Orphaned in Adulthood

March 15, 2016

My dual roles as poet and psychologist prepared me well to confront my own and my parents’ love and loss, joy, resentment, anxiety, dependency, tenderness, and terror. All collided in what may be considered the most vulnerable of adult life stages: when we all become orphans.

My most ambitious project to date, Orphans, on sale today, is a verse memoir that recounts the story of my parents and my complicated and often conflicted relationships with them. My father and mother, Eugene and Mary Cusack, both courageous people, were poor farm children on opposite sides of the Easter Rebellion who emigrated from Ireland to the US as teenagers just months before the Depression hit. Knowing virtually no one, they became citizens of a new country, trained professionals, spouses and parents to 4 children. While my first three books are told from my point of view, Orphans is spoken in three voices—my mother’s, my father’s, and mine.

But the book became more than my parents’ stories told in their voices. Another layer, completely unexpected, emerged. A psychological story. My story. After they were gone. Because a large part of the book was written during my father’s last days and after his death (my mother had died ten years before), grief took me to unexpected places. I revisited our history—their place in my life and mine in theirs. Feelings I had never expressed to them or to me surfaced. As did memories. I wrote them. Made poems from them. The Orphans that resulted explores my/our most primitive and essential relationships –those with my/our aging parents. Particularly the intense ambivalence that stems from the truth of their impending death. Feelings erupted that I wasn’t prepared for –those connected to the reversal of roles and the eruption of unresolved conflicts that have persisted from childhood.

So Orphans is also about death– the inevitability of it. I dealt with a universe of feelings when my Dad died. (It’s so much harder to lose someone you loved and in our case for 70 years –my Dad lived 99 and ¾ years.) My heart broke many times over. I did what I always do when I need to make sense of things—even before I discuss it with Alan, my husband, I turn to my notebook to talk. To find the truth of what I’m feeling. To discover the many layers of feelings. And most of what I wrote was addressed directly to him, my father. I rediscovered my guilt; I admitted to myself and the poem my sense that I had enabled his death with my Spartan commands and expectations. My father had never been afraid. He never faltered. I refused to let him do it in his advanced years. I refused too to admit to his fragility. I suspect I was angry when he started to decline. How could he be an old man too frightened to walk? I had so much to say to him, I had dreams of him. I wrote the dreams. I tracked everything that erupted or smoldered in me –every turn of my heart or brain, every locked room. Of these entries I eventually made poems. Over the years they were forming a body, becoming a voice.

As painful as it was to lose my Dad, the most devastating aspect of this state of orphanhood was coming face to face with my own mortality. As long as parents are alive we have a buffer, a shield; it’s their life and death that preoccupies us. We tend not to be aware of our own mortality as we’re so focused on theirs. But when they are gone, the protection is gone.

I am no longer a daughter.

Hence the title, Orphans: not so much a description of a child without parents but of adults without parents – that inevitable state of aloneness that each of us will experience in this lifetime. I am currently in that place. My mother died 12 years ago; my father, five. With the loss of my parents, I’ve had to stretch psychologically and emotionally to life without their steady gaze —admiring, bolstering, applauding, sometimes judging, criticizing. I am now left in my own care to create within myself a safe place where I no longer need or have a right to the designation of child, daughter. There is no more profound a love than that of a parent to a child. Once that is gone, we have to earn what love comes to us. The isolation and terror that comes with that is palpable, profound. Thrown into this alien life stage that no one seems to talk about—bereft and alone with nowhere to hide, next in line, the senior, and death, as if taking my parents place, sits ready to pounce. In my own life, the depression was palpable as was the anxiety and terror. I became a young girl again afraid that God would choose me next. I felt stalked….

I turned to my notebook. The poems held my terror.


About Joan Cusack Handler

Joan Cusack Handler is a poet and memoirist, and a psychologist in clinical practice. Her poems have been widely published and have received awards from The Boston Review and five Pushcart nominations. More »

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