“But when he calls me, I will be able to meet my family at God’s table.”
- Gillian Welch, “Orphan Girl”
Orphan: One Deprived of Some Protection or Advantage
My wispy septuagenarian neighbor Nick paces my block with a bulky camera around his neck. Nearly half a century ago, he was an extra in The Godfather. “I was in that scene where all the Dons sit around the table,” he says. “They were trying to make the peace after Don Corleone’s son, Sonny, was slaughtered by a brigade of hitmen.” I remember the scene, but he tells me about it anyway.
I always learn a lot about Nick when we stop to digress, for example, how he used to box at Gleason’s Gym, “back when it was still in the Bronx,” and that the East Village Boy’s Club was his second home because he grew up orphaned. In addition to his camera, he carries around a crinkled newspaper photo of Queen Elizabeth everywhere he goes. “See her in this picture? She’s giving me a thumb’s up.” I find wonder in this man-child who carries a crinkled newspaper clip of his fantasy Queen Mother from a New York daily.
Ours is a tight East Village community in New York made up of multiple tenement buildings. When someone dies, a flier is hung in the vestibule on the cork bulletin board with a black and white photograph, a paragraph about their contributions to the community, and information about the wake. I’ve come home to find fliers blowing beneath a single thumbtack with a photo of Marva, who walked with a cane in the rain to my son’s 4th birthday party before skies cleared and everyone else showed up an hour late. I’ve come home to find Maritsa on a flier, who had chirpy lovebirds and a Puerto Rican flag hanging on her fire escape, and leaned from her window to holler down when she saw us walking by. “He’s gonna be a football playa!” In my bones, I know Shirley is next. When she sits in her beach chair on the sidewalk next to her home healthcare aide, she reaches her shaking hand towards me, looking confused. Her fingernails haven’t been cut in a long time. At least she’s not looking for her dead dog Gizmo anymore, who she took over from Hank after he died, the same Hank who took mint care of his Cadillac so he could drive his wife to and from her cancer treatments in style. Both of their faces were also on fliers. I feel orphaned when the elders on my block die.
There is something ridiculous about my literary-infused idea of what it means to be an orphan: Ragamuffin dresses, calloused feet, and matchstick girls huddle in the cold, furnished with warmth from scraps of tinder. The most rollicking of them have their own soundtracks. Cue up Oliver Twist and Lil’ Orphan Annie, and their Hollywood posses who swell up in choral waves of support, either with extra spoonfuls of porridge or hard-knock broom and mop dances. There is a wide bridge between the orphans created by Dickens, and by Hollywood, and the reality of earth-bound parental abandonment. There’s a primal satisfaction in the fantasy endings when Mr. Brownlow and Daddy Warbucks, respectively, put aside their misgivings to embrace the scrappy but vulnerable children who tumbled into their lives. In these redemptive endings, we can say goodbye to the turned-out child wrangler Fagin, and his literary sister Mrs. Asthma, who ran her orphanage with a cruel streak. There is a distinct and satisfying Before and After with these collective mythologies. Before, there was destitute, abandoned, and empty. After, there was abundance, love, and comfort.
When my husband and I applied for our wedding license in Philadelphia, we were sent to an unassuming room called the Orphan’s Division in an ornate state building downtown. “The word ‘Orphans’ in the name of the Court is derived from the general definition of orphan as one lacking protection,” their website reads, “not the common association of a child deprived by the death of his or her parents.” I’d never considered my future marriage as a thing that would land me in a state of protection, an orphan finding shelter.
Orphan: A Young Animal that Has Lost Its Mother
For three years in a row, the mourning dove on my fire escape has come back to her hard-scrabble nest. She lays two eggs the size of quarters and alternates day and night shifts with her mate until they hatch. The first year they emerged but disappeared. When I glanced at the landing below I found them tucked into a potted plant, dead. The next year new eggs hatched, and the babies grew from mangy pin feathered creatures to cooing beauties. Within a week, one got stuck in between the slats and died, his neck broken. This spring, one hatched prematurely. Draped in a U-shape over a stick poking from the nest, it was barely the size of my pinky, its downy feathers matted down by rain. Still, its mother sat on the second baby. A few days later mother bird stared into my window. I cracked it open for fresh air, stuck my head out, and offered her a few crumbled Frosted Mini Wheats. Threatened, she raised her left wing in a defensive posture. Sitting in the nest was her other baby, the size of my palm, his beady eyes shining. I closed the window and let them be.
Orphan: A child deprived of one or usually both parents
When I was 24-weeks pregnant I nearly died from the sudden appearance of blood clots that crept from my left foot to my kidneys. An unsuccessful surgery led to a more successful one, and for two weeks I recuperated at the now shuttered St. Vincent’s Hospital in lower Manhattan. Before the surgeries I signed a DNR form and included my unborn son in the waiver. Being a Catholic hospital, an ethics committee came into my room one, two, three, and four times to debate my decision.
“I want him to come with me if I don’t make it,” I explained, over and over again. I’d heard the risks of babies born at 24 weeks. Undeveloped lungs, cerebral palsy, life-long care. They responded over and over again. “We have a world class NICU. There’s a blue balloon we could put over the fetus’s head to keep him alive in an incubator. If your husband loses you, he could still be a father.” I didn’t want to die, and I also didn’t want to leave my husband with a premature baby with a blue balloon over his head in an incubator. This did not come to pass, but these conversations were stark and unbearable.
Orphan: A first line (as of a paragraph) separated from its related text and appearing at the bottom of a printed page or column
One of my favorite editing tasks is cutting orphans, those pesky one and two-word hangnails that reach beyond their allotted space on the page. Easiest to cut are articles and adverbs, useless adjectives and redundancies. When this is done, the columns align as they are supposed to. There are days when I look around and sense invisible fibers that connect people and birds and balloons and fire escapes and musicals. Eventually they snap, making orphans of us all.