This is the rhetorical question my husband half-heartedly threw towards my hastily retreating body as I practically ran down the escalator from the departure area of Newark airport two weeks ago.
We had just dropped our daughter, our oldest child, off for her overnight flight to the UK and grad school in Scotland. The airport goodbye was not unusual for us, as she had attended university in England for the past three years as an undergrad, but this departure was definitely different.
This was the farewell to parenting life as we have known it for the past 21 years.
A week before we had ventured into our first US college drop-off when we drove our tightly packed SUV up to western NY to move our son in for his first year. Though he could barely breathe wedged between pillows, suitcases and plastic crates, it was fun to actually drive a kid into their new home and be greeted by a cappella groups serenading the car.
It was a two-day move-in/orientation process, during which we could easily see how this school, roommate and new baseball team was indeed a great fit for our youngest child. Saying goodbye to him outside his dorm wasn’t even as hard as I had expected because deep-down I knew I was only a five-hour drive away (easier and cheaper than a six-hour flight) and that I actually had our daughter home for another week.
One more week before I had to face the reality of the empty nest.
Of course those last seven days of packing, planning and snuggling with the dog and cat sped by, and before we knew it, it was just the two of us driving home as tears streamed down my face. Opening the front door to the expectant, excited faces of the pets and walking into silence unleashed the full-on ugly cry. I’ve never before woken in the morning, even after my father died, with my eyes nearly swollen shut.
Our daughter had been home for seven weeks this summer, and since her masters program is for one full calendar year, I knew she would never again be home to “live” but would merely be visiting on school or work breaks instead. Yes, we may have our son home for summers (at least maybe one), but there was no denying that we had experienced a loss. And we were grieving.
Both my father-in-law and my father died unexpectedly in their mid-60s, and I work part-time as the marketing director for a funeral home, so I am quite familiar with the concept of bereavement and grief. Yes, I know my kids haven’t died and that they are actually in the midst of one of the greatest experiences of their lives, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I feel a profound sense of loss.
A loss of childhood, being needed, of knowing…. their feelings, their friends, their daily routine. I’ll miss playing tea party and reading bedtime stories. I’ll miss giving the snuggly smell test after their first solo showers. I’ll miss gathering the piles of drawings and doodles and tucking them into drawers to keep forever. I’ll even miss huddling by the dugout watching early-season baseball trying to keep warm in my flimsy spring jacket. These are what our family calls warm and fuzzy memories, and, boy, my life is feeling pretty stark and cold right now.
“Now’s the time to reinvent yourself!” “Find a new hobby, travel, date again.” I’ve heard it all, and I know it’s true, but it will take some time to get used to focusing on me again. And not feeling guilty for it.
I will write the book I’ve been talking about since my dad died. I will enjoy easier (and cheaper) grocery trips and dinner times, less laundry, and less nagging to pickup around the house. But I will also still wax poetic about their childhoods and spend time in their empty, clean bedrooms looking around in disbelief. I will look knowingly out at the elementary school parents walking their kids to school and silently implore them:
Do you know how fast it goes? Drink in every moment, savor every sound, relish every touch because before you know it you’ll be trying to find a warm, feathered corner in your empty nest.