Empty Nest: The Bittersweet Holiday Visit
They should call these the yo-yo years.
"I feel like I'm always saying hello or goodbye to somebody." Sam said as we drove him to the airport at the end of Christmas vacation, and I knew the feeling. His sentiments reminded me of my own college days—more specifically of my many long-distance love affairs—when I was such a fan of dramatic reunions and heartbreaking separations. These days, I've lost the taste for the manufactured drama of my college years, because now I have real drama in my life. Putting Sam back on a plane to New York merely afflicted me with another one of those tiny, unwelcome heart lacerations that parents just have to get used to.
With one semester down, I am learning to maneuver nicely around Sam's absence. But I am still living with a school calendar in my head, albeit a different one: Instead of remembering PTO night or swimming lessons or the prom, I am keeping careful track of the weeks between Welcome Week and Parents' Weekend (six), Parents' Weekend and Thanksgiving break (five more), the three short weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and now, the 10 or so weeks between now and spring break.
"I just wish I had something to say to my kids," a friend of mine lamented absently. Another shooed the air with his hands and made a sound like pish to signal good riddance. But despite the boxers back on the bathroom floor, the car again blocking mine in the driveway, and the contact lens solution bottle once more MIA from the bathroom, my husband John and I were both happy to have Sam back home. When Sam told me, within hours of arriving in December, that he wanted to spend part of the summer at a ($4,000, three-week) school program in Ghana, I found myself cursing the modern globalized age. My mother had wanted me to take a semester of college at a Sotheby's program in London, and I thought she was out of her mind. Why in the world would anyone want to do that?
It occurred to me soon after Sam got home, in fact—when I felt lighter, happier, and had exercised my bragging rights insufferably about his adaptation to college—that the term empty nest is a misnomer. These are more like yo-yo years, when you send your children off into the world and then welcome them home at select intervals, just when you are almost used to them being gone. I suppose this is what all the self-help books call "forming an adult relationship" with your child.
I suspect it's not entirely smooth for the child, either. A few days before Sam was to return from New York, an arctic front began sweeping across the Canadian steppes. I used to commute frequently between New York and Houston, so I knew what this meant. At 2:40 a.m. on the Saturday that Sam was supposed to arrive, we got the call telling us that his flight was canceled. The earliest Jet Blue could get him home would be Tuesday, which would cut Sam's trip from 17 days to 14—an eternity for a teenager. Fresh from a week of exams, Sam sounded like an inmate at a gulag whose release had just been postponed; John, disappointed, wasn't far behind. Me? Like my husband, I jumped into the old routine of Mom and Dad will fix it, which in psychiatric terms could be called wish-fulfillment.
The snow had not yet begun to fall in New York, so Sam still had time to escape. "Get to Penn Station," we told him, where he boarded a train to Atlanta, where, we assumed, he would be able to catch a flight home. "The snow is beautiful," he texted, as he headed south. "Thank God I did this. Plus, it's fun to look at everything." Friends were hearing they wouldn't be getting out of New York for days on their rescheduled flights; if they were lucky, they'd be home for Christmas. "Ours is the kid who is going to make it home," John said, so pleased with our canniness. No storm was going to cut into our quality time with our son!
Illustration by Robert Weinstock.