A few weeks ago, my youngest child, the baby, left for college.
Out of state.
Roughly a thousand miles away, give or take a few.
And, I’m having a hard time with it, to put it mildly.
After raising four children, I find myself an empty-nester. And I don’t want to be. And I’m not sure how to get to that place in time where I’m okay with the situation. Where I’m not sitting upstairs in his room, going through his stuff, and weeping over baby pictures.
I remember this adult child of mine as a one-year-old, weaning himself from breastfeeding. The grief that rose from my gut took me completely by surprise, and aimed an emotional sucker punch right into my throat. As I laid him in his crib after nursing him for what I realized would be the last time, emotion spilled from my eyes and nose in salty, slimy trails.
My last baby. Weaning. I would lactate no more.
My purpose, as I saw it at the time, finished. Pregnancy, birth, nourishing them from my very body—over.
Now, I had been pregnant or breastfeeding for the past nine years. Protecting wobbly heads and uncoordinated bodies from sharp corners and hard floors, pulling dangerous things from meaty baby fists and gawping mouths, wrestling soapy babies in a bath, singing made-up songs to distract angry babies from the diaper changes I attempted. And, if I couldn’t do that anymore, then what exactly was my role?
I was obsolete. Essentially laid off.
And, of course I wasn’t, but at the time, you could not have convinced me otherwise.
Eventually, I blundered my way through that particular life transition and into the next, where I lived happily, without a care in the world, until, of course, my kids got turned into teenagers, things changed, and life once again shoved me right out of that phase and into the next, the door slamming in my face.
My father used to call these life phases “passages.” Figurative hallways through which we, often reluctantly, travel from one point in our lives to the next. Long, empty, seemingly endless corridors that lead us from the comfortable and known to the foreign and unfamiliar.
Like poorly lit tunnels with low ceilings and uneven ground, we falter and stumble, walking blindly, even dropping to hands and knees to feel our way through the darkness, our fear growing as we fail to find daylight peeking from around the edges of an unseen door. Unable to find the next room we’re supposed to occupy.
And so we keep walking.
We don’t want to leave the “room or phase we’re in, but we have no choice in the matter because that particular room? That life phase? It doesn’t exist anymore.
We have been evicted.
We like to believe that life is steady and fixed. Unchanging.
We want it to be, but it isn’t. It is one long, constantly evolving journey. One passage after the other with short and sweet layovers along the way. And at each stop, we imagine our stay is permanent. We unpack our boxes, hang pictures on the walls with permanent drywall screws, and buy toilet paper in bulk. We fall comfortably into the security of routine, never believing that this moment, this phase, is temporary.
And, then it’s time to leave again.
This spring, we lost my father-in-law. He was the first of our four parents to die, and we are reeling, trying to find ground beneath our feet. My husband and his brothers without their father; my mother-in-law without her life partner and soul mate.
My father, who taught me of “passages,” has Lewy Body disease, and I watch helplessly as the progression takes the strength and fight out of this strong fighter of a man. His four-decade long career as a physician finished without warning. His endless hobbies, sometimes arduous instead of enjoyable. The cruel disease weakening his body as quickly as it does his cognition.
And I realize that at some point, I left the room that I had contentedly occupied for some time and again, am wandering aimlessly through another long, dark passage.
This one of empty nest and aging parents and loss.
And, I’m scared.
And, while I know that eventually I will adjust to all that’s coming, walking down the hall is the hardest part. Because while we maneuver our way through these requisite passages, we are in no-man’s-land. While in each passage, we lose varying degrees of our identities and all sense of who we are and are supposed to be.
The widow whose entire life has been half of a whole.
Someone with chronic or terminal illness, their previous life on hold.
The athlete who is retired from their sport due to age or injury.
A husband and wife, after their divorce.
The addict going through recovery.
The mother whose children grow up and leave home.
The freshman at college, away from home and trying to be an adult.
The physician at the end of their career.
The soldier returning home from duty, no longer the soldier, but the veteran.
We each go through our own passages, and there is always a “next,” but while in the passage, who are we and what do we do?
For me, as I rattle around my big empty house, avoiding the vacant bedrooms upstairs, I am realizing that I can actually help myself find the door out of the passage and get through to the other side by not trying to figure out what comes next, and instead in just noticing what is right now. And being present with it.
Because we don’t get out of the hallway and then find the new room. We reclaim our lives and rediscover our identities right there in the hallway. The things happening to us right now, for better or worse, become the beams and the drywall and flooring of the new room we will occupy next.
At least for as long as life lets us.
I just carried some long-forgotten laundry up to my “baby’s” room. And found myself dawdling, sitting on his bed, looking at the things on his shelf, and slipping back into the melancholy and sadness of the past few weeks, but I’m interrupted by the sounds of frantic scrabbling and knocking at the interior garage door and muffled, yet definitely way-too-loud kid voices on the other side of it.
And, I can linger upstairs no longer.
Because my “next?”
Today’s doorway out of this dark passage just got here. In the form of my six-year-old and eighteen-month-old grandchildren, who need very badly and immediately to burst into my house, bringing their energy and noise and beautiful stickiness and love and innocence with them. And their mother, my oldest, who needs a break.
And I gotta open the door.