Empty Nest (part 2) + That Hobo Feeling

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Six months later, it’s Parents’ Weekend at my son’s university. I’ve traveled using public transportation–bus, train, shuttle, then Uber. My driver isn’t familiar with the large campus, so I have him drop me off at an information booth only to find that the parent check-in is still a long walk up the street. (Did I mention it’s a large campus?) So here I am with my son’s well-used high school backpack on my back, jeans, hiking boots, and an old wheeled carry-on bag that has seen better days. I learn quickly that the bag’s wheels make a very loud click-clacking noise over the cobbled walkways. As I walk against the tide of parents who’ve already checked in, my case screaks out. I feel so many eyes staring (something the introvert in me despises). The eyes are of parents who are well put together. They look like money. Perfect hair, jewelry, expensive clothing and shoes. My boy is here on scholarship, and I’m having an “I’m out of my element” moment. Half of me sees the situation as ridiculously funny; the other half of me is mortified. I try to give myself a quick pep talk. “Why do you CARE what these strangers think of you?” I alternate between picking up my case and carrying it for a few feet, then wheeling it a little because my arm grows tired. I feel like such a hobo.

My boy is thriving in his element though. He and his roommate, another goofy kid who, notably, has a large collection of rubber ducks, hit it off instantly when they met back in September. They’re two peas in a silly pod, and when I check out their dorm, I see that they’ve plastered Wanted posters of their friend Erik, accusing him of stealing a fictional boat, all over their residence hall. Their dorm room door is well decorated with random humorous observations and art. His girlfriend is thoughtful and sweet, and I have to remind myself not to giggle when I see how cute they are together. He sleeps and eats, he assures me, and has even found a “reasonably priced” black bean burger with sweet potato fries and drink combination for the late nights when his residence hall is closed for dinner. He has adopted a vegetarian diet.

I still worry about his health–he’s gotten sick twice, both times when he’s come home for holiday breaks. My sister-in-law assures me that this is his time when he can afford to let down and be sick. My mother and mother-in-law both confirm that a mother never stops worrying. Fathers either. I find some… comfort in this? (Maybe?)

I’ve read the words of many other empty nesters, and the things I wrestle with now are similar, such as the realization that the day-to-day part of raising my son has come to an end. In all likelihood, he won’t be living under the same roof again, other than a few weeks between his summer internship’s end and the start of school. The hard thing for me now at this point is figuring out what and where to focus my energies now that these concentrated eighteen years have come to a close. I lie in bed now, not worrying about him so much, but I worry about my own future. I assess and reassess my next move.

The leap of faith the three of us took six months ago has paid off. He is developing into a young man of substance. I just hope that I can continue to develop and grow in a way that he can be proud of.

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Empty Nest (part 1)

Meg, Drew.
My boy and me

[ I wrote this six months ago, before my son left for college.]

I haven’t been sleeping at night. A sign keeps flashing, “He’s leaving in three weeks.” Soon it will be two.

We wrestled and puzzled, the three of us, with the idea of him going away. There were excellent schools locally. And he didn’t “necessarily want to leave,” he said. He was still recovering from the terrible illness that involved two trips to the ER, a painful lumbar puncture, and weeks spent flat on his back where the cobweb in the corner gave him something to focus on. (He told me that later when I tried to swipe it away with a rag. That just about killed me). Three months of his senior year of high school were spent on independent study, and he fought to get through his graduation speech. Steve and I are still suffering from what I think is a form of extreme anxiety in the aftermath. My brain chemistry seems to have been altered from nights of gut-clenching, mind-numbing worry. Everyone knows that a new parent doesn’t sleep at night, but I’m not sleeping either. My friend who tells me not to fret, to hand those thoughts over because they won’t affect the outcome–I wish I could do that. I just can’t. My brain’s worry center just won’t turn off.

How exactly do we send him four hundred miles away? We’ve talked the subject over ad nauseam, the three of us. The school he’s going to is a magical-feeling place where he’ll meet his people–smart, goofy kids like him, bent on saving the world through science. He’ll connect with others who think the idea of spending the hottest days of summer wearing Army surplus coveralls (complete with sewn-on Ghostbusters patch), motorcycle helmet, and gauntlet gloves to smelt aluminum cans in a homemade backyard casting forge just to make a belt buckle is a great idea. (How is that not a win?)

Steve and I know intellectually it’ll be good for him to be away in a place where he will have to figure things out, problem solve, and grow into adulthood without the cushion of us. But we also know that it won’t be any good for us either.

When he was born, Steve cut the cord. He told me it felt much more sinewy and tough than he’d expected. But the invisible cord remains, binding us close. These last few weeks of summer, we’ve taken nightly walks with our silly dog, Echo. The three of us talk about everything under the sun. Steve and I watch as our boy runs wildly with his dog over the grass, laughing, returning to his boyhood self of ten years old. In many ways he hasn’t changed. He still looks down, watching the sidewalk, for worms and bugs that need to be removed to safety. And he does this with the patience of a scientist, slowly and methodically. This summer, when he hasn’t been smelting aluminum, he’s spent time recuperating, designing custom T-shirts using stencils he cuts from freezer paper and then bleaches. He watches videos on physics and world politics as he rests–because he has to feed that brain. And this is how he has always been.

As his parents, we know that all of the work he’s done–those long nights of study and preparation, and his impossible schedule–it’s led him up to this point. We know that we have to let him go so he can be the well-formed person he is supposed to be. But we also know that the long drive home is going to be terribly sad. We are simply not ready. I know I will worry about him eating and sleeping. (Those two things–he has to promise us that he will sleep and he will eat because I know the lure of experiencing the wonders around him will always win out over those two boring basic biological necessities.)

It is just going to be hard, not having him here. The invisible cord has to stretch four hundred miles and not break. It simply has to. And I don’t know when I’ll get a good night’s rest again.