Monday, September 16, 2013

Jack & Michelle's Cake

Two weeks ago last Sunday morning as I cleaned the kitchen there was a lone, melting chunk of Jack and Michelle’s cake left beneath the clear plastic deli cover. Green and red flecks of icing and deep black cake crumbs were scattered about on the counter. Micki was sleeping upstairs, as was my oldest son, Cal, and my daughter Sally. The quiet house was mine. I gathered up the cake box and crumbs and walked them out, across the patio and through the fence gate to the trash with my cat Gracie following behind.

I never really know when the emotional weight of something will hit me. It’s often not at the actual moment of change. But throwing that cake box away felt like the ending of something I’d known and loved and the beginning of something new and unknowable, as if as long as the cake was still on the counter, the ending hadn’t ended. I am in the midst of a great leaving of people I love and I’ve barely shed a tear. But the walk back from the trash was the beginning of acceptance I guess. I sat for a moment on the patio beneath the wisteria, scratching Gracie behind the ears with a lump in my throat. As I cooked breakfast alone while Micki and my other two kids slept upstairs, that solitary time helped me imagine the life that lies ahead in this empty house.

On the previous Thursday family and a very small handful of friends had gathered to say goodbye to Jack, my middle son. He and his girlfriend Michelle, freshly graduated from college were heading to Denver to start their lives. I baked bread. Jack and I smoked a pork shoulder and worked together to get the house ready for guests. Jack’s mother brought a salad and the cake.

It was my friend Richard’s birthday and I suspected he might spend it alone working. He’s already an empty-nester. So I invited him to join us. We put candles on the cake and walked it out to Richard on the patio, singing happy birthday. He was pleasantly surprised. After he blew out the candles, I said, “Read the inscription on your cake.”

Richard read it out loud, “Good Luck Jack & Michelle.” We all had a good laugh.

The next morning Jack and Michelle loaded up the last of their things. I hung around in the driveway while Jack carefully adjusted the straps on the bike rack. And then that good-hearted boy and that sweet, dark-eyed girl of his disappeared down the alley toward Denver.
Michelle & Jack at the City Market the week before they left.
Just a week before I had stood in Sally’s bedroom doorway with tears in my eyes. She’s my youngest. We were preparing to drive to Muncie to move her into her freshman dorm. For Sally, too, there was uncertainty about the future, and some tears, but we loaded up and got her moved in.

And yet a week before that departure, there had been another. Sean, who came to live in my house when he was a teenager, had loaded up his things and driven out west with his girlfriend to start their lives. There had been a going away party the night before with a spirited group of friends gathered together to send them off.

There is just one departure left. My oldest, Cal, has taken a job teaching English in Japan. This house will cease to be his permanent address on the 23rd of this month.

Last week Cal and I went out for drinks, then rode our bikes to Richard’s house down the street. Back home around midnight, we each had another gin & tonic and sat in the kitchen taking turns plugging our phones into the stereo and playing songs we each thought the other ought to hear: the National, Madrugada, and Japanese bands whose names I can’t pronounce. At one point as I was leaning on the counter and searching through a playlist on the glowing iPhone screen I turned to look at Cal. He was sitting on the bench with a head full of gin and tears trickling down his face.

“Hey man!” What’s the matter?” I asked.

“This is the end of how things have been. We’ll all never live like this together again.” I gave him a hug and told him I loved him.

He was right, and it’s something I’ve dreaded all summer and so never really let myself dwell on. This summer I grumbled as I washed their towels, bought their groceries, picked up their dirty clothes, or woke often to find the kitchen littered with beer bottles and dirty plates. But that grumbling was little more than whistling past the graveyard – something to focus on to keep at bay the ache of seeing them all go away in the span of a month at summer’s end.

The parenting guru the children’s mother and I subscribed to when they were young often wrote, “You’re #1 job as a parent is to make them not need you. When they go off to live their lives without your assistance, you’ll know you’ve done your job.”

And that’s the bittersweet reality of parenting. Yet, there should be a bigger word, one with more explosive tonnage than the delicate, “bittersweet,” to describe the aching “thud” in your heart when they go.

And this was already a dislocated year for my family, in this first year after the divorce. There was already an absence in the air.

Sharpie tattoo from the going away dinner.
When we moved here Cal was 8, Jack was 5 and Sally was 1. After 18 years, each is leaving on their own journey, one by one over the course of just a month. And I will wake up in this house on the 24th alone. There is someone new in my life, Micki, and she comes and goes from her out-of-town job on the weekends, but still, for the most part I will be alone here, the last one of us who made it a home. I’m not complaining. I chose some of those circumstances and the others are just life unfolding. I’m feeling my way in the dark. Making sense of it as I go.

And so it is my journey, too, but what the destination will look like, I can only imagine. I strain, searching back at what my own parents went through when I, the youngest of 4 kids, left home once and for all. But I was a far less attentive young man than my own children are, so can’t say I remember much beyond my mother saying, “Your leaving was the hardest, because you were last.”

Sally has 4 years of college ahead of her and so will come and go on the weekends and live here in the summer I suppose. But Cal was right. We will never again live like this under one roof. Other places will become home for them, and this one will remain mine.