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The Second Half

Achieving takeoff from the empty nest

My son's first year of college has just ended, and, considering that everyone knows freshman year is the most difficult, I think I adjusted pretty well.

And I know The Kid (as I'll call him to ensure his privacy) had a good year, too.

Freshman year began with Parents' Orientation, where we learned ways to cope with stress, and that worst enemy, separation anxiety. We listened as deans and guidance counselors prepared us for our first year as college parents.

"Your child may call you while he or she is walking to class, and will suddenly say, 'Well, here's my class, gotta' go,' and end the connection abruptly. This is typical," said one of the deans. She said she had recently completed her own son's first year of college and was graciously sharing what she had learned.

Orientation continued for two days, but for some reason The Kid kept asking if there was an earlier flight home we could take.

I didn't want to leave. I needed more information.

Like, would my son's favorite foods be prepared in his food co-op? Would the dorm be kept toasty warm during the Ohio winter? After all, The Kid grew up in Florida and had never experienced a northern winter.

When orientation ended, my husband and I hugged The Kid in front of his dorm and reluctantly drove off.

I immediately flashed back to a morning many years earlier, on The Kid's first day of preschool. When I kissed him goodbye and turned to leave, he began to cry.

Now, as we drove away from the campus, my husband and I were the ones crying.

When we got home, to our childless house, we cried again. I went to The Kid's room, looked around at the crumpled bed, the old shoes he left, books and clothes strewn about, and I decided not to touch a thing.

That night I saw no ribbon of light under his door, heard no music coming from his room, and there was no one to call out to when it was time for The Daily Show, our nightly ritual.

Suddenly I realized what "empty nest" really meant.

I don't know where the last 18 years went. When I think of the '90s, it's always in terms of The Kid, like our trip to Universal Studios when he was 4, to see the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Kid was ecstatic; he really believed he was meeting his idols. I still have the poster-sized blow-up of him posing with Michelangelo. Or is it Raphael?

When The Kid was 2, I turned 40. A 40th birthday is a milestone event, yet I can't remember mine. I assume my husband took me out for an overpriced dinner somewhere.

One thing I remember vividly is that after years of not writing, something about The Kid inspired me, and I started writing again. While he napped, while he was in school, I wrote.

I was almost published in a national magazine. The editor phoned me — this was before e-mail — but I was so exhausted, I couldn't utter a coherent sentence.

I wrote a short novel. And then another. I was on a roll. I sent both out, but neither got published.

Now they sit in a plastic storage box in my closet with the airy poems I wrote in high school, when I dreamed of being another Emily Dickinson.

Last fall, with The Kid in college, I was left with a big gap in my life.

First, I thought I'd go back to school and work toward a Ph.D. I registered for a graduate-level course, just to get a feel for school. But I didn't like being the oldest student in a class full of 20-somethings, and I really didn't want to do homework.

Then, about halfway through the fall semester, I started writing a memoir about my crazy life in the 1970s — when I was in my 20s and lived in Manhattan. I am determined that this won't end up in the plastic storage box.

And after a search of nearly two years, I landed the perfect job, doing what I love most: writing.

When The Kid came home in May, he kept reminding us he was now 19, as if that made him suddenly old.

"You're still my baby," I wanted to say, but I held back.

His first year of college was filled with new experiences: He became one of the chief cooks in his food co-op. His first movie was screened at a student film festival.

And I learned that when you find yourself in an empty nest, you might as well spread your wings and fly.

St. Petersburg resident Alice Graves holds an MFA in creative writing and has taught writing in college. Readers may contact her at aliceggraves@yahoo.com.

Achieving takeoff from the empty nest 06/23/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 12:56pm]
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