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9 March 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 10:21am

It’s a strange sobering feeling, not having parents. You never get used to it

There’s no one left between you and the finishing line.

By Tracey Thorn

It’s been a year since Dad died. This Christmas just gone was strange, my first without either parent. Last Christmas Dad had been in the care home, and we’d worried about how it would work out, though in the end things passed off smoothly enough. A quiet few days marked by visits from each of us in turn, the skirting around any mention of bottles of Scotch, the giving of a plush new dressing gown he’d never wear.

But this year, at the usual family gathering just after Boxing Day, my brother and sister and I were firmly and completely in the roles of Family Elders, and I could sense the shift. No one above us in the pecking order to check up on, or placate, or defer to. And below us the youngsters, not so young themselves any more, creeping up on us, subtly moving into the positions from which they will one day take over.

After Christmas I got my diary for this new year and did the usual job of copying over all the birthdays and anniversaries. There was Dad’s birthday from last May, the one he hadn’t made it to. I hadn’t had the heart to cross it out and it had looked up at me on the day, another reminder of loss – no need for a card, or the usual delivery of wine.

It’s a strange and sobering feeling, not having parents. I thought I had got very used to the absence of my mother, and hadn’t anticipated how much more of a gap there would be when they were both gone. No safety net now. No one to break my fall. No one between me and the finish line.

And sometimes there is the feeling that there’s no one to bring good news to, or at least not the way you bring it to a parent. Your achievements, your children’s achievements – those things can sometimes seem like bragging, even to your closest friends. But you offer them up to parents like a cat bringing in mice to it its owner, and it never feels like showing off, only sharing.

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I still forget that Mum has gone. Last summer, when one of my girls had her end of year art show, and the other her first-year university exams, there was a moment when it was all finished and I thought, “Oh I must call Mu… oh.”

Then, in the middle of his GCSEs, the youngest had a bout of food poisoning, being sick all night and day, and I so wanted to call just to have her say, “Let me know when he’s better, so I can cross him off my Worry List.”

Mum’s Worry List. We were all on it at some time or other. I think we actually dumped all our concerns there so we could forget about them. Offloading on to her, pretending to be annoyed that she was worrying about them, secretly relieved that someone was.

And I find I miss her more and more at the same time as I seem to be turning into her. I see the resemblance in my sister too. The shape of a face, a posture, a gesture. I glanced in the mirror recently and Mum’s face seemed to look straight back at me. “Goodness, hello,” I said.

I start to count up the things that have happened that she didn’t see. The current house we live in. Alfie’s pink hair and Jean’s buzz cut. Blake, the baby, being almost six foot. But along with the loss comes a feeling of liberation, however unwelcome. I’ve just finished writing a book that I don’t think I could have written if they were still alive. I’ve seen other writers talk about this, the release that comes with knowing there is no longer a parent reading over your shoulder, judging, potentially upset or angered by what you have said. Funny how late in life we continue to care about that.

Still, the only good thing that came out of Dad’s illness and death last year was the increased closeness of me and my siblings. We’ve vowed to keep that up, and so have booked ourselves a night at a hotel soon, where we can have dinner and chat late into the evening about stupid stuff that only we know about each other, and moan and joke about the parents who drove us mad, and who we’d love to see again. 

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This article appears in the 07 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war

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