Can a wife and husband learn to live without their children?
Posted in , Nov 5, 2009
To our left, the Santa Lucia Mountains jutted into the cornflower blue western sky.
To our right, the Pinnacles Mountains rose likewise into the cloudless east.
And rushing alongside our tour bus windows in a blur of emerald, teal, mint and kelly green was the verdant flat patchwork quilt of California’s Salinas Valley.
The tour guide’s microphone crackled with upbeat commentary.
“Nestled between two mountain ranges, the Salinas Valley offers the perfect soil and climate for lettuce, asparagus, cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, kale, broccoli, and grapes,” he said. “We call it America’s salad bowl.”
Tourists on the bus chuckled.
Not me. I reached for a tissue to dab my eyes and blow my nose. Sitting next to me, my husband, Tom, rolled his eyes as if to say, “Here we go again.” In a gesture of understanding, he reached for my hand. But I pulled away, and glumly turned my face to the window.
I’d read about empty nest syndrome in magazines, listened to older friends talk about it, but never had experienced it first-hand. Until now.
Only two months earlier, Tom and I had said goodbye to our son and daughter as they went off to college. But it felt like two years had passed.
Although the hot California sun blazed in the autumn sky and the tour guide told us that it was a seasonable 82 degrees outside, a cold lonely wind swept through my heart.
It wasn’t that I had too much time on my hands. With two hefty tuitions to pay, I was working harder than ever. Instead of feeling down in the dumps, I should be grateful and happy for the opportunity to join Tom on his business trip to California.
After all, wasn’t this exactly the sort of grown-up vacation getaway we had dreamt of for so many years?
I pressed my forehead harder against the cold glass window, and vivid memories rushed through my mind, fast as the passing scenery…
Lullabies… bedtime prayers… birthday parties… Christmas mornings… hamsters… tricycles… training wheels… skinned knees… more hamsters!… lemonade stands… ballet recitals… piano lessons… science projects… slumber parties… first dates… driving lessons... high school proms… graduations…
Each tender memory was like a little death, each deserving its own time for grieving. But it was too much loss to process. Too much change, too fast!
I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that Katy and Brinck were not only where they wanted to be, but where they should be.
This was a happy, exciting time in their young lives, a season of new discoveries, challenges and growth. Their new school communities provided safe places where they could try their wings and soar.
But I didn’t want to let go! I missed not being involved in the intimate day-to-day details of my children’s lives.
Now, it somehow didn’t feel right not knowing what they’d had for breakfast, if they were dressed warmly enough, what books they were reading, what friends they were with, what recent experience had caused them to think more deeply, or laugh, or—perish the thought—cry.
Let’s face it. I didn’t like the fact I no longer had control over these things. I tried to chase away anxious thoughts of the poor decisions and mistakes they might make—all part of being human and growing up—but painful nonetheless.
Please God, keep our children safe. Help their mistakes be learning experiences—the kind of lessons-learned that ultimately serve to strengthen and build character...
And who was this stranger sitting next to me? Without the daily details of our children’s lives to discuss, what exactly was our marriage supposed to be about? I think what scared me even more than life apart from our kids was the unknown prospect of our new empty-nest life together.
It’s as though our children are off dancing on the mountaintops, I thought. While Tom and I are left behind, stuck in the valley.
My thoughts were interrupted by the crackling microphone.
“Pretty as those mountaintops are, folks,” the tour guide said, “Remember this: It’s down in the valley where everything grows.”
Again, Tom reached for my hand.
Don’t worry, I heard God’s gentle whisper in my heart. I’ll watch over your children. The time has come for you and Tom to move on. I took my husband’s hand and gripped it tightly.
God had brought us safely this far. Surely, with his help, new discoveries, challenges and growth were waiting for us, too… just around the bend.
Thank you, Lord, for change! I accept your challenge to grow.
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Kathryn Slattery is a long-time Contributing Editor for Guideposts magazine, and the author of several books including her memoir, Lost & Found: One Daughter’s Story of Amazing Grace (GuidepostsBooks) Learn more about her work at KathrynSlattery.com.