A few weeks ago, I was on a run in my neighborhood and passed a house where three kids were playing in the driveway. A boy about 6 years old was pulling his preschool-aged brother around in a wagon, and a toddler was running after them. Their dad was sitting in a camp chair just outside the open garage. He looked a little frazzled. We waved. I ran on. I wanted to stop and tell him a few things:
“Hang in there, buddy. It’s all going to be okay. Don’t blink. I know the end of this phase of your life seems far, far away and you’re just trying to make it until lunchtime, but I promise you that it all goes by So Damn Fast. Everyone says to enjoy it as it’s happening, which is almost impossible, but please, take it from me, enjoy it now because when it’s over and the last one moves out, if you haven’t lived in the moment with these kids, you’re going to be thinking, Where did all the time go?“
Can you tell that I’m a brand-new empty nester? It’s been a ride this summer. We were kind of spoiled in that our kids were spread out in age, so we had at least one in high school for the last 11 years. It was a fun decade: lots of soccer matches, cross-country meets, fall plays, spring musicals, speech competitions, etc. When our last one got to high school, I tried to imagine that day way out in the future when she would be walking the halls for the last time and we’d have no good reason to be hanging around the school; I couldn’t. And definitely when she hit senior year, things started accelerating. Most of the year, I was filled with excitement for the possibilities that were stretching out in front of her, but also a little bit of (actually a whole lot of) dread for what would come next for my lovely wife Jen and me.
Within days of our first child being born, a co-worker of mine said to me, “Hold them close as much as they will let you because before you know it, they’re grown up and gone.” I thought, Sounds like a you problem, lady. Then when our kids were entering their teen years, parents of older children were saying, “Wait until they get to high school; those years are going to fly by faster than you think.” So I thought I was prepared for how quickly those years would go. I was not. Days when I was trying to make it to the next one were days when I should have been present and engaged. As Rod Stewart sings in “Young Turks,” “Because life is so brief and time is a thief when you’re undecided, and like a fistful of sand it can slip right through your hands.” Ouch.
Near the end of our youngest’s senior year, I ran into a friend at the grocery store; she was going through the same impending empty nest stage that I was. She said to me, “I told my daughter, ‘I know it’s going to be hard on me, but I can’t imagine what Mr. Dudley must be going through. I mean, he’s so close with his kids and so involved with his last one.'” After graduation, another parent reached out to me and asked, “You ok? This is hard on all of us, but I’m particularly thinking about you at this time.” And just before our daughter and her friends went off to college, a few of them stopped by for one last visit. One of them told me, “My parents were talking about you. My dad said that even though I’m the last of his five kids to graduate, he can only wonder how Mr. Dudley is handling this.” What the heck? And keep in mind that these were all parents who were going through the exact same empty nest situation as me! I thought, Why is everyone worried about me more than anyone else? I’m fine; I will be fine.
Then we started packing stuff for our daughter’s dorm move-in journey. And it started to hit me. Oh boy.
Here’s where I should say, I realize we’re in a unique and (to use a word popular with the younger folks) privileged position, being able to afford to send our kids off to college and have that moving-out-at-18 experience. And even more uniquely, I’ve basically been a stay-at-home dad for (gulp) 22 years, save for a few stints freelancing and working as a custodian in an office. So part of the mixed-up ball of emotions I’m sorting through is the fact that I have major changes on the horizon. Over the years, when other parents have asked the inevitable, “So, what do you do?” question at social events, I’ve said, “I’m a stay-at-home dad.” But last year, someone followed up with, “Aren’t your kids fully grown humans by now?”
Jen has been a little more graceful with these changes over the years. When our firstborn was going off to college, I thought it would be fun to make a playlist for the 4-hour drive to their dorm, filled with songs that meant something to us as a family or had messages in them: several “High School Musical” songs, “All Your Favorite Bands” by Dawes, “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa, “Follow Your Arrow” by Kacey Musgraves, “Good Riddance” by Green Day. As soon as Jen and I said goodbye, watched our child walk into the residence hall without us, and hopped in the minivan, I was already a blubbering mess. “Can you put on the playlist?” I said between gulps. Gently, Jen said, “Maybe we should hold off on the playlist for a bit.” “PUT ON THE PLAYLIST!!!” I sobbed. So that’s how I’ve handled the big changes over the years.
