Words to Describe

My 99-year-old great-aunt Sis had already outlived everyone in her own generation of our family. With the death of her only child on Sunday, she has now outlived the next.

“It’s mighty lonesome,” she observed to us Wednesday afternoon when my sister and I went to offer condolences. When the life explosion is of such magnitude, even the normally voluble resort to understatement.

The lack of a word like “orphan” or “widow” to identify a parent who has lost a child has been frequently remarked upon, with one English professor suggesting that the Sanskit word “vilomah” might do the trick. It means “against the natural order,” and might be used like this: “Sis couldn’t keep her thinking straight today because she has been recently vilomahed.” There’s a certain onomatopoeia there, I think: the tearing of the v, the sigh of the ah.

In Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, narrator Tony Webster observes, “Those little age differentials, so crucial and so gross when we are young, erode. We end up all belonging to the same category, that of the non-young.” In the context of his story, I’m sure Barnes meant the more common meaning of “differentials”: relatively small, even infinitesimal differences. A very youthful observer, distinguishing not even the slight differential between the white of Sis’s thinning hair and the grey of her 78-year-old son, might classify them both merely as “old.”

But the more mechanical meaning of the word could also be said to describe something that erodes with age. In this sense, “differential” refers to the gears that help vehicles to drive around corners smoothly and safely by allowing inner and outer wheels to rotate at different speeds.

When she was orphaned in 1979, and even when she was widowed four years before that, Sis maintained traction through those turns. She worked as a school janitor to support herself, she sold quilts and garden produce from a stand in her front yard, and when she got lonesome, she hopped in the car and drove hundreds of miles, negotiating Chicagoland traffic, to see her boy.

But no matter how independent you’ve always been, a few falls, a few broken bones that refuse to mend efficiently, and the best son in the world will feel the need to take the wheel. In her subsequent years as a nursing home resident, she’s missed the experiences that once kept the gears lubricated. These days, she’s getting some metal-to-metal contact.

It’s hard to find words to describe—much less comfort—the grief of the lonesome vilomah, but my sister, pulling up the obituary on her phone, finally hit upon some that proved helpful. As she read aloud the description of an active life filled with hard work, service and faith, Sis nodded along, her thinking quite straight again. “He was a good boy,” she concluded. “A good son.”

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