Empty nester, Parenting

Leaving the Nest

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Joe and Evan leaving Duke tour

I’m in a car headed to Durham, North Carolina, the second leg of our college tour with our younger son Evan. We just paid the second semester tuition for our older one, now a freshman in college, and here we are, beginning plans for helping our second go, too. Everyone should be so lucky. Why can’t I feel this instead of the fear and confusion that’s taken hold?

As I rushed to tend to the many details of packing up for four days away, notes for the pet sitter, pulling together college tour information, watering plants, paying bills, cleaning out the refrigerator, I realize I like the buzz of busyness, tending to this and that, getting my child to the dentist, talking about his soccer tryouts and creating interesting foods as his taste buds evolve. I like the promise of someone else coming home, my husband, my son, and occasionally my other son. I’ve been so wrapped up in this household and my kids and pets these nearly two decades, that on the rare occasion they’re away, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ve begun working out again and running and thinking about my next act. The first seemed like a dilution of myself, spread thin tending to other people and their needs.

We’re on the road now, returning from a full four days of driving and looking and walking and listening. It’s all starting, and I’m delighted to see him beginning to take an initiative, give it all real thought, researching other schools and their entrance requirements, thinking. Always thinking. As different as my two children are, this round of college tours is also, with a broader swath of schools, cities, and questions to explore.

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Heavy fog covers the way home.

We’ve crossed into Tennessee from Virginia and are making our way home to Georgia. The rain keeps falling as it has for days, and our car slices through the dense fog as Evan sleeps and Joe drives, my Spotify soundtrack in the background. We visited schools with strong engineering programs, what he likes and is good at. I vacillate between being ready to get him situated somewhere as this rite of passage looms, and wondering, with a healthy dose of anxiety, how this big house permanently minus two will feel.

I take for granted the noise that’s here now, three people moving up and down our staircase, pets following us into rooms and heaps of laundry piling up and spinning, water running in the kitchen sink, meals, dishes. Rinse and repeat. Some call it a hamster wheel or Ground Hog Day, my daily intermittent repetition, and then there’s coordinating people, pets and their stuff — soccer cleats, reading glasses, bras, and phone chargers, and those half pairs of socks forever missing their mates. We come and go at different times and don’t intersect as much as before, but mostly it’s the familiar voices echoing in these old rooms that I will remember.

Everyone promised the teen years with children would be challenging, and these haven’t disappointed. Maybe there’s some comfort in these days unfolding just as we thought, as if on cue, our children separate from us and push us away. I know we’re in their way as they’re on theirs, but I still want to be near and soak up the moments I know are fewer and far between. These days, the timing seems off. Not getting much information asking him questions about school, soccer, or what’s on his mind, I try to glean what’s going on, hang out in the periphery, and, in lieu of inventing moments for connection, focus on enjoying the ones that just appear, seemingly out of nowhere. There is no formula for how to parent. Mostly I’ve been winging it, going with my gut.

I try to remember what I was like some 38 years ago and how much I drove my mother up a wall and vice versa. She even told me so, sometimes declaring, “you’d argue with the Lord!” I’m certain I was no picnic, but with her now decades gone, we can’t of course compare notes, and even if we could, would they even help?

There are still moments, little gems, where he and I share a smile and connect over a wonderful meal or something good on TV, or the occasional best times when we just find ourselves talking about who knows what, and lose all track of time. Then there are the others – no sign of him after curfew has come and gone, my mere presence bringing forth a scowl akin to the “ugh, YOU’RE still here?” thought I’ve assigned to his expression, and the parents’ requests, “did you do this?” or “hurry up!” and “I need you to (fill in a chore sure to break up video/tv/chill time),” that are equally unsatisfying for both parties. I guess it’s supposed to be this way as scores of parents before us observed.

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Five schools in three days requires sleep.

Then there are moments such as this morning when I checked on him, lying in bed blanketed in soft morning light, his sweet face half hidden under a cream chenille bedspread in the guest room of our Charlottesville friend, where maybe he’s dreaming of the college he’ll pick or which will pick him. It’s in these split seconds that I melt with an intense fondness and immense pride, and a mother’s tenderness that comes from down deep. It’s overwhelming how it surges so dramatically and then uneventfully recedes. I already feel the start of another hole in my heart near the one gaping from six months earlier when I settled my older son into college. That hole has closed slightly, and filled in with new conversations, in person and via FaceTime, and with those moments when his face and flash of a smile fill me right back up. They’re addictive, these boys, and just when I think I’ve had enough, I turn around and find I want more.

