Some people claim that God created teenagers so parents wouldn't die of utter despair when their formerly adorable children left the nest and toddled off to college. This theory -- which was probably more prevalent a generation ago -- holds that teenagers are so obnoxious, rude, insufferable, so infuriatingly contrary, so impossible to live with on a daily basis, that we grown-ups would rejoice at seeing them out of the house and on their own, blessedly reducing social interaction to innocuous cameo appearances at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But what if your teenagers are not insufferable? What if they're sweet, well-behaved, affectionate and pleasant to be around? What if they speak in fluent grammatical sentences and don't overuse the word "awesome"? What if you actually enjoy their company? What if they still hug you a lot? What then?
There's an old joke regarding the undesirability of having teenagers hanging out at home. A priest, a minister and a rabbi are all asked the same question: "When does life really begin?"
The priest says: "At conception."
The minister says: "At birth."
The rabbi says: "When the dog dies and kids go off to college."
I beg to differ. For one thing, I happen to be really fond of our dog in spite of the exasperating unpredictability of her bowels. Like the kids, she's well-behaved, affectionate and obedient; unlike the kids, she was impossible to potty train.
For me, the cursed automobile represented the first inkling of what was to come. Maybe I'm a sap, but when my daughters got their driver's licenses, I was miserable because I suddenly missed driving them everywhere they wanted or needed to go, a task that many parents find tedious. But for me, those short car trips gave us a chance to talk, to bond, to argue endlessly about the artistic value of rap music. To them, the driver's license represented freedom; for me it represented their first step out of the nest and astronomical insurance premiums. They still technically lived at home -- we just didn't see them much anymore.
Although it's supposed to be a time of pride, I was utterly disconsolate to see them go off to college where, among other things, there existed boys that I couldn't threaten. Four years later, I welled up when those blue mortarboards hit the sky. After graduation, they stayed with us for a while and then left to pursue careers. Today, one of them lives in Mexico; the other, in Montana. I realize that this is how it should be, that they're supposed to move on with their lives, that I'm supposed to feel good about their independence and success. I truly do, but I miss the old days. So sue me.
Now it's just The Wife and me, alone together in our condo (we downsized when the kids left) with rooms that reverberate with silence, and lots of non-kid time on our hands. We cook for two. We sit alone in front of the TV at night. We don't have to stay up late and wait for the kids to violate their curfew. We don't have to watch MTV or listen to hip-hop. No one makes fun of us when we dance. It's a great life!
Once upon a time, we lived happily alone, without children or pets. We were free then, we had privacy, we could travel. Just like now. But there are mysterious memory gaps. What was life like before children? How did we fill up the days? What did we do for laughs? What was so much fun about it?
Sure, we have photo albums dating back to our pre-children lives, vast collections of fading Polaroids that capture us cavorting on a Caribbean beach or wearing berets in Paris or making goofy faces while stoned at someone's dingy apartment. It sure looks like we were having fun.
Then why is it I have little interest in any of those albums, unless I need a refresher on how much better I looked then? Why is it I always end up putting on the DVD (recently converted from videotape) of Julia's ballet class performing its first recital, an orgy of awkwardness that resembled a traffic pile-up of cars wearing tutus, or the one that captures Lizzie dressed up for Halloween as a butcher with a fake meat cleaver sticking out of her forehead?
Call me a sentimental old fool, but those DVDs represent the best years of my life. And, sadly, those years are over.
At least the dog is still alive.