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Not Empty Nest Syndrome

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Last fall, I ran into a friend of mine who had recently sent her only child off to college.

“I fell into bed for a month,” she said. “I was so depressed, I didn’t want to move.”

As I listened to her describe how the sadness began to ease after his first few visits home, I was thinking that surely I would be better prepared to let my first-born go the next year. My friend, I reasoned, must have suffered so because her nest was emptied, something I wouldn’t be facing for another decade.

The summer before Ben left for college, I kept checking in with friends who were priming for the same event. We talked about how relieved we would be not to lie awake nights until they came home, not having to wonder where they were or what they were doing. We patted each other on the back for having raised capable, independent young men. But we also imagined our sadness, acknowledging that a phase of life was over and we’d have to move on.

The day came. Pulling our minivan in front of his dorm to unload felt as if we were taking part in some ancient ritual. Ben let me make his bed, arrange the bath towels. We met the roommates, the roommates’ parents, stayed only a little longer than we probably should have, and then said goodbye, making as small a scene as six people in the hallway can.

Then I lost it. My heart, that is. I really didn’t know how to explain the tears that would well up with blinding suddenness, the ache that made my breath short, my fixation on the little bubble on my computer screen where we would sometimes instant message. I tried not to tell him too often that I missed him. I didn’t tell him that I’m incredulous that eighteen years have passed so quickly, that I don’t know how to think of him abstractly, or that I don’t know how I can be so happy for him and so terribly distraught at the same time.

I thought I had become used to his absence during his senior year of high school as the necessities of his life become less and less a part of our family routine. I got it; I applauded and supported the independence that he has been insisting on since he was a little boy. My role wasn’t changing that much: we still have two adolescents and an eight-year old at home. So what hurts so much?

Maybe it’s that letting Ben go has shed new light images etched in my mind unchanged for thirty-six years. When I decided at eighteen that instead of college in the US I wanted to go to France, my parents, without much fuss, sent me to the University of Grenoble. In 1972, there was no email, no instant messenger or cell phones, and overseas phone calls were made only in duress. I still have the stack of blue, paper-thin aerogrammes with my mother’s breezy record of what my brothers and sister were up to, who came to dinner, and what she fixed. She wrote about her piano students and tennis games, my grandparents’ visits. She responded to descriptions of my adventures and told me that she was proud of me.

In the spring of that year, my mother and father came to visit me in France and we spent a week traveling together. We drove a rented car and stayed at the kind of hotels I couldn’t afford on my own. I remember being proud that I could speak French, and I remember laughing—a lot. I don’t remember my mother complaining about the indigestion that must have been the earliest signs of the cancer that would kill her less than two years later. When I returned home, I had a few more months before her diagnosis changed the trajectory and foundation of my life.

So of course I wonder how my grief over the departure of my boy is bound up with the most traumatic and fundamental loss of my life. Already six years older than my mother was when she died, I think I’ve had enough therapy to realize that my fate and her’s need not be the same. But maybe I’m stuck with this sense of loss just a bit longer than I would like because I have no clear idea of what is next. Having lost my mother just as I was becoming an adult, I can only imagine what our relationship might have become. With no experience of what might lie ahead for Ben and me, I fall back on what never was.

As we were getting ready to see Ben for the first time since he left home, I thought about arriving at his school and wrapping my arms around him. But I could get no further than that. Because he’s a sweet boy, I knew he’d return my embrace and probably accept my need to hold on just a bit longer than he might like. And although I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to let go, I knew I would, and then we would see what came next.

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