For about a year now I’ve been feeling the pain of my empty nest, though it will not actually occur until the fall of 2018.
In the spring of that year, I will turn 60. That’s pretty much fine with me. Listen, by the time you get to the end of a decade, 28, 29, 38, 39, 48, 49, it’s like, enough already, let’s just get on with it. Thirty and forty were good for me. Fifty was a new beginning if nothing else– my mother died, my marriage died, my first generation of kids hit the road, and I left the boondocks of south-central PA for beautiful downtown Roland Park.
A few months after I turn 60, kinehora, Jane will go to college. (If you are not familiar with the Yiddish word kinehora, let me refer you to Bohemian Rhapsody #80, Protect Your Blessings with the Thanksgiving Anti-Curse.) Anyway, good for Jane, right? She is on her way. All-nighters, shower shoes, and unlimited frozen yogurt in the dining hall, and freedom from the codependent miasma of being a single parent’s only child at home. I’ve got plenty of time, but by starting now, I’ll be in the saddle when shit gets real.
Amid this season of pre-grief, specifically while sitting in the MVA waiting room as my daughter applied for her learner’s permit, I got an email from an editor at AARP. He said he’d heard good things about my writing and would I like to pitch an idea for a Mother’s Day essay. Perhaps something along the lines of, parents over 50 have it coming from both directions, with their kids and their parents depending on them, maybe even living in their house. When are they going to get to move on to the next phase of life?
Who are these lucky people? I thought. Their parents are alive, their marriages are extant, and their futures have promise! My response, which due to my impulse control disorder I dictated sotto voce into my iPhone 13 seconds later, then sent without further delay, went something like this:
In 33 years straight of hands-on mothering, I’ve been a hippie mom, a widowed mom, a divorced and dating mom, a stepmom, an older mom. I’ve also been, and still am, a long-distance mom – running a relationship by phone, text, and over the holidays. But with the youngest one going to college and the oldest getting married, I am facing a cataclysmic case of empty nest. The question is, how to stop nurturing? How to gracefully shift from full-time management of the family operation to hardly being needed at all? With living alone for the first time in my life?
Should I be excited about this?
Should I pretend to be excited about this?
Should I just accept my cat lady future?
Should I lurk around until the kids have a baby, then move into their garage?
Not too many hours after I sent off the preceding, it occurred to me that it sounded more like a suicide note than a pitch for a magazine story (and I didn’t even get to the part where I’m an orphan). Unsurprisingly, they went with another writer. Then, while I was post-grieving my stupidity in handling this opportunity — I am a journalism professor, for God’s sake, I freaking teach people how to write magazine queries, which starts with looking at the publication and the kinds of articles they run, and by the way, though I may have failed to look at it, AARP has the largest circulation of any magazine in the world, and did I mention the guy was going to pay triple the normal rate because it was a rush job (my specialty, as you can see) — in the midst of this rejection-fest which of course hooked up with my lifelong rejection issues, the city of Baltimore offered me a little reality check.
[Warning: This is going to be the actually sad, as opposed to just pathetic, part of this story.]
My friend Pam (you met her in Bohemian Rhapsody #54, A Tale of Two Cities) works with an organization called MOMS, Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters, Inc. Two weeks ago, she took me with her to a shooting response held by Safe Streets in East Baltimore. There we joined dozens of people gathering on the corner of Madison and Kenwood Streets, where a few days earlier a boy named Markel Scott had been shot. Six times, including in the face. He was nineteen, he was about to graduate from high school, and there was nothing in the backpack his killers were after but a change of clothes.
Soon there were fifty or sixty people there, his friends, his neighbors, his teachers, other moms, other MOMS, of which there were three or four. They brought boxes of tapered white candles and bunches of Mylar balloons spelling K, E, L. They taped a memorial display to a brick wall and wrote his name with tea lights on the sidewalk. His mother, a beautiful, vibrant young woman they called Miss Ronda, with a turned-up nose and gold highlights in her long, loopy waves, arrived, and when she finally made it past all the people who needed to hug her to the center of the circle, one of the Safe Streets guys handed her a microphone.
With so much poise and eloquence and contained grief she could have been an actress in some Tony-winning show about this subject, she went through every step of a perfectly ordinary Thursday – telling her boy to do his chores, trying not to be late for work, missing a call from him on her phone, and somehow, that night, ending up in a hospital with social workers and doctors, realizing by how they were acting that her son must be dead.
At 17, she told us, determined not to be a dropout teenage mom, she walked across the stage at her own high school graduation pregnant with Kel. They grew up together. He had quit for a while himself, overwhelmed by deaths among his peers and the general negativity about his future, but then went back to school, determined, eyes on the prize. He would have graduated this June, and then the two of them were going to go together to BCCC. Ronda set herself in the path of all the odds against her son, raising him straight as she could, keeping him out of trouble. Everybody in the neighborhood loved her boy, which you could see because they were all there. Everybody was looking out for him, and this happened anyway.
Lord, are you serious? All this time I fought for my son? All these years I told him to stay off these corners because the streets don’t love him? All this time I prayed? All this time I asked you to protect him? All this time? Are you serious, my son is dead? You could see the adrenaline was still rushing in her, she knew it too. In a few days, all this will be over, and I’ll just be sitting in my house without my son.
She begged all the kids who had gathered to stay indoors. These streets don’t love you, she repeated. Don’t kick it here.
Pam and I were the only two white people at this gathering. Maybe some people wondered what the hell we were doing there, but when tears started pouring down my face, the tall young man standing next to me put his arm around me.
Then we drove back to our neighborhood. A couple of miles away. Where, if fortune continues to smile on me, I will be living by myself a year and a half from now, while my sweet daughter goes to college, and her brother goes to grad school in New York, and the oldest one starts his new life as a married man with my new daughter-in-law, the orthodontist from Ecuador.
I may be lonely sometimes. I may be wistful for the 33 years of cooking dinners and nagging and shopping for school supplies. I may not know what to do with myself at first. I’ll send them links to articles they should read in The New York Times, take them out to dinner when they come to town, provide telephone support for cooking questions and punctuation problems. Eventually, I’ll get used to it, or I’ll move to a commune, or I’ll fall in love, or something I can’t even think of will come out of left field. I will be fine.
I guess I am having what they call a white people’s problem, though it’s not actually determined by race – if anyone knows this, it’s me. I’ve watched brokenhearted as several dear friends lost children and being white didn’t help them. The part where our kids are alive and well, where they grow up, go off and leave us, really hurts. But it’s the good kind of pain, the pain of growth and possibility.
Well, okay then. Bring it on.