It isn’t the first time, it won’t be the last, and I’m telling myself to suck it up and stop being so emotional. My nest has emptied before, it will empty again, and each time, a little piece of my heart is nicked, and I have to rebuild my sense of completeness as a person, as a parent, as a single parent.
I cannot help but look back when this happens.
I cannot help but note the gaping hole, even if it closes over, at least superficially, more and more quickly.
We grow accustomed to goodbyes.
Yet I cannot help but look ahead, knowing how vast the world will be for them, which is what I hoped.
Having both of my sons home for the holidays was wonderful – not without its little bumps, mind you – but relatively few. My firstborn hadn’t been home in a year, and seeing him hanging with his brother, and the two of them hanging with their old friends – let’s just say, it pulled the sentimental heartstrings – but good.
Number One left several days ago. That was hard. Will it be another year?
I gazed at the pictures on the mantel of the three of us – so many holidays of our determined little trio, us against the world – and I consoled myself with the fact that my younger son was still here, that he had another week before the next semester of college, and another four or five days at home, here.
“Plenty of time for more catching up,” I thought.
Plenty of time to hear him describe his upcoming courses. Plenty of time for more details about his girlfriend. Plenty of time to discuss his plans for the summer. Plenty of time to take a walk, browse the mall together, visit over dinner.
He just walked into my room and said: “My flight leaves this evening, but you know that, right?”
Cue the anguish.
I looked up from the paper – at last reading The Sunday Times after a morning spent working.
“What are you talking about?” I said. “You don’t leave for five more days.”
I felt the sting of tears almost immediately. I pushed the flood waters back.
He knows me well enough to read my face.
“Tonight,” he said, quietly. “I’m going to do my laundry, ok?”
Then: “I love you, Mom.”
So… Somewhere, somehow, some way… in my mind, I was certain he was here for four more days. Maybe five. He was out with friends yesterday and last night, out with friends the day before; I was certain we still had time for the roast I’ve been defrosting for one of his favorite meals this evening, for chatting tomorrow or the next day or the next night.
My nest empties – not the first time, not the last, but as I gather up my forces to put on a stiff upper lip, I wonder why it seems so much harder at certain times.
For 10 years, it was just the three of us. There were battles of wills and battles of survival. There were psychological manipulations behind the scenes that required Handling With Care. There were money worries and typical teenager worries and the sheer enormity of the task of parenting on one’s own. Through it all, we also forged a bond I could never imagine weakening.
And as I have seen my elder graduate from college and strike out in the world – as he becomes more of a man, and an independent one at that – I recognize that greater distance has become our norm. We don’t talk the way we once did, and of course, this is to be expected.
And the same, most likely, will hold true of the relationship I have with his brother who has nonetheless become more communicative as he has gotten older.
The reality remains that they will share what they choose to share, in the way they choose to share it, and on their own timetables. Just as all adults do, when establishing boundaries and dealing with their parents.
The irony: In a way, empty nest hurt less when they were younger. It felt more like a punctuation mark, a temporary pause, a much-needed time off. One went off to college while the other was here for two more years. Periodically they came home for semester breaks or the summer. But now that I understand what it feels like not to see one of my children for an entire year, as he lives and works in another part of the country, it’s a whole other ballgame.
And I wonder if empty nest is worse when you are basically a party of one.
Sure, there is a man in my life who is dear to me. But he doesn’t really grasp the nature of the years we struggled. How could he? He doesn’t know the distances we traveled emotionally – the three of us together. How could he? There is an element of wordless sharing over mutual children that we cannot possibly share.
How could we?
My achey-breaky maternal heart aside, I am proud of the young men that my boys are becoming – and have become. I have watched each of them step up to challenges in their young lives, some more trying than others, and I have watched them cope and find their way.
I also remember the need for independence that I felt at 21, at 23, at 25… and I fully understand and support their need to be their own people, and lead their own lives.
Yet after having both boys around for a week, and my younger for just over two, the complexity of missing them will be fresh again, at least for awhile. And the knowledge that each time they return, they are more independent and distant from the threesome we once were, is bittersweet.