Just got a text from the kid.
"Realize I'm going to need my winter coat. Can you ship it?"
Were my life a horror movie, I suspect this is where the audience starts moaning in anticipatory terror.
Just got a text from the kid.
"Realize I'm going to need my winter coat. Can you ship it?"
Were my life a horror movie, I suspect this is where the audience starts moaning in anticipatory terror.
This morning, I bounded in to our bedroom and told Daniel, “I just figured it out. It's not that I don't grieve, it's that I grieve in metaphors!”
Daniel, having been asleep when I bounded in, responded with “Slrph?”
I chose to take this as encouragement to continue.
“Like how this summer, with the calendar thing?...”
Quick backstory on the calendar thing. I am a freakishly punctual person. There are things I do badly, but being where I’m supposed to be when I’m supposed to be there is one of my weird gifts. Well, it was, until the past few months. As D-Day approached, at least once a week I’d forget to be someplace, or I’d put something in the calendar on the wrong day, or I’d hear we needed to be at the ferry to Catalina at 8:15am and carefully write down 8:45am, assuring we missed the boat.
For the sake of his blood pressure, Daniel and I have agreed to not utter the word “Catalina” for at least eight months.
“So,” I continue, sitting on the bed and prodding at Daniel’s foot. “It’s completely obvious that was my brain’s way of trying to forget the passing of time, that with each day we were getting closer to sending the kid off. Because, honestly, when she comes back, she’s back for, like, a few weeks and then she’s off to college. We’re done, right? Who wouldn’t want to forget a boat ride over that?”
“Sorry. You’re right. Still too soon. But this morning I’m putting on leggings to go walk and they’re hers and it occurs to me! It’s so obvious!”
I waited for him to ask for details. He appeared to be sliding back to sleep. I poked his shin in what I hoped was a convivial way. He pulled the covers over his head.
“Stop whining, you’re fine. Since you asked, why am I wearing her leggings! It’s like those nomadic people in that documentary!”
“You know! From…Russia! Or Peru. Somewhere nomadic. Anyway, anthropologists discovered toothmarks on the skeletons of children and they theorize the mothers would cannibalize their children who died because since they were nomadic, there was no grave to visit. Eating a bit of your child was a way of keeping them nearby! These aren’t leggings, they’re a symbol of loss and connection!”
I waited expectantly.
The silence deepened.
I poked Daniel’s shin.
“Stop that!” the quilt ordered.
“What do you think?”
Daniel lifted his head slightly and squinted at the clock.
“I think I don’t have to get up for an hour,” he said.
“That’s true,” I agreed, “But the idea felt important.”
“Guessing you found the matcha tea again.”
“I wish you’d stop hiding it.”
“I hide it because of mornings like this,” he sighed, gazing lovingly at his pillow.
“Oh, hush,” I snapped, “Now, my idea. What do you think?”
“Candidly, I think eating your daughter’s workout leggings is weird. Now, go away,” Daniel said, flopping back down again.
I learned two things today:
1. The matcha tea was in the glove compartment,
2. I need something to do, and quickly.
Yesterday’s exercise class bought me 24 hours. I have things to do in a week. Between now and then, I have writing assignments, my own projects, and this diary, but those are going to keep me in the house, drinking green tea and having great thoughts which apparently might include cannibalism. I hate the phrase “Keeping busy,” for all of its little meaningless projects to hold off the whiff of the grave intimations, but it must be said.
I have to keep busy.
And Daniel has got to find a better place to hide the tea.
I absolutely love the fashion and beauty industries. This might surprise some people who have seen me in public. “That woman loves fashion and beauty?” they might ask. “That one? The one out in public dressed as if she’s in the third day of a sinus infection?”
We’re all surprised. I dress like the writer/errand-doer I am — the kind of person who, while at Target for motor oil and cat litter, picks herself out a shirt because it’s on the sale rack and almost fits. But just because I look as if I’m heading to the pharmacy for urgently-needed medicine doesn’t mean I don’t have loud and informed opinions. Speak loudly enough about something on social media and people start sending you things for the cheap pleasure of watching you bloviate. A few months back, I got an email, the subject of which was: “This is bullshit, right?”
Don’t have to ask me twice. I clicked. Here was an article about a physical trainer in Houston who is the go-to guy for fashion models having to get their measurements down. If you live a worthy and thoughtful life and don’t think about the fashion industry, let me commend you. I'll bring you up to speed. Models are hired to wear clothing. At most photo shoots, the clothing comes in one size — the “sample size.” Your hips must be 34 inches around. You can be the prettiest girl on earth but if you’re starting off in the industry and are an inch, even a half-inch, bigger than the clothing, you will not work. This is where this guy comes in.
He is known in the industry as “The Hip Whisperer.”
