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What happens when our parents die?

A SMALL BROWN ENVELOPE arrived in the mail this week, containing a form letter from Canada Revenue Agency – the tax people – a single printed page, small type, in both official languages, declaring that the federal government no longer had any official claim on the estate of Marling Kilgour, my mother. This is known as a Clearance Certificate, the green light that says, “you’re done” for the estate executors.

It’s almost five years since Marling died, and exactly 10 years since Dad departed. Still, the letter felt like the end of an era, the last stop on a long train ride that began when Dad had his first stroke, forcing me to consider my parent’s mortality for the first time.

I’m over 50 now. I had my own children when I was 29 and 34. Although I’ve been financially independent from my parents since the age of 18, something inside me changed when they were both finally gone.

Several people said to me, “you’re an orphan now” when Mum died, but I actually felt the opposite, like a grown-up, not for the first time, but in a more complete way than ever before. There was no mistaking the feeling of “you’re in charge now,” or perhaps, you’ve got no one to rely on but friends and siblings, no backup plan at home (even if I hadn’t exercised that option in decades).

There was a similar moment of clarity at the funeral of my father’s last sibling, leaving no one of his generation remaining. I huddled with my cousins as we all turned to Toby, the eldest, and said, “You’re it now! You’re Bob!” (her father). We’d lived so long with our parents as the guardians of the family, it was hard to believe that this was no longer the case, and that two younger generations probably regarded us in the same way we always looked upon my uncles and aunt.

The other sea change had to do with my siblings. As we grew into adulthood, we were no longer the gang of four of our childhood, but rather a set of six pairs of diverse relationships. News no longer traveled mainly through my parents. Nonetheless, for many years the gathering place was still my parents’ suburban home. It’s where my kids saw their cousins, and where we really caught up with each other’s disparate lives. What would become of that, now that the magnetic pole of Tsawwassen, BC no longer held its attractive pull?

Before Dad died, I worried about the responsibilities that would come with his estate, and inheriting a portion of his wealth. Like many kids of my generation, I left home to escape my parents’ influence, and even as a partial rejection of their establishment values. Now, as co-executor of his estate with my elder sister, I was forced to take the keys to his car, so to speak, sit in the driver’s seat, and make the decisions about where to go. It felt uncomfortable, like I was becoming him in a way that I never wanted.

The process was difficult because his assets were complex and my sister and I lived at opposite ends of the country. We didn’t always agree on how things should be done. It all took a lot longer than it should have. Partly, I think, I was ducking the transition to full responsibility for the portion of his family’s heritage that was now being handed to me. Things languished, and the whole process took over eight years to complete – pretty exhausting.

Mum’s death was gradual and gentle. But the wave of sorrow I felt as I left her hospital room for the last time was many times stronger than six years earlier with Dad. My sisters and I had united to be with her those last seven weeks in palliative care. And because of the cancer, her death was a release from suffering. But I felt lonely in a way I never expected as I drove through the rain to the Vancouver airport and returned to my separate life in Ontario. Where would the emotional centre come from, now that Mum was gone?

I knew where my own kids would find it – that’s a job I took on a long time ago with my wife. But what about me? How would I feel when my own marriage got difficult, or when the challenges of raising my own kids felt overwhelming? I didn’t consult Mum a lot on these things. But I always knew that she was there and that in many ways she’d seen it all before and had managed okay. She’d actually faced harder challenges than me: the disappearance of her father at 12, and having to ask her husband to leave their marriage when she was in her late 60s. Despite her Pollyanna countenance, she was a tough woman. I liked having her experience and guts behind me. Now that was gone, and I felt uncertain about how I could ever replace it.

Being an executor the second time around was easier. It was like a second stab at home renovations. We knew which questions to ask, and not to let things languish when the “contractors” (i.e. lawyers, accountants, government bureaucrats) seemed to lose interest in our project. In fact, we had the whole thing wound up in a little over two years – until the aforementioned CRA discovered pension irregularities dating back to my parent’s separation, which entailed more haggling over tax payable, and an additional 18-month delay.

The best part of managing my Mum’s estate was the thing that most siblings fear, I believe: sorting out her stuff and dividing her possessions. Mum was careful about this before she died. She consulted us on major items like artwork, china and silverware. She had names written on the backs of some items, and handwritten lists separate from her will.

We all made a pilgrimage to Vancouver for one final weekend of organizing and reckoning. Mostly, this involved clearing out stuff that no one wanted (including many trips to Goodwill, although my twin got over-zealous and gave her elder sister’s shoes away, thinking they were Mum’s). But it also entailed a careful taking turns with mementos and personal effects, the stuff embedded with memories of Mum.

I’m glad the executor’s chores are over now and that I no longer have to pester the CRA every month or two. But I’ll miss the project that united my sister and I for so many years after my parents died, giving us something to work on that reminded us of them every now and then.

I have moments when I wish I could call Mum or Dad, to let them in on something new in my life, or my children’s. I think they’d be happy that their stuff wasn’t a burden to us, and that the division of their assets didn’t divide our relationships.

The question of what holds our family together now is still difficult for me. It lives and breathes on our desire to be in touch, and our willingness to travel to see each other. I find this has waxed and waned since Mum died. My niece is getting married this summer, and I’m sure this will bring us together once more, perhaps the biggest family bash since Mum’s funeral.

But I still miss my parents, especially my Mum. I like the images in a song by Suzie Vinnick called Hanging Out in Heaven:

You’re getting word to me,
across the worlds to me
I can hear you clearly, if I listen

It seems that every noise
reminds me of your voice
You can hear me too, I’m wishing

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