It’s a state of limbo, this 18-months away from empty nesting, and I’m immersed in it now, well ahead of schedule. As my friends can attest, I’m never early, so why this and why now? I mustn’t look at this as falling into some choking purposeless state you’re assigned once an empty nester. You can fall in love or fall into a depression, but these pull you in a direction where you can’t help but surrender the reins, lean in and let go.

But this? I can control this, or at least how I react to change, and what I do next. We are all moving ahead toward different futures, ripe with opportunities for ourselves individually and together as a family. I’ve been thinking hard on this, trying to imagine my future. Since I can’t exactly picture it, I just want to bypass any bumps in the road, or tangled mess of traffic ahead, find an exit and turn off. A great song will come on and I’ll fly through twisty roads and sunshine, the only car on the road, happily plowing ahead. Everything will fall into place, right? Just like I would find that career with my name on it, effortlessly sail through menopause, and march into mid-life forever a size four.

Ignorance is not bliss. It’s going to hurt a little and there will be times when I’ll feel lonelier and frustrated, a far worse and longer lasting punch than the snarky teen sulks or eye rolls or silent treatment can pack. This kind sticks and there is no boomerang effect with some comforting rhythm or reset returning the next day. I’ll need to pick up with my own new rhythm, whatever that will look like. I hope to stop looking backward, or forward, trying to manipulate these moments, and just be here for all of them, pull my shoulders out of my ears and let the noise or silence wrap me in some kind of peace.

I am in the middle of a song, a rhythm that has kept moving and moving me along. For 19 years I’ve been in the song —  singing, crying, sleeping and smiling — but always in the song. The lullabies, the lyrics, they’ve lulled me too. Now they’re replaced with ear pods in my sons’ ears, keeping my babies in their world and me increasingly out. This is normal I tell myself, but I can feel it, I can feel him already gone. I’m a sea creature that has attached myself to my children, emitting helpful stuff and sucking up their mess, which oddly enough feeds me too. This co-dependency is addictive.

I did it in my 20s when my parents were sick, rushing to their side in the hospital, smuggling in ham and cheese omelets, onion pizzas and whatever else they craved. I’ll do it for you, too, if you’re my person and you need me. I can’t help myself wanting to pave the way and make it easier, less scary, tastier and comfier. Yet I worry that I’ve lost myself in the process, so hyper focused on everyone else. I’ve become the classic middle age empty nester scratching my head and wondering what next. Will I have the courage to pursue my dreams if and when I can bring them into focus?

 

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Treasure Trove

More than a month has passed since the summer solstice. Daylight is officially narrowing and the universe is whispering,  c a r p e   d i e m ! Time is in full throttle fast forward mode, and I’m over here looking for the pause button to take a closer look. I’m doing my best to taste it all, but new courses keep coming as I’m still blowing on my first bite, waiting for it to cool. There’s another four-top and the waiter is itching to clear the table, but I’m still working on my plate. It’s like I’m in a store and the salesperson keeps peppering me with questions: What are you looking for? I’m just looking, I insist. Can’t I just look? Evidently there isn’t time. Days fly by and big things keep happening.

A few months ago, I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of my dog’s limbs flailing and her writhing on the floor beside my bed. After an interminable who knows how many seconds, she stopped and stood up, drunk and disoriented. I carried my 62-pound girl down the 22 stairs, and once outside, she slowly returned to normal, clueless as to what had happened. She did her business and we went back to bed. The next morning our vet ordered labs to check kidney and liver levels and sent me away with the name of a neurologist we should see just in case.

A couple of hours after we got home it happened again, this time more violent, scarier and for longer. She frothed at the mouth, writhed frantically and then stopped, eyes blank, staring ahead. You’d swear she was gone, but in the seconds that followed, she was back, soaked in her own froth, but back nonetheless. I was hysterical on the phone with our vet who explained that two or more seizures in 24 hours are cluster seizures, and we need to get to the neurologist now. So off we went just as rush hour began to form, up I-285 to an animal hospital called Blue Pearl. Whomever named the place did a great job, as I had beautiful pictures in my head, as if we were driving to Oz, heaven or even just a soothing spa for the infirmed.

Once there, I was still a tear stained mess, but the hospital was comforting and matter of fact; we were just another routine check in, another dog who would stay the night, another owner who would pay in the thousands. I said my goodbyes in her crate, climbing in and lying next to her, and was reassured to see a beautiful lab just across the aisle also with an IV in his arm, calmly hunkered down for the night. Nothing else for them to do but lie down and stare at each other across the aisle. Like leaving your child at college for the first time and finding you like his roommate. The lab’s sweet face also helped drown out the sorrowful moans of the dog three crates down, who was either in crazy pain, scared or just terribly missing its person.

