Getting Over My Fear of Orphan Life

Sara in "A Little Princess"

Late Thursday night, my BlackBerry rang. Having been unable to sleep due to immense anxiety, I leaped out of bed to grab the phone. Before answering the call, I breathed a sigh of relief as the word “MOM” spread across the screen in large print. Upon hearing her voice on the other line, I began to sob.

This isn’t how I normally react to phone calls from my mom, but I’d been worried sick about her for nearly 24 hours. She typically calls or text messages me numerous times each day, so on the rare occasions I can’t get a hold of her, I fear something horrible has happened. It may sound crazy to you, but if you knew my mom’s constant correspondence with family members, you’d be puzzled by extended absence on her part, too.

“Why are you so upset?” she asked. “I hosted a dinner party and kept my phone upstairs.”

“I was scared you were in trouble,” I said. “I don’t think I could take it if you died.”

“I’m fine, Laura,” she said. “I’ll do my best to stay healthy so I can be around at least another thirty years for you, but even if I’m not around then, I’d hope you would realize you have a lot of people in your life who love you.”

You may think I jumped to conclusions by assuming my mom’s MIA status meant she was no longer with us, but there are many reasons why radio silence from her end would put me in a state of panic. As many of you know, I lost my dad to cancer in high school, so burying another parent now would make me an orphan at 23. In the 1800s, it wasn’t so unusual for people to be parent-less at this age, but times have changed quite a bit since then. With the “emerging adulthood” phenomenon, many of us lack the funds and maturity to fully break away from our parents. With the exception of phone service (thanks mom!), I’ve been financially independent since October, so money wouldn’t be a problem if my mother were to meet her demise. I wouldn’t, however, be mature enough to cope, and I’d probably end up following my New York friends around like a puppy. I’m not going to even mention how much it would crush me not to have my mom in my life.

I’ve spoken to several friends about this, and they’ve all said something along the lines of: “Your dad passed away when you were just a teenager, so wouldn’t losing your mom in your twenties be easier?” Absolutely not. In fact, I’ll venture to say it would be much harder for me to lose a parent as a young adult than in high school, as I was well taken care of and attended to when my dad died. I led a comfortable life in suburban northern California and was months away from starting college. While waiting for the birth of their first son, my brother and his wife looked out for me all the time during that difficult period of my life. So did many others. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case now. I live on a different coast than my older brothers, who have always been more like parents than siblings to me, so I’d be apart from the relatives who could help me most. You lose a parent as a child and everyone wants to take care of you. You lose a parent as an adult and everyone expects you to handle the logistics and believes you’re grown up enough to deal with tragedy.

Sara and her father in "A Little Princess"

This wasn’t the first time I worried something had happened to my mom. A few months ago, I received a phone call from a hometown neighbor who said she spotted my Jack Russell Terrier, Roxy wandering around some of the lawns on our block. The night before, high winds had whipped through the state of California and destroyed lots of property, among the damage being my backyard fence. After that blew down, Roxy escaped and explored the rest of the neighborhood. Thankfully, my neighbor found her and took her in, but was calling to see if my mom had gone on vacation.

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“Because we’ve been trying to reach her for hours and she hasn’t answered the phone,” she said. “No one is answering the front door, either.”

“Well, she’s probably at work,” I said.

But I couldn’t reach her, either. It was then that a million possibilities rushed through my head. What if she’d finally been defeated by Highway 17, the deadly, foggy road she had been taking to and from work for 15 years? The stretch of freeway is known for taking the lives of the unprepared, distracted, or just plain unlucky, as its a windy road nestled in ┬ámountains where deer frequently cause vehicle pileups or accidents. I worried my mom had joined many others in becoming a victim of Highway 17 during bad weather.

You’d think my worries would annoy my mom, but she has vowed to text me every single day to keep me posted on her agenda. She left a voicemail for me last night that went something like this: “Hi, Laura, I’m just calling to let you know that I’m okay.” I laughed a little, realizing how silly she must feel about notifying me everyday that she’s still breathing.

That was when it dawned on me that I cannot sit around worrying about becoming an orphan. It is going to happen eventually (if I’m lucky, because let’s be honest, it’s wrong for parents to survive their kids), and fretting about it will do nothing to prepare me for the awful day that hopefully won’t come for several decades. But even if it does, I have many friends and family members who would help me get through my loss, just as they did when my dad lost his battle to the c-word. A fearful life does nothing for my relationship with my mom, so I’m promising to just accept things as they happen from now on and have faith that I’ll be able to endure whatever comes my way.

I'm free!

Tell me, friends, what is your biggest fear, and are you going to liberate yourself of it?