I’m not sure if birds return home after camp or a semester abroad, but for me, empty nest syndrome has been a routine. Curiously, it doesn't get easier. Each time our son has gone, suitcase in hand, it’s been wrenching. Nursery school was a prelude when, clutching his Big Bird lunch box, he wailed and we tried not to as we experienced our initial bout of “separation”.
The experts use the term to define a process deemed crucial if children are to mature into independent, functioning adults. While it was our son in tears at nursery school, my husband and I have had to hold it together each time he's packed a suitcase and gone off. With other New York parents, we stood at the bus taking our children to camp, smiling and waving until the bus pulled away, when we were free to deal with our own feelings. Martin and I sighed, joined hands and started the countdown to visiting day. “He looked fine,” one of us would say.
We'd console ourselves that it was thrilling to provide our son with these opportunities. We'd take pride that he was secure and curious enough to seek out adventures.
“He seems fine,” we said at the airport in Boston after he left to spend his junior year of high school with a family in France. “He seems fine,” one of us said while walking away from his freshman dorm at Tufts. “They seem fine,” we said as we watched him and a friend wave to us in the airport, about to take off for a year of teaching English in Thailand.
Every departure was followed by several days of sadness. The apartment was hauntingly quiet. We missed him. We missed having his friends around. I longed for the morning ritual of tossing take-out containers and recycling soda cans that had been left in his room. We never lost track of when he'd be coming back. His room would remain empty except for occasional guests, who’d fit their belongings in with his ever-growing collection of t-shirts, trophies, sports paraphernalia, CD’s and books.
This time the leaving is different. It’s a move. He’s signed a lease. He’s taking his desk, bed, TV and laptop. It’s not clear who’ll get custody of the trophies and old Yankees programs. I'm collecting bowls, silverware and items he'll need for this new chapter of his life. but there's no return to circle on the calendar.
Children separate, and parents grieve.