This same week was graduation week and the next two days buzzed with my son’s pre-graduation party, high school graduation and family dinner after. I wanted to get fully lost in the happy celebrations, but I kept one foot back at Blue Pearl thinking of Lucie, whom I assumed gave similar thought to this sudden and worrisome turn of events. My sister reminded me she’s a dog and doesn’t ruminate like her owner does, which helped. The hospital began their tests, first a CAT scan, then a spinal to detect inflammation (aka cancer), coupled with a complete neurological workup. After an interminable day and a half wait, I got the call: no tumor, no cancer, and instead the best possible diagnosis we could hope for (and highly unlikely per our vet and the neurologists): late onset epilepsy which requires twice daily medication. We dodged a bullet. Big exhale.

As if overnight, though, she is aging. Her haunches don’t have the range they once did, and at bedtime I hear her sighing trying to get comfortable. She still smiles big toothy smiles and gives us kisses, and whenever she hears keys, she’s up by the door ready for a car ride. Her smile says thank you, I love you to the moon and back, and never says I’m in pain, I’m sad or disappointed.

After graduation we migrated to Jekyll Island, Ga. for my husband’s annual conference there. It’s our annual happy place, a free mini 3-day vacation which ushers summer in. I got the email one night as we were driving home from dinner, that my mom’s twin brother in California died. Alzheimer’s. The car was loud with post dinner chatter, but as I read the email my aunt sent about my Uncle Pete, I wished for a phone call instead, something more personal. I sent flowers to my aunt and cards to each of my cousins. Even though I rarely saw them on the west coast, a door I wasn’t ready to close had closed on its own.

Speaking of doors, last month I came home to our back door kicked open, cats missing, drawers flung open and an empty spot on my dresser where my jewelry box sat. They only took my jewelry box and thankfully the pieces I wear most were hidden elsewhere. But still, the guy who kicked in our door and splintered our 150+ year molding is now carrying my memories of which he has no clue the sentimental value. My mom’s sterling charm bracelet held loads of charms among them three silver placards each bearing her children’s names in script, James, Anne and Susan. There was a lobster charm because she grew up on the north shore and a cocktail shaker too, because who doesn’t love a good cocktail? My bracelet had fewer charms which included a Christmas tree, a heart locket and a church with a small hole in the steeple. If you held it up to the light you could read the ten commandments inside. Thou Shalt Not Steal, remember that one?

July arrived and brought a big dose of happy travel and new experiences. Seventeen days in Portugal and Spain put life as we knew it on hold, giving me that pause button I’d been looking for. We covered lots of ground, walked cobblestone streets, ate new foods and I spoke loads of Spanish. I’ve tried to record it, jotting down menu items we loved and taking pictures. Mostly, though, I’ll remember being together all that time, navigating brand new places and while not loving every minute of every day, loving that each was chock full of new memories in the making.

The playful whir of baccalaureate, graduation and travel have long passed, replaced by the important work of college class registration, tuition payments and soccer and high school details. Long languid summer days at the pool or grilling outside haven’t yet started and they just might get skipped this year. But the birds are singing loudly all day long, the squirrels aren’t stealing the tomatoes ripening on the vine and if that alone isn’t cause for celebration, the lighting bugs put on a Disney-worthy show each night, filling the yard with twinkling stars.

Tomorrow my younger son starts 11thgrade. In two weeks, I’ll leave to drive my older one to college, climbing up a half dozen states to New York to settle him in. I can’t predict how it will all go, how life’s new normal will be, and I’ll admit sometimes I worry. I guess that comes with the territory. But I can say how grateful I am for all of it, for these precious creatures I’m with.

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My peeps, many years ago

 

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Who’s Behind You?

anneFor as long as I can remember, I’ve followed behind Anne; she’s been my guide, and I’ve always learned something from her outlook and opinion. I still do. Growing up, she was sensitive yet cool, never too tucked, too preppy, too anything. She just flowed – her long lean body and soft voice carried her in a way I liked, which was so different from my own. I may have arrived two years after her, but from the start, she was behind me, my sister and built-in friend.

She helped me in high school, giving my outfits the once over. We’d stand in front of my long mirror and she’d go to work so I could appear less matchy matchy and more put together, without looking like I’d tried. She lifted my tightly tucked-in shirt so it billowed slightly over my hips, pulled my jeans down some from my waist, and suggested I lose the grosgrain headband, and let my hair fall, framing my face. I trusted her in these “what not to wear” sessions, and afterward, left the house more confident. I think she rather enjoyed having me as her project, too.