This summer, on a walk, I said to Jen, “So that’s it? We’re just supposed to raise them up, watch them grow, and then let them go?” Jen said, “Pretty much. That was the deal.” Of course I knew this was the plan from the day they were born, to raise independent, resilient people who could go off into the world and survive on their own without me. I just didn’t think it would actually reach this endpoint so quickly.
This last year, I felt these big and small moments like depth charges going off in my soul’s ocean. I never knew when they’d hit or what damage the shock waves would cause. I’d be at a cross-country meet and think, This is the last time I’ll be at this park watching a race, and I’d have to choke back my emotions. My daughter usually drove to school, but one day in her last month she wanted me to drop her off and pick her up. As I waited in line for her to come out of the school, I watched the hundreds of students stream out and thought about the thousands of days I took her to school over the years, first when she was a baby and I pushed her in this purple jogging stroller as I walked the other two to grade school, then when she was mobile and would run ahead of me and I’d push the empty jogging stroller to keep up with her (for years, random people would approach me in the grocery store and around town and say, “Hey, you’re that purple stroller guy!”), then when she was walking to school alongside me, then when she wanted me to drive her to high school, and finally when she was old enough to drive herself. Sitting in the school’s circle drive, I had to blink those tears away, put on a smile when she got in the car, and say, “Yo! How was your day?”
I spent a lot of time over the last 4 years running or biking next to our youngest as she trained for her sports seasons. (The bike came in when she became too fast for me to keep up on her speed days.) This last year I felt as if I needed to pass along wisdom and advice to her that I may have forgotten. Sometimes it wasn’t well organized and I sounded like Polonius in Act 1, Scene 3 of “Hamlet,” giving advice to his university-going son Laertes (that’s a reference for the English majors out there). Hopefully some of what I said made sense and helps her in the college life. I’ll let you know in 4 to 5 years.
Our last child was our loudest, so the house is startlingly quiet now. I’m in the “look how clean I can make our closets and basement” stage of empty nesting. I go for long runs and long walks. I try not to end up wandering past the high school too much. I listen to music while I walk; the other day I had to turn off the “Hamilton” soundtrack. I was at “It’s Quiet Uptown”: “If you see him in the street, walking by himself, talking to himself, have pity, he is working through the unimaginable.” I know the next phase of Jen’s and my life is here; I’m trying not to get too attached to and nostalgic for the previous one. It’s important to make sure that when one door closes, you look for other ones and don’t keep trying to reopen the closed door. I’ll get there.
Last week, I ran into a friend walking her dog; her youngest kid is 4 years older than mine, so she’s a few steps ahead of us in the process. She asked me how I was hanging in there (again, I get it! No one was surprised that I was the sniveling crybaby!). I talked at length about how hard it is to adjust, and how I find it difficult even to walk into our kids’ empty bedrooms. Jen turned one into an AirBnB-quality bedroom; the other we’re not touching for a while, so it’s a shrine to our two younger kids. Finally, my friend said, “I know what you’re going through! But here’s the thing: You will get over it and get used to it. It’s going to be nice not to clean the house on a daily basis, there will be less laundry and dishes, and when all the kids are home and you have a full house, it’s a loud, messy hurricane rolling through and you will look forward to getting back to the clean, quiet life that you’ve gotten used to. Trust me.”
It’s been 2 weeks so far. And it’s everything I experienced with the first two, and it’s more intense than I thought it would be with the last one, but here’s a twist: I didn’t account for the fact that our youngest kid would text me many, many times daily and want to talk on the phone every chance we’re available. We’ve already visited her at school once, and she’s coming home this weekend. So maybe I didn’t raise the independent, leave-it-all-behind kid that I thought I was. (And maybe I’m not too upset about that. But don’t tell my kid that!)