone through the harrowing experience of losing a parent, this is one of my greatest fears, as well. And you’re so right about this uneasy stage of young adulthood in which we’d be expected to cope with things much more gracefully than we’re even remotely equipped for. I don’t have anything to add here except that this was a very touching, honest look at your fears and means of conquering them.

    • Hi Heather,

      Thank you for reading and sharing your own fear as well! There couldn’t be a worse time to lose a parent than in one’s twenties, especially now that people our age are taking longing to figure themselves out, so I hope we can put off this situation for as long as possible. I really appreciate your thoughts 🙂

  2. When I was 19, I spent the night with my boyfriend-now-fiance for our first anniversary. The next morning, my phone rang. It was my father. Mother was dead.

    For several months afterwards, if a member of my family called me, I would be in a near panic until I got to talk to them. I remember this being particularly troublesome when I missed a call from someone in my family. My father is morbidly obese and severely depressed, so some days I lie awake at night just twitching and waiting for that phone call. I know it will come eventually, and sometimes I am paralyzed by the fear of it.

    Also since my mom died, I have been particularly worrying about my fiancé. This is especially true now that we are living in different cities (I in Philly, he in Atlanta) Luckily, since he was with me through my mother’s death, so he understands. If I start to get into a panic because I haven’t heard from him, he doesn’t call me irrational or get angry with me. He apologizes for worrying me. He’s also generally very good about communicating with me.

    The reason I gave you my life story is because I wanted you to know that you’re not alone in that fear. Not just of being an orphan, but going through the trauma of losing a parent. It sucks. Congratulations on working to move beyond it. :0)

    • Hi,

      I’m so sorry to hear about your mom. Sounds like it was a shock, and to be honest I feel lucky to have had the privilege of knowing my dad was going to die. I couldn’t imagine just waking up and hearing the news. Sorry to hear you anxiously await phone calls as well. The only thing I can say is that this is no way to live (even though I do it, too!), so I hope you don’t become worked up too often. It’s also good that your fiance understands, my mom is the same way. Good luck working through this 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story, it brought me a great deal of comfort.

      • Hi,

        I found this post through a search engine. I lost my father in 2007 after he suffered a massive heart attack. After that happened I had a lot of the same fears that you did. My mom would call me everyday, so when I didn’t get a call from her I feared the worst.

        Then it happened. I received a call from my mom’s job on Thanksgiving last month. Her boss conveyed to me that she did not show up for work and he couldn’t get her on the phone. I had a neighbor go over to the house because I was away at school. They found her dead in the hallway. She also had a massive heart attack. So now I’m 24, an orphan, and in my first year of graduate school. I feel so alone.

        This post really helped me because it helps to see someone who has had similar experiences. I hope I’m not out of line for posting here.

      • So sorry to hear about your parents and that you feel alone. Reaching out to friends has been really beneficial for me, so don’t be afraid to communicate with those close to you. In a way, it’s probably better to endure something like this at a young age — now you can handle whatever comes your way. Hang in there. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Good things come to those who wait « Laura E. Donovan

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