Years earlier, I remember us standing at the base of the stairs in our house, two little girls with baby dolls on our hips waiting for an elevator at the pretend “Woody Club.” We were always good at improvising and could take the other’s lead, wherever our imaginations took us. The Club’s proprietor, Susan Woody, must have smirked to herself, seeing us lapping up the accommodations since she, unlike her “guests”, filled her day paying bills and folding laundry before heading out in her Bermuda shorts to water and weed. I always assumed that one day Anne and I would live in the same city and raise our kids together, but thanks to photos, phone and email, in some ways we kind of did.

Growing up, we had goldfish that never seemed to live very long. I don’t know why we didn’t add a pump and filter to their bowls, but no one else did, either. Where were our parents during these life and death decisions? The fish invariably died, and we held funerals in our woods. Anne would arrive for the service wearing a stole around her neck, impressively ecclesiastical, and somehow found a prayer book to bring along. We’d have a moment of silence, say a prayer and then something nice about the fish before laying it to rest on a cotton square in a cardboard Rich’s jewelry box. I guess we never dug deep enough because usually after a few days, the fish was gone, risen perhaps like Jesus, cotton strewn at the tomb. It was always a horrifying discovery, but because we both lived it, it was easier.

At night I often sneaked into Anne’s room and into her bed, a double white spool bed with exposed squeaky box springs. It was springy, cozy and familiar, far different than my own twin bed where I felt alone and far away from the family. My mom always said I should sleep in my own room, but I knew what I needed, and that was to be close to Anne, so I usually tiptoed to hers.

Anne and I loved cooking and we made all kinds of things but mostly we made tollhouse cookies, crepes and hand-cut French fries. We let our mom sample the successes, and the failures went straight in the trash. One time we cooked our parents a multi-course dinner — shrimp bisque, cube steak and I don’t remember what for a vegetable and dessert. Shrimp bisque is tricky, or at least that was our experience. We earned Girl Scout badges for our efforts, and for their part, our parents learned patience, waiting hours between courses, smiling politely sipping their bourbon. Even though the meal was a flop, Anne and I still compare recipes, new foods and a shared fascination with cooking.

I’ve never had to explain our family to Anne; she’s lived it all, including wearing those matching outfits we often were dressed in. Like my brother and me, she also died of embarrassment when our friends were over and Lad, our aging, flatulent German Shepherd, released huge silent stinky clouds into the room. At family picnics, I remember shielding her from the dreaded egg-laden potato salad, and even though she liked hoarding boxes of Girl Scout cookies in her desk, she’d usually let me have my own sleeve of Thin Mints. It’s been a shared back and forth, giving and getting.

I’ve been thinking about Anne lately since we spent Spring break together at the beach. I don’t remember us ever having a whole week together as adults, and I don’t think planning our parents’ funerals should count. Our beach week unfolded slowly, doing nothing and talking about everything. We drank wine over stories, laughs and the most remote memories, and cooked constantly and fed people. Our dynamic has refreshingly little push and pull, and is simply comfortable and easy, with wine refills, jokes and continued wonder at how we’ve remembered the things we have.

On the last day, we rode the kids’ bikes, which had seats set super high, and fortunately for 5’10” Anne, she pedaled comfortably for a change. Following behind her, I took this photo of her, 56, ever the young girl, cropped shirt billowing in the breeze, curls trailing down her back. We darted in and out of streets with no agenda, riding beside each another when we wanted to talk and single file when we didn’t. It was like we no longer lived 700 miles away from the other, and were just two sisters out riding bikes, like before.

Anne’s a Gemini full of decisions, sometimes unable to decide, but she’s steady, graceful and always there for me, her chatty loving Leo sister. She wears the moonstone ring I gave her on her middle finger and a pearl necklace we saw and bought together, both birthstones for her June 8 birthday. She’s a constant, my lighthouse, my insides. I trust her and no matter what, she listens and loves me, not in spite of who I am but because of it. There’s a difference.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a sister or someone they can call their person, and maybe it’s because I’m looking for them, but for years, I’ve seen folks who are ready and willing to step up. It’s the grocery store worker who grabs a cart when he notices that my arms are too full, or the hands-on work colleague who selflessly offered to watch our toddlers so my husband and I could get away. It’s the friend who emails job postings to nudge me along, or the person who always texts right back, invites me over, holds the door, gives a hand, a compliment or a ride when I least expect it (and most need it). It’s whoever lifts you up, be it stranger or friend, who notices and connects with you. We all need a reminder that we matter and a place alongside people that feels like home, somewhere we belong. So, look around and find them. Chances are, they’re looking too.