I pondered the next few hours of this plane ride. Did I have his Scooby Doo backpack? Check. Power Ranger coloring books? Oh no, where were the crayons and mini markers? Oh yeah, they're behind the Cheetos. That's another check for me. Wow! I'm scoring 100 percent in mommy-airport protocol. I was loaded with chewy granola bars, sippy cups and I even had some Benadryl if things got rough. We were ready to go. My little man couldn't board fast enough to get the pair of wings promised by the pilot.
All passengers for flight 1233 from Los Angeles to New York's LaGuardia airport please prepare to board. Those with small children will board first.
As I reached for my travelers little hand, waiting to feel sticky fingers adorned with cookie crumbs, I felt the grip of a man's hand leading me toward the boarding gate. I quickly jumped off the memory train onto a return flight from 1998 to 2013.
Welcome back! It's the day you're taking your son to college. No more sticky fingers, sippy cups or gummy bear vitamins. I was taking my young man across the country to settle him into what would be his home for the next four years. He is now an incoming college freshman, beginning a new chapter of his life, ready to experience a different type of independence, and so was I.
As we boarded it happened again, like an episode of Star Trek, (Bill Shatner era). It was 1998 and my little man, in Buzz Lightyear sweats, velcro sneakers and jean jacket, was being escorted by the flight attendant to greet the pilot and be given a pair of wings that he would wear with pride.
"Look Mommy, I have wings, I can go places," uttered my 4-year-old, looking up at me with the same intense brown eyes and determination that landed him admission to an Ivy League school.
"Mom, what are you doing? Sit down already!" I heard my son call to me from his seat. I was back in 2013. I must admit, I felt a pang of relief that I didn't have to chase my 4 year old up and down the narrow aisle of the plane, sharing phony smiles with strangers who secretly wished that I would sit down. I would, however, miss staring out the window counting the endless fluffy clouds deciding which one looked more like an elephant or Scooby Doo.
I'm not alone on this journey which makes these bittersweet feelings more tolerable. We, the parents of the college-bound, have earned our wings. We are proud and weepy, fearful and elated. We share feelings of trepidation and intense anxiety over rising tuition rates and meal plans. We meet at various places around the country; malls, outlets and the popular favorite, Bed Bath and Beyond.
It is here where parents and the college-bound round the bends of the housewares department, stroll tirelessly up and down aisles of pastel and leopard thousand count sheets. We share the same purpose; that our child's college experience will be positive and comfortable. Suddenly, pillow density was tantamount. It was imperative that my college student lay soundly to insure he'd be well-rested for a day of successful learning. He needed a lamp that would shine bright enough for him to contemplate philosophical queries that would fill his mind. We, the parents, were preparing our children for the future, just as we have done for years past.
With scanner in hand and my fears at rest, I was ready for the college shopping experience to begin. My son was already in bath towels. Umm. Excuse me, "bath sheets." I could feel my pressure rise as decisions had to be made about extra long sheets, mattress covers and bed bug protectors. Were we leaning toward bed in a bag, and what about under the bed storage?
I questioned my newly-found enthusiasm and began to grow sentimental and weepy. I strayed into the candle aisle, smelled a patchouli candle and realized it was time to pull myself together. I glanced up to find another mom sniffing candles as well. This candle area was the equivalent of a parental decompression chamber! She asked if I was taking my child to college. I nodded yes and she quickly gave me a reassuring smile filled with comfort, connection and a mommy hug. She was a veteran mom and suddenly, that sense of purpose reappeared. I was recharged.
We were saying goodbye to an era, walks to the park, little league and parent teacher conferences. Along came our college bounders, registry ray guns in tow, discussing school, frats and roommate fears. I smiled as my son carried on about a world I wasn't a part of. He had grown up. With one more whiff of my candle I smiled at the veteran mom and got ready to leave.
Move in day felt more like a trip to sleepaway camp than college. After loading the elevator with laundry baskets filled with clothes, detergent and an alarm clock, we ascended into my son's room. Suddenly, I felt the need to know every nook and cranny, electrical outlet and which drawer his t-shirts would be in. As I found myself arranging his "shower caddy", I stopped. I had come face to face with my stalker like; smother-mother behavior. Within minutes my son had arranged his room in a way that suited him, not me. It was time to retreat to the suite area and sit with the other parents, many of whom were veterans of this ritual.
