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In the end, it is the stultifying silence that teaches – a syrupy entity that fills, smoothes, and softens every crack around his oft-slammed bedroom door. I opt for full immersion the first few days. I tell myself it’s not unlike elementary school, sports camp, or, later, the weekends with friends; silent spells broken with the school bus, calendar, or the blat-blat of his juiced-up muffler.

This sounds like the end of the book of my dreams,  The Portable Parent. The title came to me one warm night in May of ‘05 as I was rolling my car window down to let out the stench of the throw up and groveling 17-year-old boy in the backseat. I could have used a “how-to” book then, with a chapter on THE phone call from his school dance. “Look, I made a bad decision. Okay?” He yelled as we sat drinking coffee on the deck the next morning. His anger didn’t start until he realized he would not make the regional soccer tryouts in Buffalo three hours away. There were to be college scouts at the tryouts; making this punishment far more dire than the time-out corner of toddler-hood – dire for him and painful for us. He retreated upstairs opting for his room and music instead of the sad and silent breakfast of his parents.

There was a different silence twenty years ago when I would look out of any window of my old farmhouse and see an expanse of lawn that magically became a playground for the, “no more than four” children that I was certain to have. In 1987 my due date was December 17th.  A miscarriage and subsequent surgery silenced that date and any future hope of being parents. It is what we thought.  We became parents on that date anyway and as we drove home in a snowstorm from the adoption agency with our seven-week old son I thought of the Yiddish expression, bashert. A term used by my mother-in-law who had heard her mother use it often. It means destiny and it applied here. This family was meant to be.

Today, when I look out of the same windows I see signs of a life now told in silence. The play structure we built from plans and painted in bright primary colors has moved along the childhood continuum; to rollerblade invert ramp, bicycle jump, and, finally, to a pile of “good” wood behind the garage. There’s the old apple orchard converted to a small baseball diamond with a still present pitching mound fashioned with measuring footsteps and rounded with wheelbarrows of dirt and pounding ten-year-old hands.  The pot-lid bases are gone as is the sagging chain link backstop put in by a doting father who caught everything. The lawn around the perimeter of our house served as his first track, “Let’s run-race dad,” his sweet intensity evident even at three – racing against the riding mower.  I cannot see the pond from the house but a good walk up the hill beyond the lawn reveals the eye-shaped crater that, in winter, freezes with all the hope of a future NHL player. The makeshift goal is long gone but not our son’s ability to easily glide over ice with breath-gasping speed. Finally, with the death of the decrepit woodshed, came the soccer field. Truth be told, this field remained little used in preference for high school’s artificial turf. These are the signs of life I choose to remember. Like the animal tracks around the river that tell only part of a story, these signs, as they are read, tell me my son wasn’t always cranky, obstinate, and a lover of hideous music.

I walk out on the lawn with his dog. Cookie spots the soccer ball and runs to it, pulling up short before looking around for her buddy to dribble it away. Thwarted, she runs off in the direction of the pond as I sip my coffee and drink in a silence that wasn’t always golden. Towards the end it was rudely punctuated with the noise of teen angst and the dirt bike from hell. We were no longer comfortable in the old farmhouse – just three grown bodies with one kicking to be free.  It must be, I suppose, or he’d never leave.

We took him to college in New Hampshire early to practice with his new soccer team. I have a picture of him standing in front of his dorm. He is alone now, quiet, no roommate for weeks. But I know, his best teacher has arrived. Ready.

In the long silence of the drive home I realized that, unlike baby birds whose parents give them the ‘fly or die’ boot, we hold on to our young – sometimes too long. Our only child became our vessel into which we poured all of our love, lessons, and desires – A stock invested with hopes of great returns – for him. It is our lesson to learn in the silence that remains: His dreams are his. We are lucky when they overlap with ours but, in the end, our son owns his own life. And, it is as it should be – bashert.

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9 thoughts on “Silence in the Empty Nest

  1. Dearest Gwen—we have occupied parallel universes. We struggled with infertility, we adopted a son…we went through empty nest…I am addicted to coffee, Jazz, reading…I read through each of your posts and must again. Oh my gosh–the furnace man and the cup of coffee made me laugh until I cried. Where did you teach?

    • Kate, in Corning at West HS, NY. About 250 mi. NW from NYC, 90 mi S from Rochester and very close to nowhere – which is good for most of the year.
      What coincidence – our parallel states of being. So many wonderful things have happened in my life – thanks for reminding me to – believe anyway. : )

  2. The book, “A Gift of an Ordinary Day” by Kate Kenison was right on with the push and pull of letting go of our young adults. I really enjoyed it, as well as Kate sharing her own bewilderment at the changes in her life (she lost her job during this time as well).

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Gift-Ordinary-Day-ebook/dp/B002M2ASYW/ref=sr_1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1361633070&sr=1-2&keywords=ordinary+days

    I can relate to the 17-year-old story. By the time my daughter left for college, I was glad to have her gone. She wasn’t there very long before she realized how sound her parents marriage was compared to her new friends and how loved she was. She’s in her early 30’s now and we are best friends.

    Nancy

    • Nancy, so much has changed since I wrote this. My son has returned home. When he called and said he wanted to come back I had to tell him along with some tough-love conditions) HE – my son was welcome any time but he had to leave that other “guy” the alien that looked like him, on the road somewhere between there and home. He returned 6 months ago with a renewed and sobering sense of purpose. I can enjoy being a parent again.

      • I’d noticed that you wrote that several years ago and knew that so much could have happened since then. When they’re that age, they really can mature nearly overnight. I’m glad he’s moved on with his emotions and that he’s been able to move back home and get along again.

  3. Gwen-I am happy the “real guy” came home. I stop by and read this wonderful essay now and then, because it is so heartfelt and beautiful . Bashir, indeed, my dear Gwen. As I have said before, it would be wonderful to actually meet you and spend time mulling over the ins and outs of life together. Have a good day.

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