I remember sitting at a diner with my four boys when they were about 14, 12, 8 and 2. I looked over at a small booth big enough for two and noticed a sweet little old lady sitting there quietly eating her breakfast. I said the first thing that entered my mind, which was, “Please promise me that you will never let me be the old lady sitting in a diner on a Sunday morning eating her breakfast all alone.”
They all, including their father, looked at me like I was nuts. With all the tumult and chaos of raising four sons surrounding me and stretching out in front of me, I think that what they all heard was “Please God, let me get one breakfast in a diner alone, where I can eat my food in peace, where no one grabs food from my plate and no one spits their food into my hand.” Maybe they were right, at that time. But the foreshadowing of that statement weighs heavily on me in my life right now.
Fast forward twelve years:
Son number one graduated from the University of Michigan, moved to the amazing city of Chicago, met and fell in love with a beautiful girl, has a phenomenal job and a high level of doubt that he will ever move back to his native New York.
Son number two decided to forego college and began to work for his uncle at a business located in South Florida. He recently forfeited his New York license and is looking to buy a place of his own in the Boca Raton area.
Son number three stayed home at community college for two years but is now gearing up for his move to the beautiful city of Boston to continue his education at Northeastern University.
And son number four, well, he is 14, doesn’t much like talking to his mother and spends most of his day locked away in his room, living in a virtual reality world while texting his real life friends.
Oh yeah, and during all of this, their father, my husband of twenty-five years, decided he wanted a divorce, he was no longer happy and felt like he was “dying a slow death in the suburbs.” And to all those who immediately asked the question, yes, there was another woman, 17 years his junior, who made his life much more interesting by agreeing to travel all over with him, to move into our family vacation home in Miami with him and who, according to him, swore on her life that she never wanted to have children. The story is so trite that it almost does not even need to be told.
Anyway, back to that lady in the diner. My blood runs cold every time I think of that day. What once seemed like an absurdity, a rhetorical question requiring no response, has become a very real possibility for me. You see, my nest is not close to empty; rather, it is close to destruction and dissolution. And where, I ask myself as much as others ask me, does that leave me? What exactly does my future hold?
This question plagues me at three in the morning, as I lay wide-eyed in my king size bed, careful not to cross that invisible line, the line which signifies which half of the bed is “mine” and which was “his.” The question, like a jack hammer, pounds incessantly, in rhythm with my heartbeat: where will I be in five, in ten, in twenty years? What will my future look like? Will I be that old lady sitting by herself in the diner?
Since the divorce, when I try to picture my future, my mind always becomes a dark, blank slate, like a recently rattled Etch-A-Sketch. There are faint lines left from the past, the previous pictures, but nothing to predict the future ones. So, one night, in an attempt to quiet the riot in my head, I dared myself to figure out what my future would NOT be so that I could maybe get a clearer picture of what it could be. Not the happiest journey, but one I thought might provide me with some clarity.
First and foremost, my future will not involve me staying awake all night because I cannot turn off the turmoil constantly swirling through my head. It will not involve me waking up in tears, praying for just a few more moments of peace before I am forced to face yet another long and lonely day.
It will not involve me sitting in my bathroom, sobbing silently, in hopes that neither of my sons hear. I will not have to wash my face and pat my eyes, in a futile attempt to hide the pain and suffering from them. It will not involve any of that.
My future will not involve me fearfully facing each day because I know that, for a good part of it, I will be struggling to breathe. It will not involve me hiding away from friends and family because I am as sick of saying the same words as they are of hearing them. It will not involve my brain being so weary that shortly after I venture out into the light of day, I quietly pray for the moment that I can return to my bed, to once again sleep so I do not have to face the emptiness of my day. It will not involve any of those things.
My future will not include me constantly searching for something, but having no idea what that something is. It will not involve me being let down when I give up, knowing once again that I have lost my way. And I will not be repeating the same things to myself, the disappointment and displeasure for my failure to do better, to be better, to demand better. It will not include me trying to hide away, so I cannot see the world and those in it cannot see me.
As I rotate the imaginary wheels of the blank Etch-A-Sketch, I draw a picture where I no longer ruminate about the past and its failure to turn out the way I thought it should. I draw a picture which includes only the here and now and it excludes the pain of the past and the endless worries about the future.
It includes a life of living each day as it comes and knowing that no matter what, I am capable of handling all that life has to hand out, the good, the bad and the in-between. In my future, life will not be a series of events to be endured or, worse, to be avoided but rather a series of adventures to be enjoyed, with the unknown bringing a fire of desire into my belly rather than the ashes of despair.
In this picture, optimism will reign supreme – for the future and all that it has to offer. There will be love and the ability to live it completely and unconditionally. There will be anger and the ability to take responsibility for its fallout. There will be laughter, there will be tears. In those tears will be passion and devotion. There will be noise and there will be silence. In that silence, words will not be important because actions will speak louder than words. And there will be peace, there will be sleep and most importantly, there will be hope, for the next day, the day after that and all the days to come. Being awake, aware and alive will be a gift and nothing and no one will ever get in the way of that again.
And, if I am that old lady in the diner, I will sit there proudly, reflecting on all that I have accomplished, all that my kids have accomplished and I will say, a la Jerry Seinfeld, “I am an old lady sitting alone in this diner, eating my breakfast” and, I will think – – NOT THAT THERE IS ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT!!
Jill Carlin Schrager is the mother of four amazing sons, ages 26, 24, 20 and 14. She graduated New York University School of Law in June, 1986, and practiced at a litigation law firm in Philadelphia while her ex-husband completed medical school and surgical residency. She moved back home to New York in June, 1993 with two little ones and became a stay-at-home mom for her growing family. She wrote this essay shortly after her divorce in 2014 and, in the last few years, has come closer to living the life she had only imagined back then.