"Ahh, a first timer," said one mom looking at me.
Was I that obvious? Doesn't everyone walk do the walk and weep with raccoon-like mascara eyes and a face red as a Roma tomato?
The greater part of the day was spent in parent orientation. It was hard to imagine no more parent teacher conferences or book fairs. His grades were private and his choice to share or not. We enjoyed a buffet lunch where my college freshman was seated with his peers and myself at a table with the veteran parents. I was restrained, didn't prepare his plate or cut his grapes in half. I even asked if he'd like a cup of coffee. He looked at me awkwardly. I retreated back to my corner and pretended to listen as I stole glances of my son. The afternoon was coming to a close and my inevitable goodbye was looming.
The walk back to the dorm was silent. I periodically stopped to tie my laceless shoes in order to keep time from passing. I wasn't ready to say goodbye or for my solo flight back to Los Angeles. I was losing emotional ground and could've used that patchouli candle. Harry walked me to his dorm room. The bed was made, clothes put away and computer hooked up. Was I really surprised?
With outstretched arms my little man hugged me tight. "I love you mommy." Suddenly he wasn't so young anymore. A new city and college in one fell swoop? I was proud. I hugged him once more and began to leave. I looked back and saw him laughing with his roommate, discussing computer technology and music. He was in his element. He had taken off.
While hailing a cab a veteran mom asked me how I was doing. "I'm doing", I answered in a sheepish voice I didn't recognize. "Welcome to the club!", she said and smiled. I knew exactly what she meant. I was now a veteran. Tears fell as I climbed into the cab on what was my initiation day. I had earned my wings. It was time to go home where I still had children dealing with upcoming SAT exams and locker combination battles.
I settled into my seat and prepared myself for what was going to be a long and contemplative flight. I sipped my Dunkin Donuts coffee and wondered why there weren't Dunkin Donuts in LA. A good distraction. I would spend the next five hours investigating donut franchises instead of figuring out how to move into my son's dorm.
As I looked up I found myself staring at a mom, awkwardly maneuvering down the aisle of the plane. Running ahead (destination unknown) was a little boy dressed in sweats and a jean jacket. I pinched myself just to make sure I wasn't headed back to 1998. She passed by me, begging her son to slow down. She struggled as her backpack kept falling and his leaky sippy cup exploded on my lap. I helped them settle into seats a few rows behind me. She had tears in her eyes as she apologized and wondered how she would make it through the flight. I smiled reassuringly and said, "My son and I used to love looking out and imagining the animals in the clouds; enjoy him, he'll be in college soon."
"Wow, I can't even imagine that far ahead," she answered.
I was given a handful of chocolate teddy grahams as I walked back to my seat. I glanced down and saw the little boy coloring a picture of pilot wings with his oversized crayons. (they don't pass out plastic wings anymore).
I smiled and wondered what my little pilot was doing at that moment. I felt the tears slowly return, but now I was calm and there was no candle. My little man had earned his wings and so did I.
In the same way that volunteering at your child's school makes you part of a community and helps you make friends with fellow parents, volunteering at your local library, homeless shelter, or with a civic group will immerse you in a new community that includes neighbors and empty nesters.
Did you know that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't start writing books until her children were grown and with kids of their own? Take advantage of your empty nest and get involved in something that you have wanted to do and previously did not have enough time to do. Take a class, play a sport, or find a hobby.
If you've only ever done poorly paid part-time jobs while the children were at home (or if raising kids for 18 years was enough full time work in itself!), now you've got the chance to have a fresh start. Or you may have an ambition to run your own business -- the 'encore career' movement is rife with fresh faced entrepreneurs over 50. Now is the time to discover what passions live within you and pursue them to the bank!
Now that you're not responsible for getting a kid to school at 8 a.m. five days a week, explore the idea of exploring. Rejoice in the freedom you haven't had in years and see the world. Feel like seeing the pyramids? Versailles? Living in Costa Rica for a year week? Step to it amigo!
If an empty nest means anything, it's privacy. Rejoice in your long-deserved break from acting like a parent and act like an adult. Whether you're married or single, take the opportunity to reignite the sputtering spark in your relationship or get out there and carve out for yourself a love life worth living. It's true what they say, sex IS better after 50.
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