I always thought that baby birds migrated with their families, living happily ever after in a flock of friendship and closeness. Alas, that was a mere fantasy of mine.
Most birds separate after the nesting season is over. Once the young birds do leave the nest, they are completely on their own. How do the baby birds know what to do, where to go and how to get there once they've been released into the world? No one really knows for sure. But this much is true: For all birds, leaving the nest is a dangerous time, opening them up to the hazards and predators of the world.
Do their parents mourn their offspring? Apparently not. The birds and their offspring seem pretty independent. It's not uncommon for the parents to fly South long before their offspring do. The birds that don't migrate South have the advantage, at least, of being in familiar surroundings, even though they're left alone.
People may not be so resilient. I hear all kinds of horror stories about becoming empty nesters.
"I was too depressed to get out of bed in the morning," a friend of mine admitted after her youngest left for college. This was the same friend who began ripping photos out of decorating magazines before the ink on her son's acceptance letter was dry so should could convert his bedroom into a "super gym." After so many years of parenting, she told me she could hardly wait to be free.
Until it happened.
Another friend, after her only child left for college, took up a new hobby: shopping. She filled her home with knickknacks so peculiar that each time I saw I new one, I struggled to figure out what prompted the purchase: a bright purple vase with an irregular narrow shape that defied logic; a kitchen tool to scoop the doughy part out of bagels; a bag-less vacuum cleaner resembling an oversized robot. Most curious of all -- since this friend never cooked -- was her newly-acquired collection of frilly kitchen aprons. I began to understand that perhaps they were meant for somewhere other than the kitchen.
And my neighbor, whose fourth child finally left for college (her emphasis on the finally, not mine), baked with so much fervor that before long, her body became so round that I couldn't help but wonder if a fifth child was on the way.
The transition to an empty nest surprised me with its relative ease. Except for the moment of handing my boys off to their dorm rooms and saying goodbye, my tears stayed at bay. "OK, Mom, you can let go of me now," said my oldest, Jonathan, as he gently shrunk from my vise-like grasp. He had gone away before -- many summers we had played out a similar scene at camp. But this time was different. College ushered in a giant move toward adulthood and a silent rite of passage.
The following year, when it was time to surrender my second son, Jeremy, to college, I knew better; I hugged him hurriedly and casually. The day was overcast and unseasonably chilly for late August. Drizzle had turned more insistent -- weighty and foreshadowing.
"Gotta run! No umbrella!" I said. But the rain was not what truly threatened me; it was my tears. It wasn't until our car pulled away from the curb that my tears released themselves with a ferocity matching the thunderstorm that followed.
"An empty nest means positive things," I insisted a few nights later to my husband, Alan. My house officially was now a child-free zone. I could concentrate on my career, having the freedom to work in my home office without interruption or a 3 p.m. deadline, when school let out and motherhood picked up again. Alan and I could go away overnight, or even for a weekend, without feeling uneasy about leaving our almost-grown children unsupervised. I could walk around the house in my underwear if I felt like it.
And even though I am not, nor have I ever been, a group person (my group was my family), I was ready to form a new group. I blithely named the group the HENS, for Happy Empty Nesters. But the group hardly broke a record for members. Were people hesitant to join simply because they didn't subscribe to its mission? Or were they instead afraid to admit that they, too, were believers?
No matter. I did just fine as a HEN on my own. Occasionally I'd waver from its basic tenets and begin missing my children. But each time, they'd reappear as if summoned by a part of my reality that threatened to overtake me. Between school vacations, long weekends and longer summers, the bedrooms were sporadically occupied.
Even when my children moved to their own apartments after college graduation, their bedrooms remained intact. Their closets still sheltered items they had neither the room nor the need for: the Legos they played with as children, a trumpet from high school band and various sizes of navy blazers and cuffed khakis they'd worn to their bar mitzvahs, school dances and proms.
The remnants of their youth -- twin-sized beds with matching nightstands, oversized posters of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, medicine cabinets crammed with Clearasil and fruit-flavored toothpaste--were left behind in favor of a new phase of life, one with queen-sized beds, new cookware and their very own wine glasses.
Fast-forward five years. As our lives became more and more separate, it became time to sell the family home. As I write this, I sit in a house that echoes with hollowness. Cartons of varying sizes cover the floors and grow menacingly high, growing taller and faster than my two sons combined.
Tomorrow the moving trucks arrive, emptying the house that protected, nurtured, celebrated, fed and entertained my children. Strangely, and not without irony, it's a house that is too large and, at the same time, one we've outgrown. Someone else's dreams will materialize upon their twin-sized beds. Little hands fueled with imagination will create boats and cars from their Legos.
My boys came over last night. One final night in our mutual nest. One last dinner in our dining room. One last chance to look around, breathe in the sweet unexplainable scent that hovers in the air and belongs uniquely to our home, this home which my two boys entered as children and are leaving as men.
The spacious yard that once absorbed the imprints of growing feet and yelping voices will now embrace the rhythm of a new family.
"Let's have a group hug," I say, after the last dish goes into the dishwasher. Quickly, we entwine, holding one another, silent in our own separate thoughts, yet knowing we are in sync with one another.
We'll miss this house that harbored us through the roar of the school bus, the roughhousing of the boys and their friends, the raucous parties, the girlfriends who came and went. We will always remember precisely where we sat, what we were wearing and what the weather was like when the horrors of 9/11 descended; when the mailbox held the secret to college acceptances; when Obama swept the election; and when we made the decision to put down our dog, the dog we had welcomed into our house just one month after we moved in.
"Mom, are you crying?" Jonathan asks.
This time, I don't try to hide it. I am mourning the departure of my children like I never before did. I hug my group strongly, secure in the fact that although the nest is truly empty now, we will fill up a new, stronger one. We'll follow the birds' lead and recycle some items from our old nest and incorporate them into our new creation.
And like those precious baby birds, our children will flourish in the outside world.
This much I know for sure.