Only Child, Only Parents

Photograph © Peggy Kornegger
Photograph © Peggy Kornegger
My parents were both born in the month of October. My mother would have been 100 years old this year, my father, 105. I was their only child, born nine years after they met and married, one of the baby-boomer generation. Although they have been gone for a long time (my mother died 19 years ago; my dad, 10), I still miss them. As an only child, I dreaded their deaths, fearing I would lose my mind without them. Of course I did not. In fact, their transitions were profoundly loving and spiritually uplifting experiences, partly because I was able to be with each of them as they passed. Sitting by their sides, I felt connected to them and to the spiritual realm beyond and intersecting this one. That connection was a great comfort to me for months and years afterward.

It was during those years that my spiritual journey and quest for the meaning of life (and death) began in earnest. My exploration was intentionally eclectic, and I worked with many different teachers. Perhaps I inherited that tendency from my parents, both of whom were also eclectic and nonaligned religiously. They were free thinkers who read widely and attended philosophical discussion groups that pondered the mysteries of life. They encouraged me to make my own choices with regard to religion and spirituality. Over and over throughout my life, they gave me that gift of freedom and unconditional, uncritical love in every area. Whatever paths I took (and I took many—personally, politically, spiritually), they loved me without question.

Their love—for me and for life—is what has stayed with me beyond their lifetimes. It is interwoven with all that I am. As I searched for my own “meaning of life,” my evolving beliefs have always been grounded in love, as were theirs. I can still hear my dad reading aloud a poem by William Blake and choking up at the beautiful words: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour.” Reading those lines now makes me cry too, recalling that shared moment of love and gratitude for life. It was music that touched my mother’s heart, the voices as well as the lyrics: Italian tenors, Paul Robeson, Willie Nelson, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland—she loved them all. We used to listen to all kinds of music together (including birdsong), often with tears in our eyes at some particularly moving musical expression. I am so grateful that my parents passed on their emotional openness to me. As my friends and my partner well know, I cry all the time at life’s beauty and poignancy.

An only child experiences the loss of parents a bit differently because there are no siblings with which to share family memories. No one alive today remembers my parents in all the ways I do. Consequently, I carry their lives within me, where they are present in spite of absence. My backyard flower garden is one of the places I feel them most strongly. They were both gardeners—my dad, vegetables, bushes, and trees; my mother, flowers. I grew up on five acres in rural Illinois, so living with this small piece of nature right outside my door now has been like “coming home” for me—to my childhood home, to myself, and to my parents. Along with so much else, my mother and father gave me a deep appreciation for nature’s miracles. Each time I stand in awe, gazing into the delicate heart of a flower or at a sleeping bee or dancing butterfly, they are with me. They live on within the love in my heart.

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