To the extent this story has a larger-than-personal dimension, it is an account of becoming an orphan. I realize that "orphan" sounds like an overdramatic term for becoming parentless at age fifty-five; but I was struck by the number of times the word occurred in the eight hundred condolence letters I received after my father died. I hadn't thought of myself as an "orphan" until about the sixth or seventh letter: Now you're an orphan. . . .I know the pain myself of being an orphan. . . .You must feel so lonely, being an orphan. . . . When I became an orphan it felt like the earth dropping out from under me. At length a certain froideur encroached as the thought formed, So, you're an orphan now. I was jolted happily out of my thousand-yard stare a month later by an e-mail from my old pal Leon Wieseltier, to whom I'd written to say that I was finally headed off to Arizona for some R&R: "May your orphanhood be tanned." Orphanhood was a condition I had associated with news stories of disasters; a theme I had examined intellectually in literature at college and beyond. It's one of the biggies, running through most of Melville, among others, and right down the middle of the great American novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
I'm an only child, albeit encompassed and generously loved by an abundance of relatives, forty-nine first cousins on the Buckley side alone. Still, I have no sibling with whom to share my orphanhood, so perhaps the experience is more acutely felt. Only children often have more intense, or at least more tightly focused, relationships with their parents than children of larger families. This was, at any rate, my experience.
I don't know that I have anything particularly useful, much less profound, to impart about the business of losing one's parents, other than this account of how it went in my case. I doubt you'll be stunned to hear that it has a somewhat dampening effect on one's general felicity and inclination to humor. I recall, on entering the vestibule of Leo P. Gallagher & Son Funeral Home the first time after Mum died, seeing a table stacked with pamphlets with titles like Losing a Loved One or The Grieving Process, illustrated with flowers and celestial sunbeams. As a satirist, which is to say someone who makes raspberries at the cosmos, my inclination is to parody: Okay, They're Dead: Deal with It or Why It's Going to Cost You $7,000 to Cremate Mummy. But standing there with my grief-stricken father, the banal suddenly didn't seem quite so silly or in need of a kick in the rear end, and (believe me) I'm a veteran chortler over Oscar Wilde's line "It would require a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell." Right after JFK was shot, Mary McGrory said to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "We'll never laugh again," to which Moynihan responded, "Mary, we'll laugh again, but we'll never be young again."
It occurs to me that Moynihan's reply brushes up against the nut of the orphanhood thing (as my former boss George H. W. Bush might put it)—namely, the accompanying realization that you're next. With the death of the second parent, one steps—or is not-so-gently nudged—across the threshold into the Green Room to the river Styx.