Today is the day I have dreaded since that second little stripe turned a very pale pink and my heart leapt into my throat. Today is the first of college, a day without a rushed breakfast, the day in which I did not scream or worse curse, the day I made no threats and took no first day of school photos. Today is the day where the first name I called was the dog’s.
But even as I find missing my kids was every bit as bad as I thought it would be, I have been given the gift of wisdom by two extraordinary women.
I am missing the day-to-day bustle of family life that already seems like a dream. I find it all but impossible to admit to myself that the decades of living wrapped in a cocoon of family intimacy, a world unto ourselves that once stretched out long in front of me, are over. Late this afternoon when none of my boys come bursting through the front door, our house will feel far too still, like a shell that has been cast aside, having fulfilled its purpose. A small part of me will feel like that shell.
I did not parent alone. Along with my husband, my sons’ father, I had female friends and acquaintances at every step of the way sharing their thoughts, broadening my insight and now, once again, easing this transition. This morning my phone rang off the hook, two friends dropped by. Everyone was checking in on me, wanting to see if I was okay. And while each of these calls was heartwarming and I am of course okay, if a little heartsick, it was the wisdom of two women, deep profound wisdom, that will see me through.
Liane Kupferberg Carter published a piece in the Chicago Tribune last week. In it she examines the notion that her nest may never be empty. Her younger son, who has autism, may live with her and her husband for many years. In a truly must-read article she explains:
My husband, Marc, and I inhabit a peculiar no man’s land. Our children are grown, but we are not empty nesters. The realization that we will in all likelihood never be empty nesters is a sadness all its own.
…I’ve been a member of an invitation-only Facebook group of middle-aged female writers. …They lament their empty nests, but mostly they write with excitement and joy about rediscovering themselves. They celebrate their newfound freedom to travel, return to the workplace, new hobbies or new passions.
I’m embarrassed to admit how much I envy these women. I’m not scaling Machu Picchu, sailing the Galapagos or climbing Kilimanjaro. I’m not “finding” myself. I’m right here. Where I have always been.
In her beautiful writing I think Liane is not asking her reader to feel sorry for her, nor is she arguing that having an empty nest is not a real feeling of loss. She knows the heart tug of our kid’s moving on as she experienced it when her eldest son left home. But the wisdom she shared with me was to step back, to zoom the telephoto lens of life out and take a far broader view of existence than that offered by the confines of our own experience. As always, Liane brings warmth and humor to everything she writes, but in reminding her reader to see beyond their own narrow slice of life, even if they cannot fully understand it, she has done me a great favor.
Another wise friends reached out to me the night before I took my youngest to school. She asked me to remember that the thing which pains us is that which gave us such joy. And that like everything in life, we only fully appreciate things that are not forever. I wanted to argue with her, tell her that I appreciated things that were forever, that if my children had stayed small forever, lived with me forever, I would have remained grateful.
But I know that to be a lie. I may have loved my sons’ childhood because my love for them is the purest emotion I have ever known. The marvel of their very existence never lost its novelty, but it would be untrue to suggest that in the grind that is daily life when our days together still seemed limitless, this remained uppermost in my mind.
I heard the sound of time whooshing by in their very first weeks of life. In the days and months as their infant selves grew and changed rapidly I could feel an undertow so powerful that I knew it would lead us to this day.
This morning I sent my sons a group text and said, “First September morning since 1994 that I am not taking your first day of school photos. Send Selfies.” I am still waiting for those selfies.
Photo credit (black and white): Cathrine White