The half empty nest isn't what I expected. I knew an adriftness would come after listing parenting as the number one item of my job description for nearly nineteen years but I didn't anticipate the exultation I would feel at the boy attending the same hippie college that I did or alternatively the bereftness that would overcome me padding through the house now so quiet without him. I didn't see much of my college bound son this summer although there were emanations and blasting music when he was home. There was dirty laundry left on the washer and I texted him a couple times to chew him about about gasoline bills that suggested he had driven to Abu Dhabi. He applied for a couple jobs but his blank resume yielded, not surprisingly, no results. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of him arriving home as I was leaving for my pre-dawn constitutional. Himself was sitting on a chair, wrapped in my fluffy bathrobe organizing the refrigerator and yelling at me like he always does about buying too much food and a fetching female overnight guest of my cusp-of-college son appeared at the breakfast table. The young lady wore the cutest shortie pj’s and when I realized she was actually dressed for her job at a retail clothier I was glad again I didn't have girls.
Joe College started school about a week later than most of his friends and during his last days he was bored and cranky, perhaps feeling neglected by the group of kids who had nothing to do but hang out and cultivate their connoisseurship of taco trucks all summer but were now too busy for him, settling into dorms and focusing on new friends. The boy gravitated between mopey, sullen and insolent and I knew on an intellectual level that he was experiencing separation anxiety but a byproduct was that one of the separatees grew more and more eager than anxious herself with regard to getting him the hell out.
This will be the first weekend he's not returning home and he sounds happy about having the time to hang with new friends. The first weekend with us he was still a bit agitated and whiny but the second visit he was chill and made us laugh to the point of tears imitating his roommate Skyping with his grandma and speaking in the Puerto Rican accented voice of Salty, a guide dog whose owner released him from his harness so that he could save himself as they wound down the stairwell of the World Trade Center on 9/11. The dog, according to his owner in a taped interview, remained steadfastly by this master's side until they were able to exit safely.The entire interview was from Salty's point of view. We all blubbered watching it, particularly when we learned that Salty is now in doggie heaven, but only the collegian picked on the deliciousness of the golden retriever's thoughts channeled through the heavily accented blind man. “We are together in this. I will not leave djew”. After Sunday dinner the boy packs up his laundry and says “It's time for me to head home.” I stop myself from blurting “This is your home,” because I know we both need to get used to the idea that it is less so.
Now big brother is back at college and Spuds asks wistfully if I'm even going to bother making dinner. The table looks absurdly unbalanced with only three place mats. Spud's bedroom is in its usual crime scene state but his brother's bed is always made and his dirty underwear I assume is flung on the floor in an altogether different county. His closet is empty but for white socks he no longer favors and size 11 shoes he's outgrown. On my dresser are the plaster footprints both boys made in nursery school when they were still in diapers and slept cocooned between us. Being needed is so exhausting that I seldom caught my breath for long enough to appreciate this time and I am grateful to whoever thought to memorialize their tiny feet.
As is often the case with siblings, my sons have different personalities and Spuds is sometimes taciturn but he is unflappable and while I knew that his decision to transfer from a warm and fuzzy charter school filled with earnest people to one of the largest public high schools in the county would result in some culture shock , I foresaw no genuine turmoil. We were told after waiting five hours in line for processing at registration that the school had been hit hard and that nine clerical positions alone had been eliminated. We were warned that classes would be large but we were also reassured the school had one of best reputations of any school in the district and graduates landed at Berkeley, Stanford and a number of ivy leagues. We weren't prepared for classes with over 50 students and teachers spread so thin they are unable to help Spuds acclimate, given that his previous coursework doesn't dovetail with the current curriculum. Mr. Unflappable is flapped. I exchange e-mails with a nice but beaten down counselor who advises me that there is no flexibility to change a kid's schedule because they are short dozens of teachers. She also apologizes in case she hasn't addressed all of my points but explains that using the LAUSD e-mail system she is unable to have my note open on her screen to refer to it while she composes her response. Spuds and I, for the first time I can remember, raise our voices and argue. I explain that he will have to be assertive in this sort of environment and he bristles, too overwhelmed to even consider advocating for himself.
I stop at the cleaners and send Spuds over to Gelson's to get a drink and ask for a iced decaf for myself. I wait in the car and see an e-mail from a client and need to access a computer as soon as possible to subvert a problem. I phone Spuds to see what's taking so long and he says they're just finishing my latte. I scream that I don't want a latte, I must have decaf. Five minutes later I phone again and he says the drinks are still in progress. There is another frantic e-mail and I call Spuds and he says he's in line to pay. I scream that I don't give a damn about the coffee anymore and that no matter what we have to go NOW. He dumps my coffee and a bakery snack he'd chosen for himself in the garbage and runs to the car. I blather on to Spuds all the way home about feeling like an asshole and then feel like even more of an asshole for bothering him with my feelings at all.
We arrive home and there is a dead baby possum on a chair. I automatically expect stolid Spuds to take care of it, as I assume the oldest male present will deal with things on high shelves, trash emptying, car unloading and rodent removal. Spuds is reckoning with the decision about returning to his old school and just endured the decaf debacle. The carcass puts him over the edge. I grab my computer and sequester myself in the bedroom and hear him stomping and screaming and somehow ultimately disposing of the former possum. Later I bend his ear again apologizing for being over-reliant on him and failing once more to keep my emotions in check. Then I apologize for belaboring it and he just rolls his eyes and says he has a lot of homework.
One of my boys is even tempered and dependable and the other is impulsive and funny. But, my own mother died a year ago this week and I remember feeling she never had a sense of who I was. She expressed pride in me with regard to things about which I wasn't particularly proud and I felt she often denigrated some of my genuine accomplishments. Boxes of her stuff have moldered in my garage since she was institutionalized about five years ago. I forced myself to open them a couple weeks ago. There was, lots of spite stuff, as I had expected. She saved copies of numerous legal claims she made again my father and tons of other correspondence that inspires only bad memories. There was also a lot of hair. There was hair from my first hair cut and my sister's and some hair Mom clipped from my sister's daughter the day she was taken from us to her adoptive family. There was also a complete ponytail my mother had shed in the 1950s and her own mother's brush, with hair still in it. Both of these were intricately wrapped in tissue and then aluminum foil.
I confess to trashing the brush and ponytail. There was also though another box of my mom's with every letter I had ever written to her, each report card and neat clippings of all my publications, despite her having criticized my writing at the time. There was a package wrapped thickly in newspaper and bound meticulously in thick tape. I muttered to myself, wondering what piece of shit is this that I'm going to have to get up and get a scissors to open. I attacked it and unpeeled the layers of paper to find a plaster cast made in kindergarten of my tiny hand. I guess they were too uptight in the early sixties to have kindergarteners remove their shoes and stick their feet in gush. I wonder if Mom knew when she was wrapping it that I would open it after she was gone and she wanted me to know how she'd cherished the time when I was tiny and our relationship uncomplicated. I put my tiny hand next to the tiny feet of my sons. I will not claim to fully understand who my boys have become since they stuck their tiny feet in squishy plaster but even when their feet were impossibly tiny I felt the essence of who they are. It still makes me sad that my mother never seemed to get the me I thought she should be proud of. I know I have some skewed assumptions with regard to my own children that they too would find off base. I do hope that the chasm between who I need them to be and who they really are is narrower with me and my kids than with me and my own mom. Should I be unable myself when the time comes, I hope that plaster hands and feet are wrapped for transport with exquisite care.