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Lee Woodruff

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Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Almost Empty Nests

Posted: 10/05/11 10:01 AM ET

I knew exactly what it was the minute the couch swayed in late August. An earthquake in upstate New York. I'd been through "the big one" in San Francisco in 1989. So when I felt the gentle rocking, and then the stillness, my thoughts flicked to the fragility of our place on this fairly fragile planet.

Sometimes nature mirrors our own interior landscape. And so the late summer and early fall before I sent my freshman girl off to college continued to be a crazy quilt of disasters; fires in Texas, hurricane Irene, followed by the aptly named "Lee" and then Katia, whipping those of us on the east coast into more paroxysms of frenzy.

At home we hunkered down for the coming hurricanes. We changed the batteries in the flashlights, bought the bottled water and rolled up the rugs. Our house was spared. But when the flood waters from Irene receded in our town, we were all reminded again that none of us stand in the control room of life.

And then the main event. The real reason for my interior upheaval. A very clean room. The morning after we dropped my second child -- our first daughter -- off at college, my husband and I each separately passed her room and quietly wept. The bed was made, the floor immaculate, the closet almost empty, containing only objects too unimportant to be packed.

A hole was punched in our family when our son left for college three years ago. But this hole was different. Our daughter had been present in ways too complicated to articulate. She was my sometime confidant, the baker of chocolate chips, the pinch hitting babysitter/driver for her twin sisters, the little girl that had grown up, but still toggled between those two different-aged worlds under our roof. Her close knit group of friends had flitted in and out of our house for years, enthusiastically calling out hellos, hanging out in her room or outside, tanning on towels. She brought into our home the wonderful background thrum of teenagers in all of their in-the-moment-up-to-the-minute ebb and flow of enviously self-absorbed lives. She was my girl, the inverted carbon copy of my best stuff.

And then in the wake of her departure... the anniversary of September 11th. A somber reminder of the day, one decade ago, when our lives, outlooks, world views and complacency changed forever.

I didn't watch much TV coverage surrounding the 10th anniversary. I saw enough a decade ago and in the intervening wars and memorials and remembrances since. Watching just makes me sad. I didn't need to watch to remember. How can any of us forget?

And yet when I look at all of the things -- large and small -- that have transpired on that day and after "the big horrible thing" on September 11th, I am constantly reminded that people survive. They endure incredible things. They pull themselves from the brink of rubble and disaster, terror and grief and they begin the slow climb back to the top. And the longer we live, the more that all the world's disasters have a funny way of lifting us, of giving us the long view, a perspective only gained by experience.

So here is what I know. This is what I have personally seen and experienced. Human beings are built to survive. The flower grows miraculously from between the crack in the cement.

September 11th also happens to be my wedding day. A wonderful cobalt blue sky in 1988; an Indian summer September year when I said "I do" to my best friend, my love. And I never once looked back, despite my understanding of what commitment and "forever" means 23 years later. As I gaze at what our future together means, growing old, an empty nest, frailties and potential diagnoses; my mind's eye views life a bit differently on this side of 50.

But that view is no less powerful or hopeful, and even more cherished. The 11-year-old twins that are still kicking around the house will keep us both vital into our 60s, and maybe somewhere around there we'll become grandparents too. The circle of life, as with hurricanes and earthquakes, tragedies and recoveries is a cycle of upheaval and healing. I see this now from my pulled back perch of mid-life. I'm more keenly aware of not squandering the nest time we have with the two that remain.

On a phone call recently with my daughter, she tells me she's missing home a bit. I know what she is missing; that easy feeling of friends in lock step since elementary school, the security of being a senior at the top of the pile, the king of the world. She's missing the warm walls of home, a dinner made, a kiss good night and her snuggles with Dad. She's missing a structure where there is a higher power and a set of rules that are not open to dispute. As a freshman she is at the bottom of the heap in a new place, with few connectors to her old life. She has to set her own new boundaries.

Change, transitions, the possibility of failure, cutting the umbilical cord, an empty nest; these are all big things. It's scary out there. And she's just left home. And yet I know my girl will hit her stride not only in college, but out in the great wide world beyond those four years. She will find her place in the universe, all four of them will, even as I walk past her room and grieve the loss of her place right here.

 

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