The first 48 hours are the worst.
You’ll get back from the airport, or the long drive, or maybe just the short drive that suddenly seems so much longer. And you’ll be exhausted, physically and emotionally, drained.
The house will seem eerily quiet, and the dog will glance at you with a pathetic and accusatory countenance. “Where are they, and why did you let them go?”, their sad eyes will question. And for a minute, you’ll second-guess this query yourself.
Your rational brain attempts to offer up the answers, knowing precisely why you let them go, but your soul feels slightly crushed, while your heart seems to swell wider, pushing those thoughts away, and squeezing up into your throat.
Your kitchen table suddenly seems far too big. The sight of a half-empty water bottle stops you in your tracks. Is there anywhere to look that doesn’t cause that sting to start up in your tear ducts?
Now is when you may feel the need to lay down and cry it out. Or to simply sit in silence and stare off into the distance for a while. Or to get super busy and clean up their empty room, dusting and vacuuming with a vengeance. I did all three of those things last year when I woke up the morning after college drop off.
And this year, it was my daughter, rather than my son who was the Last Child Standing at our home in mid-August. I’m thinking that if my empty nest experiences were a Netflix series, that Season Two, being released this week, will have a very different vibe.
Looking back now, I reflect that Season One would be titled, “Freedom”. (Yes, go ahead and cue George Michael for the opening credits.) Once I quickly got over the shock of my house being child-free, I reveled in my independence and found myself a little giddy with so many of my responsibilities cast aside. I could work when I wanted to and stop when I wanted to. I could cook if I felt like it and pass on cooking if I didn’t feel in the mood. There was so much to re-discover about the world, and about me.
But Season Two already feels so different. Much less physical, and way more cerebral.
I’ve come to appreciate that any “new normal”, whether it’s wonderful or horrible, eventually just becomes “normal”, as we adapt and shapeshift with each unique challenge. This second round of the empty nest is not such a celebrated high and is definitely not the punch to the gut that it was last year.
When your last, or only child, leaves your nest, it is a visceral and momentous change in your relationship with them. But once they’ve been away for months, and have come back for several extended visits, you realize that the fundamental connection you have with them, never actually changes. That parent-child bond is like no other. You don’t suddenly forget what they were like as a baby, or how their personality emerged and evolved over the first 17 or 18 years they were with you. In animal terms, their scent and feel are forever imprinted on you. You still maintain that ability to know exactly how they feel by simply listening to their voice on the phone.
Your rational parent-brain, on this subsequent round of the empty nest, now sees much further into the future. It’s like standing with a mirror both in front of you and behind you, with the countless reflections creating a tunnel that starts to curve down into a greenish infinity. You can now easily visualize the events that are coming so very quickly. In all those identical, mirrored images are the future moves, the holidays, the jobs, the significant others. But as its always been, you can both see and feel the love washing over them all.
And the best part of Season Two is that (most of) the fear has washed away. Spoiler: You all figure it out and both student and parents grow, transform and overcome the break-up. And there’s the renewed gratitude for the technology that allows us to be in as close contact as our children want us to be. Bless these devices that help keep our essential connections intact. The texts, the SnapChats and the video calls all work in tandem to keep the jokes running and the caring conveyed, across the miles.
The poignancy of this second season is that it the beginning of my daughter’s senior year of college, and all the “real world looming” intensity that is carried along with that. The discussions of options, careers, graduate schools, and various cities have reinforced our empty nest status with the permanence of a black Sharpie on a white envelope. (While I still hold onto a shred of hope for a graduate program or a job in our home state.)
So, what will I title this second act of my empty nest? I am thinking “Acceptance” is appropriate. (Is there an aptly named song I don’t yet know about?) I have absolutely no doubt that at times I will still shed some tears. There will inevitably be those days that I hear the garage door opening, and like someone half-asleep, I will for an instant think it is one of my kids, before I remember it is my husband. My dog and I will look at each other at certain times and feel gloomy, wishing there were louder voices and more hands to throw around her favorite toy.
But we’ve accepted our normal, that is no longer new. It is now comfortable and it is hopeful, anticipating that next phone call or visit.
The emptiness comes, and the emptiness gets filled – over and over again.