The thing I did wrong after dropping my youngest son off at college recently was to have dinner with friends.
Dinner should have been a grand celebration. After all, my husband and I are now officially free of sports practices, chore-nagging and crisis trips to the mall. Our other four kids made it through college and got jobs, so we have reason to believe this one will follow the same sunlit path. We knew we'd miss him — we miss all of our children — but we also knew how fortunate we are to have a great marriage and careers we love.
“It's party time!” my husband said.
The friends we saw that night are people I've known for 30 years. They, too, have sent their youngest kids off to college. Our plan was to meet at an Italian place and toast our new independence with red wine.
It was fun. Then the conversation suddenly veered from dormitory drop-off stories to our aging parents. We talked about falls and surgeries, memory failure, nursing homes and what to do when the money runs out.
That's when it dawned on me that, in 20 years, our children will be having this same conversation with their friends. About us.
Twenty years. The thing is, parents can visualize 20 years easily: that's the length of time it takes for a child to learn to walk, talk, ride a bike, read and write, play sports and maybe fall in love. We can remember rocking our babies to sleep as easily as we remember cheering our high school graduates. Blink, and we know 20 years is gone.
I came home from that dinner in a funk. I tried to focus on the positive side of empty nesting: the impromptu Tuesday night movies, my escape from the tyranny of PTO meetings, the fact that my washing machine only runs twice a week. All good!
Then, a few days later, I came into the dining room and saw our dog, now 10, lying on the floor and breathing in a funny way. I sobbed because I realized that soon he, too, will be gone.
I know that sending our children into the world is our job as parents. We raise our children to let them go. But, in the mornings especially, when the yellow school bus roars past my house, the silent spaces around me are too vast. Because I am no longer a harried working mom, I can hear the clock ticking. Literally.
We can remember rocking our babies to sleep as easily as we remember cheering our high school graduates. Blink, and we know 20 years is gone.
The end of parenthood is the end of an era where we felt supremely useful. Who are we now, with nobody texting because they need a ride, fought with a friend, or want to bring someone to dinner? Are we still a family, if there's only a quart of milk in the grocery cart?
No matter how much we might be excited about these vast hours blooming open before us, the empty nest is full of unexpectedly sharp twigs that keep poking us, scratching our skin and piercing our hearts, reminding us that our days are numbered. Twenty years from now, most of us will be gone, or we'll be husks of our former selves.
“Picture it as your hand,” I urged my husband, “with each finger representing four years. What do you want to have happen, at the tip of each finger?”
“I want to cheat and use my toes, too,” he said.
During a recent trip to Prince Edward Island, my husband and I were walking on the beach when we ran into a man wearing a souvenir t-shirt from Thailand. Because it was September, we were alone on that endless stretch of gorgeous beach, and because it was Canada, we all stopped to talk like long-lost pals. This man was older than we are, probably in his mid-60s.
“Did you go to Thailand?” I asked, pointing to his shirt.
Who are we now, with nobody texting because they need a ride, fought with a friend, or want to bring someone to dinner?
He had, he said, and told us about his trip. “The thing is,” he added, “I went when I was too old. I should have gone when I was younger, so I would have had the energy to do more.”
“At least you went,” I said. “That's something.”
He heaved a sigh. “Yes, but I'll always regret not doing it sooner,” he said, and walked away, shoulders hunched.
I don't want to be that man. No regrets: that is going to be my new mantra, induced by those sharp twigs in my empty nest. For each of my four year segments that make up my next 20 years of life, I will try like hell to do everything I want to do. Maybe I'll join the Peace Corps, knit better sweaters, or sign up for rowing lessons on the Merrimack River.
Whatever I do, I am determined to embrace it all. To fit as many things as possible onto each finger of time I have left, with no regrets.
That way, when my children are drinking their bottles of wine and talking about what to do with me, they can say, “Mom sure had fun, anyway.”