It’s a Strange Fall Season as I Make Peace With The Empty Nest

It is a strange September.

In the mornings I sit alone at my kitchen table, eating my yogurt and granola. The house is silent except for the hammering of some workers next door. I notice things I hadn’t before. I spend a good minute watching a hummingbird flit around the purple blossoms of the morning glory outside. I watch its delicate wings beat against the air as it suddenly shoots up and away to find its next source of nectar.

fall leaves
This fall is a strange season for me.

This is the way Fall was for two decades

For nearly two decades September looked different than this. It meant busy mornings, getting the kids up and ready for school. Someone was always missing something.

“I can’t find any of my school sweatshirts Mom,” my son would plead.

We would look around the house and then eventually pull a dirty one out of the laundry basket.

“You’ll have to wear this one until I do laundry,” I’d say, handing him the faded blue sweatshirt with the school logo.

“Where are my shoes?” my other son would ask and we’d hunt around the house while I kept an eye on the clock. If the kids were late for their morning lineup on the school playground, they’d have to stand in a special spot for latecomers. Being tardy was a slightly shameful experience.

Perhaps I was a bit like the hummingbirds I now watch from my window. Hummingbirds have one of the fastest metabolism rates of any bird, to support their rapid wing movement. On those busy school mornings I darted and dashed around with expert efficiency, gathering backpacks and homework, pouring bowls of cereal, hustling everyone into the car.

This is Fall now that my kids are in college

Now that the kids are both in college, I’m more like the doves that sometimes land on the deck outside. They take their time ambling along the railing, pecking at small pebbles and leaves. They don’t seem to be in a hurry.

I don’t much miss those hectic mornings but what I do miss are the afternoons. I miss my son returning home at 3, throwing his backpack on the entryway floor and cuddling with the dog on the sofa. I miss seeing the warm September sun pour through the front window, creating a pool of light on the dog and my son. I miss hearing a tidbit or two about my son’s day and cracking open the mystery of this other person who was becoming more and more his own self in the world.

Now the afternoons are strangely long and uninterrupted. Three o’clock comes and goes. There are no sports practices to get to or homework to get done. I leave the house to run errands and no one knows I’m gone. I go to the store for groceries and I buy less of everything–less milk, less bread, less cereal. I skip the Kettle brand jalapeño chips and the pre-made cookie dough my son loves. I don’t need those calories. Later, I take a walk. Only the dog, Romeo, knows I’m gone.

I have to laugh. When my older son left for college, I told him how much I would miss him. He said, “Well, at least you’ll have Tommy” (his affectionate name for his younger brother Thomas). Then, when Thomas left and I told him I would be sad, he said, “At least you’ll have Romeo.”

Raising kids for 20 years made every day an adventure. I showed them the world and watched them learn how to take their first steps, tie their shoes, swim, ride bikes and feed celery and lettuce to the animals at the Little Farm near our house. For a time, maybe in their late elementary and early high school years, time seemed to slow a bit as we battled over video game use, chores, and homework. But the final years of high school flew by. In their senior years, both boys got their licenses, applied to college and took solo trips with friends. They were already on their way out of the nest.

In the months leading up to my newly empty nest, I worried. I couldn’t picture what life might be like after my son left. I only imagined stepping into a great abyss of nothingness. Everyone seemed to ask me, “What are you going to do with your empty nest?” I didn’t have any dramatic plans. Maybe take an exercise class with my husband, maybe write more, I’d say. Maybe I’ll finally get past page 100 in The Brothers Karamazov.

The reality is, I miss my sons in a hundred little ways and no big plans could fill the space they left behind. It feels good and right to mourn a bit, to stop and remember what we shared. Many of those moments were mundane and boring, like practicing multiplication tables. Others were light and fun, like binge-watching every episode “Monk” in the space of a few weeks. Still others were sacred, like the time Thomas insisted on sleeping on the floor next to Romeo when we first brought him home as a puppy. I realize life is nothing but a collection of moments.

Now my moments are often solitary and silent and I am making peace with that. I could fill them with noise—the TV news, the radio, a podcast, a phone call—and sometimes I do. But other times I just sit. I don’t want to rush forward to the next thing just yet. Something tells me to be present to this moment, to acknowledge the feelings of loneliness but also be grateful for a house full of memories.

The other day I studied, for the first time, the way the light reflects off the leaves of the ornamental pear tree outside. We planted the tree when the boys were toddlers. Now, I realize, it climbs up past our second story and radiates light.

Suddenly the tree reminds me of a drawing class I took in college where we had to draw still lives. Maybe I could try drawing again, I think, imaging what it would feel like to apply charcoals to a piece of clean white paper.

So many times lately I’m reminded—happily–of my own college days where I discovered so much about the world and myself. In some ways the empty nest feels like it will be a return to that time, full of promise and free of heavy obligations. That’s what many people tell me at least. And I do feel a certain synergy with my kids as we both venture into new phases of life. We are diverging in time and place yet also sharing a common experience.

It will take a while to get used to this quiet house, to reclaim my space and time. But soon, I realize, they’ll be back again, with their laundry, friends, music and food. How will they have changed? How will I have changed? As long as they still want to cuddle with the dog or share tidbits about their lives, I imagine we’ll be just fine.

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Allison de Laveaga is a spiritual director living in Berkeley, California. She writes a blog on parenting, spirituality and other topics at www.allisondelaveaga.com and she enjoy traveling with her family to Spanish-speaking countries whenever possible! Find her on Twitter: @allisondelav.

 

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