The question surprised me, since I’d never thought of myself as an orphan, but I immediately recognized the truth of it. With my father’s death some years ago and my mother’s death more recently, I had become part of the “older generation” in my family—fatherless, motherless, an orphan.
My father’s death was the first death of a close family member. After years of heart problems, he had a sudden, fatal heart attack early one morning. When the phone rang, it woke me from sound sleep, I groped for it with my eyes still closed, and heard my mother’s voice: “Dad died last night.” Only she didn’t mean last night, she meant just moments ago, with the paramedics doing all they could, until finally they could do no more.
My body reacted to the shock of my father’s death with numbness and with tears. I hardly remember how I drove to be with Mom that morning. Then for weeks afterward, whenever I would see an older Asian man picking through the produce in the grocery store, my heart would skip a beat as I thought of Dad examining each piece of fruit before he would add it to his shopping cart. “Oh, the storekeepers don’t like to see me coming,” he used to say.
A year after his passing and for several years after that, I would feel a vague uneasiness for no apparent reason—until I looked at the calendar and realized it was the anniversary of his death. Even without my consciously thinking about it, my body remembered, this is when Dad died.
Years later, I kept vigil at my mother’s bedside. She had been struggling for months, in and out of the hospital, back and forth to various doctors. The weekend before, I had again spent time with her in the hospital before I left for a few days of church meetings in another province. Two days later, the hospital transferred her back to the seniors home where she continued to decline, and family members began to gather for their final goodbyes.
I returned home as soon as my meetings were over. “Hi Mom,” I said whenever she would open her eyes. “Hi Mom, I’m back from Ontario,” I said when she opened her eyes long enough to see me, and it seemed she might be listening. She nodded.
“Are you resting comfortably?” Eyes closed, she nodded again. She held my hand tightly, squeezing my hand every so often, until her grip relaxed, and she eventually let go. I guess that was her way of saying goodbye, since that evening when I came back from supper she didn’t respond when I took her hand, and a few days later she slipped peacefully away.
This year, I’ve been leading a midweek Sacred Pauses group. We started with a study of my book, Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal, then decided to keep meeting and keep the name because we had grown to treasure our time together as sacred pause. Women and men, some single, some married or widowed, younger and older, we gather simply to be together and to be with God in Scripture—sometimes with lectio divina, sometimes in silence or with journaling, with singing or Bible study, always with sharing and prayer.
One evening we read John 14:15-27 as our lectio divina, and Jesus’ words in verse 18 leapt out at me: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”
I thought again of my friend’s question, “So how does it feel, now that you’re an orphan?” Sometimes I wish I could talk with Mom about my latest writing project, or get Dad’s advice on how to repair the holes in our kitchen ceiling after the light fixture came crashing down. I miss them even now.
Yet God has not left me an orphan—although my mom and dad are gone, I’m surrounded by family and Christian community and Jesus himself is with me. Our lectio ended with this assurance: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”