The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 17, 2004


Surviving the empty nest

"Empty nest" — sounds cute, doesn't it? Conjures up visions of little fledglings flexing their sturdy wings for the first time, flapping away from their parents, who already have plans for all their newfound extra living space. Balderdash! I'd like to meet the soulless (and probably childless) automaton who coined such a darling phrase to describe the most agonizing, gut-wrenching experience this side of childbirth, and take him or her by the shoulders and, shaking hard, scream, "What were you thinking?!" You can probably surmise that this so-called empty nest syndrome hit me hard — like a freight train, at top speed, going downhill, with no brakes. Get the picture? I thought it was hard when my firstborn left for the midwest, especially since our first night on campus was spent in the university's emergency room, waiting to see someone about my freshman's suddenly impacted wisdom tooth while the waiting room television played endless coverage of the death of Princess Diana. Not an auspicious beginning, but it wasn't enough to prepare me for the departure of my younger child when she started at UVM.

The dam cracks

We dropped her off with my face frozen in a stoic, solicitous smile, and I handled it pretty well to the last, when we said "goodbye" and the dam began to crack. By the time I had walked half the stairs to the lobby, the flood waters broke and I leaned against a cinderblock wall, lost in misery. A freshman girl, whom I had seen moving onto my daughter's floor, was ascending the stairs and gave me a reassuring pat on my shoulder. "Don't feel bad," she said, "you did much better than my mom. She's been crying since yesterday."

It wasn't until we reached home that I saw how poor planning can exacerbate this syndrome's symptoms. As we pulled in the driveway, my son greeted us with the news that he was all packed up and ready to leave for his senior year. "Let's hit the road," he told his father, who literally got out of one car and into another. "Sure you're going to be okay?" he asked with concern, and I could see that my stairway sobbing had really rattled him. "I'll be fine. See you in a few days," but I realized as they drove away that now it was just me and my empty nest, and there wasn't anything "cute" about it.

The first thing that struck me as I went back inside the house was a huge sucking noise, or rather a huge sucking lack-of-noise. Our house had never seemed so quiet. I went upstairs and, without looking into the rooms of unmade beds and tossed clothing, I closed the doors to both bedrooms. I turned to face our dogs — "This is ridiculous; I spent 26 years of my life doing quite nicely without those kids. What did I used to do with all my time?" In answer, my mind flashed back to my favorite form of escape when I was a teenager — old movies. I couldn't remember the last time I had been able to sit in front of the old movie channel and wallow with Bette Davis or Jimmy Stewart. There seemed no better cure for what ailed me than a few hours with the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. I gathered the dogs around me on the living room couch just in time to catch the opening credits to The Philadelphia Story. Perfect!

The flaw in the plan

Then the cable went out. "Are you kidding me?" I shouted as I leapt from the sofa, scattering nervous dogs to the four echoing corners of the house. So I paced and I mumbled until it became apparent that my cable was out for the duration, and all that was answering my calls to the cable company was a machine that didn't give a fig about empty-nest issues. That's when I decided to go to plan B — I'd rent a pile of old movies. Take that, you hideous fates!

That's also when the power went out, plunging the house into the September semi-darkness, taking my temporarily defiant mood down with it. Okay, it was time for a quick plan C — I was darned if I was going to let the impending evening settle about my shoulders like a pall as I sat in a house without light, entertainment or a usable bathroom. I hopped into my car and drove to the first movie theater with electricity, determined to see something that would distract me. A new Michelle Pfeiffer film had just opened — just the thing, I thought, a nice little romance to take me miles away from missing my kids. The previews were funny; the popcorn was good; the story opened in a picturesque New England town. I settled down to enjoy a good two hours of escapism until I heard the first line of dialogue, spoken as Pfeiffer entered her daughter's room. "Wake up, sleepyhead; time to get you to college," or something to that effect; it was hard to hear distinctly over the groan that swelled in my chest and the sound of the fates laughing at me. For the next two hours, I was treated to the story of a woman who is assumed to be hallucinating because her child has left for college. Her house becomes haunted; her husband tries to kill her; in other words, once her "nest" empties, all hell breaks loose. Oh, comfort and joy.

This saga does have a happy ending, though. My power and cable were back on when I arrived home; my husband hasn't tried to kill me; I've been visited by neither spirits nor hallucinations and, four years after these events, my daughter has moved back home. I'm not completely over "empty nest" syndrome, but I am surviving it and, as my buddy Michelle Pfieffer can attest, that alone can be quite an accomplishment.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito