I don’t take the day off very often.  Dave almost never does. But yesterday we did, got in the car and drove up through New Jersey and New York, amidst the beautiful autumn foliage to visit our dear friend who suddenly lost his father earlier in the week.  There was never any question that we would go.  When true friends are hurting you want to be next to them, if only for a few hours.

The unexpected trip required us to reschedule a play date for Chase yesterday as well. Anne, mother of said play date and MoB reader, was sympathetic and remarked that we are entering a time in our lives when these sad things begin to happen.  She’s right and I couldn’t help recall the last essay I wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer a little more than 3 years ago.  It is probably one of the pieces of which I am most proud.  It was also one of the easiest to write.  Sometimes you struggle to find your words and other times they spill out, almost uncontrollably onto the page.  I know there are others close to MoB who are dealing with this very issue so I offer the piece up to our readers for the first time.

I hope everyone has a happy and safe Halloween.

Grown Ups

By Emily Mendell

Recently, a friend lost his father after a devastating diagnosis that manifested itself in a matter of weeks.

Our respective relationships with our parents had never been a deep topic of conversation for us. Over the years, he would speak of his father in the off-handed way we both did, mentioning, over lunch, hectic family visits or sharing funny anecdotes. But underneath the tumult of daily life, the two were very close and he had depended heavily on his dad for guidance and strength, as so many of us do with our parents, even throughout our adulthood.

The death left my friend feeling dreadfully empty and infinitely alone. Here was an accomplished man in his 40s with a large, wonderful family and five children of his own. He was, by all definitions, a grown-up. Yet, the loss of his mentor was overwhelming.

Someday, this will be me. It will be all of us.

The death of a parent is a journey I have yet to endure, but the laws of life dictate that it is only a matter of time. Like many adults, I remain extremely close to my parents. The thought of losing them brings me to tears if I think about it long enough (usually reserved for long car rides alone while listening to Sarah McLachlan). But most days, as with everyone with healthy parents, I live under the false security that Mom and Dad won’t die until I’m really old and ready for it.

But we’re never really ready. Not at 20, or 40 or 50.

There are many points in one’s life when society anoints you a grown-up. Completing a religious rite of passage. Getting your driver’s license, your voter card or your diploma. Losing your virginity. While these are all presumably significant milestones, they don’t really qualify. Becoming a grown-up isn’t by choice. It’s happenstance. And we will never be grown-ups while our parents are living. Quite frankly, most of us don’t want to be.

Another friend whose father passed away described it to me best. “I lost my compass,” he said. Simple words, yet so poignant.

No matter how old we are, we still have the childlike need to check in and ask our parents, “Am I pointed in the right direction?”

The best parents are the 24/7 help desk for life. They understand all of our moving parts because they were the engineers. Our user manuals reside in their heads and their hearts. At the most meaningful – and meaningless – times in our life cycle, their existence is monumental although we don’t always realize it at the time. They are our touchstones, used at uncertain frequencies but ubiquitous nonetheless. You don’t always solicit their opinions but knowing that they are there makes you feel as if you have an army behind you.

When they go, they take the user manual with them. It would be helpful if they could somehow leave it with you, perfectly indexed with subjects such as “children, insubordinate,” “career, unsatisfying” or “chicken cacciatore, crock pot.” Sadly, there are too many twists, too many bumps, too many recipes for life to cover it all. In reality, the advice wouldn’t be the same without the voice behind it or the hug that goes with it. No matter how long they live, we never have enough time with our parents. Yet, the parts of the manual they have shared will hopefully be indispensable in carrying us through.

The other night, my 8-year-old came into my bedroom late at night with tears in his eyes and told me that he was thinking about what would happen if I died.

Was I going to die? I, too, am somebody’s compass.

In this situation, you have two choices. You provide the harsh reality: “I don’t know when I’m going to die; no one does.” Or you provide the more nurturing alternative: “I’m not going to die until you are very, very old, my love – not until you are a grown-up.”

I chose the latter because it is far more comforting, but it has the added benefit of being the truth. No matter how old you are, it is the death of a parent that pushes you across the threshold into grown-up land. For now, I’m so very thankful to remain a kid.

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