A week ago last night, my heart broke open.
Some context: since 2005, it takes many gallons of fuel and hours of travel for me to see either of my children. For the first few years after they were moved to Idaho Falls, I saw them fairly regularly, a few days at a time, about once a month. Then my daughter Sarah graduated from high school, and started having work commitments. I still saw Sean fairly often, and for extended periods at school vacations, but that, too, had to change, as he entered the work world last year. This means that, prior to last Friday, I hadn't seen him or Sarah since last August, when Amy and I drove 700 miles for a few hours with each of them.
This is the reality of my empty nest--and really, of all empty nests. Every parent has to, at some point, adjust to the departure of children as they set out to make their own way in the world. Granted, in recent years the length of their time living at home has, overall, been extended by our cruel economy, and granted, further, that my experience of an emptying nest began far earlier than most; but every parent who has ever lived has had to, in one way or another, release his or her grip on every child he or she conceived.
Traditionally, this happened after a child had matured at least to adolescence, but for most divorced parents, it happens sooner. I had barely adjusted to having children when I had to learn how not to be around them for large blocks of time. Sarah was 5, Sean was 2, and suddenly I was seeing them by appointment. My first real bachelor home was chosen with them in mind. I had very little furniture, almost all of it purchased for the house: a futon for the living room in which I also slept, a cheap dinette for the kitchen, a computer desk, and bunk beds for the children. When they were with me, I would read to each of them at bed time, tuck them in, and try to get myself to sleep. Almost every night, I would awaken in the week dark hours of the morning, and wracked by grief, would spend an hour or two sobbing before I could get back to sleep. Two or three hours later, with the house still dark, I would become aware of a small presence climbing up on the futon with me: Sean, always an early riser. We'd snuggle for a few minutes, and then I'd pop a video in for him, and he'd sit on the end of the bed watching it. I had just a few, and I rotated through them: Mickey Mouse as The Prince and the Pauper, The Lion King, and some Winnie the Pooh. The video would start, I'd go back to sleep, and the next thing I knew, I was hearing the closing credits: time to put in another one.
Those early morning snuggle and video sessions did more to keep me sane than anything else that happened as my world collapsed. I learned more in those first six months of involuntary singleness than in my decade of higher education. The most important lesson was this: hug them while you have them, then let them go.
My parenting life from 1995 to the present has been a continuous course in Empty Nesting, each year bringing new lessons. When Idaho came, it was the practicum. A year ago, I graduated from the program, and now I see my children like a true empty nester: far too little.
I've known other empty nesters whose identities were built on the grief of separation. I've also seen how my parents have taken it in stride, missing us, but accepting from the beginning that their place in our lives had to change once we reached adulthood. I have no way of knowing what it was like for them in the 1980s, as their household began to shrink--I was, after all, the first to leave, and not around to see the impact on them as it happened. My mother has told me that letting me go to Illinois, then Texas, then England was hard for her, but that she knew it wasn't her decision anymore where I lived. I just know they were always glad to see me, and that, while they were sad to see me go, they didn't cling. This is the approach I've taken to my own emptying nest, starting at the very beginning, from the first time I dropped my children off with their mother and drove away, tamping down the tears before they could form.
It was often difficult. There was a period in the early 2000s when I would pick Sean up from his mother's house for a Cub Scout meeting, bring him back to the same house, and tuck him in there, only to have him dissolve into sobs that I now had to leave. Then came dropping them off in Idaho for the first time--I drove them there, with the help of my brother David, and after saying goodbye, could not have made the trip back without him, torn apart as I was. Putting them on planes was a different challenge: Sean would often be in tears, often take a great deal of coaxing from me to get on the plane, which was especially a challenge the time I left him at the gate, then had Sarah call me as I was getting back in my car to tell me he wouldn't board, and I had to talk him through it by phone.
I got through all that. They grew up. Now I mainly communicate with them through phone calls and text messages. I have learned to contain my longing as all empty nesters do, stuffing it in a box. I've got so good at it that I can fool myself at times to thinking it's not there.
And then, a week ago, I parked my car at the airport and went in to wait for Sean to come off the plane.
I wasn't sure how I'd feel. This may be the longest we've been apart. I walked anxiously as the travelers streamed out of the concourse, hundreds of them, meeting up with friends and family, shaking hands, embracing, quickly disappearing from the waiting area as the next wave hit. And then I saw him, taller than most, his red hair (so much like mine once was) unkempt, striding toward the exit chute, and my heart broke open, just as it is at this moment as I write this, because my little boy was home.
I've worked all week, seen him only in the evenings, and he's been fine with that. He is is own person, entertaining himself all day long, happy to see me and spend whatever time he can with me, happy, as well, to go back to his books and movies and video games when I go to bed. This is as it should be. Monday he'll fly with us to New York City for a few days of vacation. Next Friday he'll be returning to Idaho. I'll do my best to enjoy our time together this week, and not to get caught up with anticipatory grief in the impending goodbye, but I now there will be some sadness. And then I'll move on, hoping I can see him, and see Sarah, but knowing it may be many more months before that happens.
Because that's what it is to be an alumnus of Empty Nest U.