At the end of last year, I suddenly – but not unexpectedly – became an orphan. At the age of 69, that is no small event. Becoming an orphan at any age is, of course, no small event. Still, with an entire lifetime behind me and fewer years ahead, it does give me pause.
What am I doing here? What is this all about?
I thought I knew, but now I am an orphan
and I am not so sure.
With no one above me in the hierarchy that is the family, I am strangely on my own. Simultaneously, I am to some large degree responsible for what happens below me in that lineage. In all, though, that is not unfamiliar territory. My years of experience as a son, brother, father, and grandfather have prepared me for that, and I am certain that I will manage it well.
However, there is something deeper, more personal about becoming an orphan at this time in my life. I have become acutely aware of how over-extended I am and how many things around me simply do not matter anymore.
A few evenings ago, in a community of friends, I went on a shamanic journey. In this meditative experience accompanied by the rhythm of drums, I found myself in a familiar place: a rock shelter on the side of a mountain that faces what I now know is a setting sun. This time, I was alone. There were no elders sitting in a circle, no indigenous guide on my left side. I was alone, and the clean little cave-like structure seemed surprisingly new.
Just then, I heard a faint scurrying in the back of the shelter and seemed to hear the words “not really” from a very small and almost joyous voice. A tiny Mouse appeared from the shadows, and I heard (as much as one actually ‘hears’ things in a journey), “Let’s get this place cleaned up.”
With that, the little Mouse began to dart into all of the dark crevasses of the shelter and dig out old trash, discarded junk, feathers, small stones, hairballs, and a myriad other things that I could not see hiding in the dark shadows. Together, we pushed and swept them over the lip of the southwest corner of the mouth of the cave. I wondered what archeologists of the future might gather from the trash heap forming below.
After a while, when Mouse seemed satisfied and said something like, “OK, there you go. Much better!” Then, smiling, he added lightheartedly before skittering back to the wall, “See if you can keep it clean this time.” I found a piece of cheese in my jacket pocket and left it on the edge of the hearth.
A few days later, I invited some friends and leaders of the shamanic community here in Austin to join me for a personal drumming journey. That afternoon, I told some of the stories about my parents that may never have been heard – about their lives as best I knew them, their parents and ancestors, and some of the history that I felt needed to be spoken. There are many sides to everyone, and I believe that people are best honored by leaving a more well-rounded legacy.
Much of what I know centers around my father, since he was the stronger influence in how I grew into who I am. He was clearly a man of his times. He was born in the late 1920s and grew up through the 30s and 40s as he developed into adulthood, with all of the social and political influences of those years. And as a child of a broken and conflicted family, he had little guidance as to how to be a parent himself. Even though he made a lot of mistakes, I know that he did what he thought was right.
In that gathering, we did another shamanic journey together. In my journey, I revisited the rock shelter. It was as clean and pristine as Mouse and I had left it. This time my father was there, and he was clearly uncomfortable. He did not know what I do in service – that I am a shamanic practitioner, author, teacher, and sometimes healer – and he did not want to know. That realization was a turning point in my understanding of him, and it led to a better relationship with him in his later years.
He clearly did not want to be in the rock shelter, so I saw no reason to remain there. Instead, I found myself with him in his favorite place: a lake in the mountains of Montana that he had spoken about before. I’ve never been there, yet I saw these mountains through his eyes. I understood why it was his favorite place, even though, as far as I know, he only traveled there once. I had thought to drive there with him, but it was too late. By the time he told me, he was too frail to make the trip.
Might things have been different had he told me about Montana earlier? It is impossible to know. Yet, the lesson of that important piece of his life that he left unshared remains alive.
We stayed there together in my journey for some time. We didn’t speak much. Everything that needed to be said already had been. Soon, the journey ended, and I returned to the gathering of friends and community leaders in my home, where we then shared our individual journeys and our experiences of family and ancestors. And I told them about the lesson I learned in the mountains of Montana.
The View as an Orphan
A psychic friend told me recently that she had seen my parents walking hand-in-hand toward the sunset, and she assured me that they were together and happy wherever they were. I am certain that is true from my own inner knowing, but it was good to have her confirmation. They had lived together, almost as one, for more than 75 years. They were as inseparable in death as they were in life.
Dad was always afraid that he would go first, leaving my mom alone with her Alzheimer’s. In the end, things worked out as he wished. She passed in early November of last year. He followed just more than a month later, twelve days short of their 76th anniversary.
My sister and I are now experiencing the world as it reorganizes around a new reality without the parents who had always been there. Now, we are orphans together. As the older sibling, there is no one “above” me in the succession, no one to turn to when I need perspective or advice.
The world looks very different from this vantage point. The view is both daunting and hopeful. As Mouse told me, I need to clean house and keep it clean, so that is what I am about these days. Time to pare down and let go of things I used to think were important, yet are not. Time to focus on what truly matters in this new world.
With that, I can say I have never been more prepared and ready for this new beginning.
Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans
Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House
Elder Parents Journey: Meeting House
Elder Parents Journey: Spirit of the Land
Elder Parents Journey: Tender Moments
Elder Parents Journey: Returning Home
Living With Grief