To Be Alone

By Barbara McMillen, Perrysburg, Ohio

My mom and dad parented eleven children of whom I was first. There were eighteen years between the first and last which means well into traditional retirement my parents were still managing the labors of young parents. It is to Mom and Dad's everlasting credit that when they passed, each child felt he or she had lost a best friend as well as a parent. And after my mom had passed (two years after my dad, our dad, our mom) all the children fell into relationships of disarray. Feeling no one else had the same relationship as he or she did. Feeling, each of us, that our pain was unique and special.

This is significant because when one is one of many, one is not treated by the world as unique. For example, years ago one brother passed away at six weeks of age from SIDS. Comments from neighbors, meant to be consoling: "You have the others." "With this bunch here; with this crowd, group, crew." Spoken as though the baby didn't matter. I was sixteen when he died. As an adult, I called my mom March 1st of every year. And we talked about Johnny.

I was so lucky, I told my mom and dad, to enjoy an adult relationship with my parents, to be able to share with them as an adult, to be able to enjoy them, to know them beyond the parenting icon.

My dad, such a hard working man - so intelligent. Held down three to four jobs to raise his family. The son of Polish immigrants. The step son of two mothers (his mother died when he was about 2 or 3) with a brother by each. He was the oldest who dreamt of his mother and who told me about his dreaming.

The army punished him for being Polish. Still, he returned from WWII the recipient of a bronze star. A good soldier, a good father who provided for his family even those things he never had. Christmas, for example, had never been celebrated in his house. One had to be hard, you know. It was tough to be an immigrant. To pick up and leave everything one knows to start over in a new country. And to survive.

My mom, whose first thought, first compassion, was for whomever needed her most. Daughter of a Chesapeake Bay waterman. One of two children. Rooted in family and American history. Determined in her intelligence to, along with my dad, provide us food and a high school education. To help us make a place in the world that was not as hard as the place they held. To change the world if they had to for us to have a place. As individuals. With individual needs.


My dad's final room was clean. After a very difficult death ushered by an uncaring hospital staff, brutal nurses who were unionized and compartmentalized, who gave a level of care designated in their contracts rather than according to need. Such a foreign philosophy to us, my dad.

He was moved to another hospital, Catholic, clean, peaceful in his bed. He held my hand when I left the room, as I tried to leave the room. I told Dad I had to go. Coincidentally my mother-in-law had just passed away and I needed to be with my own children while my husband flew to Arizona to be with his father. "Go to sleep Dad," I whispered. "The kids are all with Mom." He squeezed my hand. I said we loved him and we were taking care of her.

Two hours after I arrived home my mom called to tell me that my dad had passed.

And two years later, after we all had tried to give Mom something of a life of her own, a life with some selfish joys - movies, shopping, trips to see us - still she wanted to be home caring for the brother who was seriously disabled. Who needed her most.

Then, the day came when she visited a doctor who said he could do nothing about the aneurism and that her life had been truncated. And then he said, looking at her surprised if not dumbfounded face, "You didn't know? No one told you why we were running these tests?"

And she died of a stroke in surgery during an attempted repair of the aneurism. An heroic attempt at the unlikely. We were devastated. Hurt, lost, in pain. We were with Mom for the end. We along with our wives and husbands. The nurse saying, "There are too many of you to be in the room. Immediate family only and even then we may have to decide who will be there." We all wanted to be there. But we left our husbands and wives behind.

Two daughters held Mom's hands, another whispered in her ear, one caressed her hair. Brothers each placed a hand on Mom's feet. All of us holding onto her for what we wished was forever but which was in reality only minutes.

And it was over. Just. Like. That.

Devastation. None of us talked to one another. Isolated by our pain. One sister's husband left her, one sister close to dying herself of heart and pulmonary failure, one sister seriously ill with a 'co-morbid' condition. A brother newly diagnosed, another brother with another disease, another hospitalized and placed on disability. Grief is pain. Grief is physical. The mind and the body fall apart. The soul isolates itself. The world as we knew it for 50 years was gone.


It is now seven years after Mom's passing. Nine years after Dad's. There is still pain and longing. My sister says, "It doesn't stop, I still cry." Another sister says, "I am having a bad time, it must be because it is May (Mother's Day) or July (Dad's birthday) or Christmas." As for myself, I still can't go into a department store and see t-shirts with the word, 'Grandmom' printed on them or glimpse white haired ladies shopping without gasping for breath. And once I almost called out to a man who resembled my father, "Daddy!!!!" I was going to say, "Here!"

Today, my brother recalls for me my dad holding him when he returned from 13 months as a Marine in Viet Nam. He tells me my dad said (i.e., his dad) said, "Shhhh. You don't have to say anything. I know." My brother says Dad knew how afraid he had been. He held my brother in his arms as they both cried.

What is remarkable? We share with each other now. After periods of anger and isolation we have begun to reach out to each other. When we do, we recite the stories of our lives to each other. Each of us as an individual. And it feels so good, so comforting for us to be together and to hold one another.

Because when we do, when we feel our arms tight about each other, we remember viscerally our parents. Feel their arms in each other's arms. And we can hear again our parents' voices as we say each other's names.