Anticipating the Empty Nest

Eli is away at a three-week program sponsored by Stanford University for high school students interested in math and science. He’s taking an intensive class in topology, something esoteric and mathy that has to do with studying the surface of knots. I have no idea whatsoever what they’re studying. Or why. But Eli chose it and it’s clear he’s having fun. He sounds confident and full of himself.

I miss him terribly.

Lately, I’ve been walking around looking at mothers and fathers with their toddlers and infants, mothers with children in playgrounds, and I realize how very long it’s been since I was a hands-on mother in that 24/7 kind of way.

Eli has been away for two weeks so far. In all that time, it has never once occurred to him to phone home. He has only texted back to me only because I couldn’t stand it and texted him, breaking one of the cardinal rules of letting go your children. Let them go. Fat chance.

I know it is inevitable and appropriate that your children leave you. I know it is a sign of good parenting for your child to lose interest in you, utterly, for a good number of years, and certainly 17 is in that span of years. Still, it stung that it never once occurred to him to want to talk to us. To me.

Texting just is not very satisfying. I wanted to hear his voice. Like a mantra, I kept telling myself, “Let him be. Don’t write to him.” But I was Jonesing for him and couldn’t help myself. So that first week, I’d send just a line, “How’s your day?” or a bit of news from home. Once I texted and said, “We’re all here. Call us,” and he called.

I was sitting by a fire in the backyard when Lizzy brought the phone to me. I listened to the high, happy excitement in his voice, and while I was talking to him, in those very moments, I was aware of the sadness that soon I wouldn’t be talking to him. Every millisecond I heard his voice was beautiful, but poignant and sad because he will be going off to college in a year, we don’t know where, but most likely far away because that is where he’s looking. And although I’ve gone away for three weeks at a time from him, from all of them, and rarely looked back, being the one left at home, by a boy who is not a boy but a young man, who will soon leaving for good, or so we think, is a whole different experience. Soon I will be no more than the dust beneath his feet. Next summer he will be leaving. Lizzy, who used to be the baby of the family, is starting high school two months from now. She is sophisticated and independent and shapely and smart and she hides her real life from me. I as her go-to person. NOT!

The writing is on the wall, screaming clear as day, that the identity that has been my rock and my purpose for 18 years is coming to an end. I am feeling anticipatory grief. The empty nest before the nest is actually empty. I am feeling empty. I am not one of these parents with a whole list of gleeful plans for when my kids are gone.

I can’t imagine achieving this transition from hands-on parent to long-distance friend? Consultant? Advisor? Memory? with any kind of grace. I’m already clutching at the train as it’s pulling out of the station, wondering who I will be and what I will do and what life will be like when my biggest purpose and greatest service and deepest love is behind me.

Last week, I went walking with a friend. Her son is 21 and her daughter 18. The daughter is lost and struggling and unhappy at home. Her son, when he first went off to college was miserable and called his mother three times a day. Finally he quit the first school and ultimately ended up somewhere that was a much better fit. “Now I don’t hear from him,” my friend said, “and I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.”

So is that the real picture of success? A child is so happily launched and so digging his own life that you, I, we’re talking about me here, becomes an insignificant backdrop?

Well, what did I expect? How often did I think about my mother when I was 19? 21? 23? 30 years old? Did I dread her phone calls or look forward to them? Was she at the top of my list of someone I wanted to share my life with? Need I answer? I’m sure you can guess.

Does anyone make this change gracefully? Easily? Painlessly? Just glide from one stage of parenting into the next?

This past Sunday was the day families get to visit Eli’s summer program, so Karyn and Lizzy and I drove up to Stanford and rode around in circles until we found the frat house that is Eli’s temporary home. We brought him the pillow and the shampoo and conditioner he’d requested. He gave me a quick hug and then Lizzy, our composed, sophisticated Lizzy, flew down the path and leaped into his arms. They walked 30 feet ahead of us, chattering happily together, while we oldsters lagged behind.

Once we got into the car to find something to eat, El and Lizzy sat in the backseat and Eli gave her a logic problem that I couldn’t even begin to follow: There are 100 prisoners standing in a line. Each one is given a white hat or a black hat by the warden. The prisoners can’t see the color of the hat on their own head, but they can see and remember the colors of all the hats in front of them, and they can hear and remember every word they hear perfectly. When it is each prisoner’s turn, they get to say just one word. If they name the color of their hat correctly, they live, and if they say the wrong color, they are instantly killed. The question was, “How many prisoners can be consistently saved? And how?”

I lost the thread of the puzzle after the first sentence, but Eli and Lizzy bantered back and forth for the half hour it took us to find a place to eat. Just before we reached the restaurant, Lizzy proclaimed the answer triumphantly. I couldn’t track their conversation, or the logic, at all. (Even after they explained it to me in detail, making a diagram on a piece of newspaper at the restaurant, I still barely got it, but just in case you were wondering, the answer is that 99 of the prisoners can be saved, every time, and it had something to do with odds and even numbers.)

While Karyn ate her eggs florentine and I nibbled on my roasted eggplant/red pepper/fresh mozzarella Panini, it was clear to both of us that we’d been left in the dust, but it was a happy dust, because we could look at our children and smile, thinking the very same thing, “Look how much they love each other.”

After brunch, the four of us wandered the streets of Palo Alto. We ended up in a park and Eli taught us a new word game called, “Contact,” and being a word person, I was suddenly back in the competition. After we played a few rounds, it got too hot, so we drove to an IMAX movie theatre in San Jose to see Eclipse, which was so bad it was good, if you know what I mean.

At 6:00, we dropped Eli back at Stanford. He was ready to go back to physics problems and math sets, games of Go, logic puzzles, and King’s Table. He’d clearly enjoyed his reunion with his sister, and we were….well…the means of getting her there.

I know it’s stupid to miss Eli when I’m with him, but maybe I have a stupid gene where mother love is concerned.

Driving home over 17, wired on two cups of Joe, I couldn’t help but think of the woman I met last week whose son died, in a solo wreck, two weeks before he was to leave for college. He swerved to avoid a deer, and being an inexperienced driver, smashed into a tree. “I can’t bear to hear anyone complain about their children,” she said to me. “They still have children to complain about.”

And here I sit, feeling my pre-grief at the inevitable launch of a healthy child. Maybe I should keep a picture of her son on my desktop so I can remember what I still have and how sometimes love is the same thing as letting go.

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