My son leaves for college tomorrow. His father’s driving him eight hours upstate to a university where he’ll see how he feels about studying architecture.
I’ll kiss him goodbye in the morning and then go to work. When I return at 7 p.m., he’ll be gone. It’ll be me and the cat, who by that time will be whining for her dinner.
I’ll bring a book to read while I eat my dinner of yogurt, bran flakes and banana. I’ll watch some TV and go to bed at 11 p.m. The phone will not ring.
How will I feel? Sixteen years ago, every afternoon as I lay my boy down for his nap, he would pop back up, look me in the eyes and ask, wide-eyed and hopeful, “Where’s Papa?”
The only answer I could devise was a flat lie—“Papa est parti en bateau”—the equivalent of “Gone fishing.”
My French husband and I had split in Paris, he, taking a job in Hawaii and I, returning to NYC with our two-year-old baby son to be near family and old friends.
How does one explain incompatibility and loss of love to an infant? My parents didn’t get it. How could he? Easier to pretend that Papa had gone off on yet another sailing trip. One the previous year had lasted six weeks after all, and to my son, six weeks were probably not much different from six months or maybe even six years. Or so I thought.
Alex continued to ask about Papa every afternoon for a solid year as months piled into years. Apparently not quite satisfied with the sailing story, he staged a complete turnabout in the toilet training department.
By the time he was four, though, he was spending summers in Hawaii with Papa. When he turned eight, he declared that he liked the setup: happy routine with Mama; exotic travel with Papa.
Of course my part of the setup included high fevers from chronic ear infections, sprained ankles, ordinary temper tantrums and going to school to see about the bully who was throwing Alex upside down into the bushes during recess. Papa basically ran the Greater Outdoor Club and responded to requests for funds with, “Send him here. I’ll take care of him,” or “You took my son away from me. What did you expect?”
What I expected and what I got… well. I expected hardship, financial and otherwise, difficulties with being the sole parent, awkward social situations. I expected support from my family, some friends. But how could I know in advance the feeling of being completely overwhelmed with duty and responsibility, the fear of getting sick yourself or being fired and not being able to support your child, the thick shroud of loneliness and suspicion that surrounds the woman who is not quite single and not quite parent? How could I know what it would be like to be on call 24 hours a day for years?
My mother said to me once that nothing lasts forever. She was right. My boy grew up. I never missed the dependence; I cheered when he let himself in with his own key, when he no longer needed me to take him places, when he developed skills greater than any I possessed.
Nothing lasts forever. I remember now staying up until midnight to nail the tracks of his first train set to a piece of plywood, running alongside him, breathless, as he got his balance on a two-wheeler, reading him Le Petit Prince and The Beast of Monsieur Racine. Watching him sing and dance in the sixth grade’s version of “Oklahoma,” herding him and ten other 12 year olds to “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and then off to Eddie’s Sweet Shoppe for birthday sundaes.
Along the way I learned how to install convenience outlets by tacking wire from my living room stereo to the only outlet in my kitchen, how to refinish old desks, lay linoleum tiles, hook up VCR’s (well, actually, before I opened the instruction manual, he usually announced, “Look, Ma, it’s easy!”)
I also chased a mouse out of the house (lie: I drank a whole bottle of red wine and slept with all the lights on). I awoke in the middle of the night to kill a few roaches, tried to explain that Tom, Dick or Harry wouldn’t be visiting anymore, helped Alex make recordings to send Papa or Mamie (Grandma) in Paris, dragged him to nature hikes and antique fairs and museums and concerts for the very young. We never went to shopping malls, but instead took trips to Mystic, CT, Williamsburg, VA, the Jersey shore, DC and one ten day trip to his hometown, Paris, France.
My setup including teaching him about expressing his feelings in words and writing, and taking others into consideration, and being adventurous and daring. Today he surpasses me in compassion, wit, diplomacy, gumption and poetry. And he can draw.
Papa took him back packing in Iceland, rafting in Idaho, skiing at Lapland Lake.
I always wanted a bumper sticker that read: SINGLE MOTHERS ARE THE STRONGEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD. For I think now that life makes us strong if we let it.
While raising Alex, I put together a career, dated a few guys, kept a circle of family and friends around us. Now it is all gone. My parents live in NeverNeverLand (Florida). One brother and his family relocated to Boston the same day Alex left home; the other brother’s always been in Denver.
What am I left with? I ask myself how I got to this lonely place after sixteen years of frenetic activity. I’m in the second semester of my 40’s, but look a full ten years younger, like many of my peers. So what will I fall back on? Obviously, there is a hole in my soul, in my life. My sudden craving for a “soulmate” is stronger than it has ever been in the last decade and a half. I mean to do everything in my power to go out and find a new companion.
I’ve always wanted more time to pursue various hobbies (writing novels?). Now I won’t have the ready-made excuses for not doing so. I can write, I can hike, I can speechify, I can change jobs, I can travel, I can be. I am out of Survival Mode. I’m into Existence. I might even become a narcissist!
I look at this latest of life’s little tricks—the empty nest—as an opportunity for growth. That’s the healthy approach. However, early in the morning as I sip my coffee, or on the train to work, without my willing it, my eyes seem to fill with tears. For I know what I have lost. It is a time that will not come again.
Alex remembers to call this week. He is like his mother, engaged in myriad social and athletic activities. He is trying not to be buried with work. He has a cold and is on three antibiotics. Yes, maybe he has been partying too much. “Oh, it is interesting, Mom, to share a room with three other boys.” Privacy?
“Well, I can’t really talk now.”
“Alex, do you sometimes wish you were back in your own bed in your own room? The way you did when you spent that awful summer in France?”
“Yeah. I guess so. Maybe.”
I guess that’s good enough for me right now. Next weekend I am going up to Buffalo to spend homecoming weekend with him. He is letting me come. Maybe we’ll talk.
Maybe it isn’t quite over yet.
Freshman year, second semester, Alex found me husband #2, a keeper. Today, Alex lives in Israel, putting his degrees in Architecture to use, building the country. I wait for grandchildren, but, in the meantime, borrow some from my husband. Life is good.