Back to school used to mean piling the kids into the station wagon and heading for Payless. It meant Star Trek lunchpails and packets of wide-lined paper. It meant picking up new uniform jumpers crisply pleated, and hours on the phone with assorted parents, working out carpool schedules against myriad conflicts. It meant laying in a larder of peanut butter, tuna fish, and Oreos, for lunches alfresco in warm September schoolyards. Now, back to school means suitcases and airline tickets. Back to school means saying good-bye.
I remember conversations a decade ago with parents whose children were in college, and regarding their situation with a kind of envy. They appeared weathered but wise, people who had survived the traumas of raising adolescent offspring and now were on cruise control, with blissfully uncomplicated lives. Their frequent expressions of relief that “the kids are gone” contributed to the myth of pressured parenthood: the best is just around the corner. As I toughed it out through orthodontic appointments, ballet lessons, and weekly birthday parties, I thought if only I could hang on release was certain, if not imminent.
This month, my youngest left for college and that release is consummated. The question becomes, release to what? Now that I am in The Promised Land, I see a lot of weeds. I realize that in the gain there is loss.
Not that I would want my young adults, a vociferously opinionated and significantly polarized trio, living today under one roof with what one of them dubs The Parental Unit. Compatibility is difficult for two adults, unlikely among five. No, what I understand as I pass their empty rooms, deafened not by stereos but by silence, is that there really is such a thing as “the good old days,” years when they were young and here. They were days when we were a family in the complete sense of the word, our daily lives interconnected, the focus home. They were nights when the route to my bedroom took me past the sight of sleeping children, three human beings, with three souls destined for eternal life. At the risk of raising a sacrilegious analogy, the Trinity comes to mind. That is, we were separate and distinct, but united. We were then what we are not now, and never will be again: together. Oh, there is tokenism. Two home, one away. One home, two away. Later on additions: husband, wife, children. But the basic nucleus of my husband, myself, and our three is irrevocably gone. And guess what? I don’t feel the slightest jubilation.
I betray my peers when I depart from the custom of advertising a sense of liberation now that “the children” are at a physical remove. Periodic residence, of course, doesn’t count — those Christmases and summer vacations. The reality is that when the college-bound freshman walks out the door, he leaves home for good. Erma Bombeck’s hilarious columns about graduated offspring reluctant to give up the perks of freebies in the nest notwithstanding, they can’t really go home again. Not in the sense of the way it was before they left. A mooring is definitely severed, a door closed.
Parents are somewhat prepared for this by the high school experience, when differing enthusiasms result in fewer and fewer family meals: the boy has to eat early to make basketball practice, but the girl’s play rehearsal doesn’t end till six. Split dinner shifts are common; most of us run cafeterias, minus the sign, SORRY, WE ARE CLOSED. But even in high school, if the date is late, the car eventually pulls into the driveway; there is the solace of footsteps down the hall. This year, 3,000 miles away in Manhattan, my son has a job which requires commuting by subway, the return trip at four or five in the morning. He is a big boy, and scoffs at any anxiety on my part. But what is size against switchblades? Every night I pray him back to his fraternity house, footsteps manufactured in my mind, no longer heard by my ears. Habits die hard, caring never. To parental eyes, one of life’s saddest sights is the illumination by hall light of the undisturbed, flat plane of a son or daughter’s vacant bed, its tenant not expected.
Since this is my third go-round with departures, one would think the impact less. Not so. Last week I went to my youngest daughter’s room to settle the chaos left in the wake of a whirlwind exodus. I lingered; the room looked as if she would arrive any minute. Except for one thing. Beyond the closet door, ajar, hung among otherwise empty hangers, were her middy blouse and skirt, the abandoned uniform of high school years. This September not even she, the caboose, will breeze in chattering about teachers and schedules and assignments. As with her older sister and brother, those accounts are history. For the first time in eighteen years, there is no sense of anticipation, there is no significance, to three o’clock.
Teleologically inclined, to the irritation of those who see in life no purposeful plan, I begin to understand that this kind of afternoon, these kinds of evenings, are prologues, building spiritual sinew required to accept loss of major dimension. My mother said one of the more painful tasks after my father’s death was sorting through his clothes, for distribution. She fingered ties his own hands would never again touch, and folded limp jackets which once rested on his shoulders. It is specious to suggest that practicing for this scene will totally deliver us from its agony, but to have dealt with multiple separations of less magnitude, to have wept not once, but each time a room is vacated by a child, and to survive that void, is surely geared to helping us cope with the permanent separations each of us must inevitably endure.
At first glance it appears I suffer an acute attack of the Empty Nest syndrome, that overworked term of indictment beloved by Back to Work feminists, who castigate women failing to buttress homemaking with an outside job that is really fulfilling and meaningful. In fact, why shouldn’t a missing son or daughter provoke sorrow? The obverse implies that happiness lies in their good riddance. Anyone who does not experience a heavy dose of the Empty Nest blues is eligible for Heart Aid and should wonder about her priorities.
No, I do not wish it all back. I do not hanker for Legos, Halloween costumes, and angst when someone runs out of Clearasil. It is not to wish it back; it is a recognition of what was present, the singularity of that time, a sense that this was “it.” Parents of collegians have interesting tales to tell, about John’s accomplishments at Yale or Jane’s bilingualism as she takes a semester in France. On the face of it, a lot more scintillating stuff than what to buy for yet another classmate’s birthday, or why did they schedule Back to School Night during Monday Night Football? We’ve got more time now and more freedom. We’ve got everything, everything but a family together. The progression is natural, we knew it was coming. But, palpably, a precious integrity is shattered. In its absence, the simple closeness of the way we were strikes me as the best way it can be. Which leads me to understand it as a preview of that blessed coalescence of all that we love and all that we need: the genuine promised land of heaven.