Friday, October 3, 2014

The Empty Nester

July 30, 2014

When I was first restoring this house it was full of small kids and life was a whirlwind.

I was a school teacher by day, sold real estate evenings and weekends, was president of a local not-for-profit, had a weekly column in the local paper, was assistant coach of one of the kid’s basketball teams, and was editing and trying to publish a book.

And, yeah, I was restoring this house and was father to small children. Children with soccer, basketball and baseball games, with Cub Scout  & Brownie meetings and science projects and papers they forgot to start writing until the night before they were due.

Each morning at 6:00 I was shot out of a cannon and I ran as fast as I could all day until I dove back into bed. In the morning, the alarm clock lit the cannon fuse again.

During this time, my father, who wasn’t very good at commiserating or sharing emotionally expressive thoughts said, “You remind me of myself when I was your age. I had every unpaid job in town.” Unfortunately I have inherited my father’s habit of offering solace that also sounds like an insult.

My older workaholic sister, Jama shared with me something our dad told her, “We make our own hell. Nobody does it to us.” Our dad told her that.

Once during those years my sister Cindy and her husband Jeff visited from Florida. We were up late – my ex-wife and Cindy on the patio talking while Jeff and I played endless games of H.O.R.S.E and drank beer in the driveway. A child came out in their sleeper suit, awoken by the relentless thump of the basketball. Jeff, who also wasn’t very good at sharing emotionally expressive thoughts, paused mid shot, looked past the ball toward the house and yard, wife and child and said, “You’re a lucky man. You’ve made a really good life.”

Yes I did. And I still do. I’m a very fortunate person.

Though I long-ago freed myself of that manic work schedule, this year I’ve found myself back at a workaholic work day at the very time the children are grown and gone. It should be easier. But even that complaint is a fortunate man’s observation: I’m making good money and publishing a book.

Never the less, I’m exhausted, it is Wednesday and I need a nap.

It is over three years now since I first packed my bags and left this house, 18 months since I kept the house in the divorce, a year since all the boys left in a single autumn and their sister went off to college and nine months since a single soul-numbing weekend in which my brother-in-law, Jeff took his own life on a Friday night and my father died on Sunday. This year has been the busiest of my twenty years of real estate. I have worked insane hours. The relaunch of a book I wrote will take place this coming weekend. In a couple days my house will fill with guests and I will be the center of attention and responsibility.

Lunch at the coffee shop with Peggy and Kelli is done and I desperately need that nap. I drive home and climb the stairs.

Though it’s the middle of the day, I make my rounds. I walk the L-shaped hall and look into each bedroom. I started this when my kids were babies, checking to make sure they were breathing. Then, as they grew I continued my rounds each night before bed to make sure they were asleep or just to watch them a-snooze and think about the age they were and what that meant at the moment. But now each bed is empty. I’ve grown used to this. I’ve cleaned them and prepared them for my weekend guests. The kids are all gone and I am here in the house alone.

Walking to my bedroom I have the faint sense of being left behind, as if everyone else went somewhere and I was the last one left in the world we all once shared together. They, and their mother, all gone. But there’s no real emotional content behind that thought. It’s just a thought. I chose this as my way forward and I’m at peace with it. The kids left because they grew up and started their own lives. All is as it should be.

The sun is pouring through the south-facing windows. I lay down and Gracie curls in behind my knees, purring. I quickly fall into a deep sleep.

An hour later I struggle to wake from a heavy, drug-like sleep. An unseasonably cool July breeze billows the shades out from the window sashes. I’m aware of the sound of a girl giggling and boyish hearty laughter coming over the porch roof and through my bedroom window. I know those voices! It’s the ghosts of my children playing in the side yard. They are running from the sidewalk to the garage, laughing as they go, the joyous sound recedes from my bedroom, echoes hard and bright through the stair landing window, and comes again, this time muffled, from Cal’s back bedroom window down the hall. I think I smell food. Pot pies in the oven downstairs? We’ll eat dinner around the kitchen table soon!

No. That’s wrong. It’s not the sound of my children’s ghosts. It’s their echoes ­– echoes from ten or fifteen years ago that got stuck in the eves of the roof and the foundation vents. The cool breeze has blown them free to be heard again.

But no. Wait! It’s not that at all. It’s the neighbor children playing in the side yard. That’s what it is. Playing in the same place where my children played. Playing the same sorts of games.

As I work my way through this from deep sleep to full waking, I am not sad. I have few regrets. Cal is in Japan. Jack and Sean are in Denver. Sally is visiting my sister, Jama in LA. Their mother lives across town with another man and I am here in our old place. I share this room with another woman. It is all as it should be. We are all in our own good places, places we chose, and on good terms with one other.

This summer, it seems we have all arrived where we should be.

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