In my car, the back seats are empty. In my house, all the beds are neatly made. The pantry shelves no longer hold bags of chips or containers of salsa and the cartons of soda pop stacked up in the garage remain unopened.
Summer is sputtering to a close. It’s almost September and all across the country, the nest is emptying once again for another set of parents.
It’s been years since our youngest child has left for college, but I remember that time well. It was a year of painful adjustment – a year of descent down an unfamiliar and unknown road in the quest to figure out life “after kids.”
I’ve been a mother as long as I legally have been an adult. I don’t know what it is not to have to work around someone else’s schedule, desires, needs, and aspirations. I’ve always taken someone else’s likes and dislikes into major consideration when thinking about what to cook for dinner, what magazines to subscribe to, what channel to watch for late-breaking news.
Now it’s just my husband and me. How do we fill the drifty hours of openness, mingle in the uneasy silence, make the nest whole? How do we adjust to not seeing our children daily? How do we stop ourselves from holding onto a little bird that needs to test his wings? How do we stop the sadness over what is being lost?
I hunger for structure, noise and tumult. Slamming doors. Loud TV. Wet towels on the bathroom floor. Cluttered coffee tables. Spilled cereal. All this order and quiet and discretionary time is making me feel unsettled, lethargic, and distracted. What is wrong with me? And am I the only one struggling to find a new sense of purpose, an alternate direction, a renewed sense of fulfillment similar to the one I got from raising my children?
For months after Louie leaves, my husband and I spend our evenings listlessly lying on the couch – lamenting our losses. Our heads recognize we are being short-sighted and negative, but our hearts and bodies aren’t up to breaking down our self-imposed walls, finding new challenges, and working on expanding our perspectives.
It happens gradually. One night we go for a short walk after dinner and do more talking and relating in the 20 minutes we spend circling the block than we had in lying face-to-face on the family room couches for months. Something about the steady rhythm. Something about leaving our stale space. Something about comfortably moving in tandem with no clear destination or purpose.
We increase the length of our walks over time and find that the more we walk, the more we talk.
One Saturday afternoon, weeks after we have incorporated walking into our daily routine, we pass a church where a wedding is about to begin. The bride and groom are happily posing for pictures under a sunlit-dappled patch of grass.
My husband and I stroll quietly past, observing the idyllic scene, and then – from nowhere – salty tears start to flow down my cheeks. Within minutes, we are transformed – carried to a place we had no idea we were destined to visit. Angry words laced with regret and guilt spew forth from my mouth. And then his. Piercing memories of mistakes and bad decisions slice through our heretofore peaceful state of mind. Our chatty conversation has evaporated and our fragile unity is shattered. In its place, sullenness dwells and we both are walking with a stranger. We feel chilled and lonely. How did we get to such a place?
We don’t talk much that evening. My husband retreats to the TV and I stick my nose in a book. But the next evening, ruled by routine, we set out walking once again. Still somewhat constrained by the previous day’s surprising outbursts and revelations, our conversation is stilted and tentative, but we keep walking – and by force of habit – keep talking.
And over the course of the days and weeks that follow our outburst, we haltingly and awkwardly probe softly the hurts that haunt us and the sorrows that we share. We unharness our self-absorbed regrets and shed our carefully contained and reserved manner. We dismantle the triangle of mistrust, contrivance, and speculation. Our endurance grows stronger. We walk, stumble, recover, and push forward – even when we are not sure of the direction. As we do so, our walks become longer and our discussions more frank. We learn not to be flattened by fear. We learn to untie our marital knots. We learn to forgive ourselves and each other.
And as our thighs became firmer, our steps become bouncier. As our hearts grow lighter, our conversations become more animated. We eavesdrop on each other’s dreams and partake in the possibility of shimmering new endeavors. We connect in a mind dazzling way – a way ribboned with high expectations and boundless hope – a way laced and ripe with promise. We exhilarate over what has existed and eagerly anticipate what is to come. Just like the bride and groom we witnessed on the afternoon of their wedding.
In our marital partnership, we have found solace and light. We have re-framed our situation from one of loss to one of growth.
Our nest is empty and sometimes that’s still how it feels – like something essential and dear is missing. But more often now, it feels like we have more room to spread our own wings and fly.