So, in answer to the subject line of that original email, sure, it’s bullshit. It’s bullshit that a multi-billion dollar industry hews to a standard of beauty nearly impossible to maintain without lucky genetics, constant dietary vigilance and one very busy workout coach in Texas. It’s also bullshit that this story is, apparently, the most read story ever on this magazine’s web page.
And it’s certainly bullshit that I got entirely too excited when I saw hat The Hip Whisperer was coming to Los Angeles. “WE HAVE TO TAKE THAT CLASS!” my brain shouted happily in my skull. To say this was irrational is putting it mildly. I don’t act on camera any more so I’m not required to live under my natural weight. I’m not a half-inch away from the Victoria’s Secret runway job, so that money could be better spent on something more useful and practical, like clothing without food stains.
And yet, taking this class felt stupid in the right way. It would be nothing which benefits anyone but me and nothing I’ve ever done before. Every morning, I take my morning walk the exact same way, at the same place, in the same direction, every time. If I do decide to treat myself by going into the coffee house near where I park my car, the barista has my drink poured before I reach the counter. I refer again to rats in Manhattan: this rat needs to try out some new dumpsters. I signed up to have my hips Whispered at.
Today was my first class. I reached the stairwell of the dance studio at the same time as a teenage girl of glowing health and doll-like proportions. Her perfectly-manicured hands held a Lucite box. Inside the box was a tiara. We walked up the stairs in silence for a few seconds before I couldn’t stand it a second longer.
“I have to ask,” I said, pointing to the box. She looked down at it in some confusion, as if she had forgotten it was there.
“I am Miss Teen North Hollywood,” she said. “I’m competing for Miss Teen California.”
“Oh,” I said brightly and then, assuming it was called for, added, “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” she smiled.
I waited for her to explain why she needed to travel with her tiara but she just met my gaze another moment then, still smiling, continued into the gym. Maybe pageant winners must be constantly prepared to open a Hyundai dealership or visit a burn unit. Police officers are the thin blue line. Perhaps she was part of an even thinner bedazzled line.
I have lived in Los Angeles my entire life. I danced ballet for several years in my early teens. I worked for a casting director who did mostly modeling campaigns. I’m used to being in groups of people who are on the thin side, so please understand there is no hyperbole when I tell you that these twenty or so women were nearly perfect physically and for all intents and purposes completely identical. Tall, slender, hips within striking distance of the magic thirty-four inches; Helen of Troy would have started worrying a cuticle around these girls. Also, they were all about 20 years old. I reminded myself my value to the world is rooted in my decency and my ability to craft a punchline. That when it comes to the Body Wars, I am Switzerland. I also warmed up and listened to two of these girls discuss their workout schedules and eating plans, a conversation that was both ceaseless and duller than I can adequately convey. I’m not saying these girls were stupid. I am saying that fixating on one specific body part will make a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient sound stupid.
I couldn’t have been happier.
The class itself was diverting in a “Dear God, what did I do with my muscle tone?” sort of way. I have injuries older than my classmates and several of these injuries awakened from their slumbers deep within my body and sang at me in terrible joy. It was a kind of circuit training requiring you do so many of these, so many of those, a few dozen third things, then back to the first activity. Clench. Grimace. Repeat. Over and over again. This also required that I count each rep as I worked out. I can do one or the other. If I count while working out I slow down and eventually stop moving, opting instead for staring bleakly into space, creeping out everyone around me. I quickly gave up counting and just followed the girl next to me, as she was freshly transplanted from Houston and had worked with the Whisperer before. She was 17. Once again, a 17-year-old girl was running my life.
An hour or possibly a decade later, the class ended. The Whispered filtered out a little bit more perfect than they'd been 60 minutes earlier. The teenage girl whose counting I borrowed sprung towards the nearest mirror, fluffed her hair a bit, and got a quick selfie in the flattering light that just seems to follow all these girls everywhere they go. I lay on the floor and realized that in order to leave, I would have to move. I contemplated just having my mail forwarded to the dance studio, to this specific yoga mat.
Whatever my hips were whispering doesn’t bear repeating.
After a two-hour drive from the Cape back to Boston and a six-hour flight home, I didn’t know exactly what to expect of how I would feel upon entering a house without a child. I mean, sure, she’d gone to summer camp for the past few summers but certainly this would feel different. More hollow. More... permanent. Maybe the house would suddenly smell of mothballs and gin. I wondered if I should let Daniel walk the luggage inside and come back and get me, in case I fell apart crossing the threshold. Or in consideration of his potential feelings, we should carry the luggage to the door, open the door and then support one another as we fell apart.
[Or fell apart after carefully closing the door behind us as I can’t imagine grieving is any more pleasant if you’re trying to coax the cats back inside. Crying or wielding a laser pointer, not both.]
Somehow in the chaos of keys and luggage and hushing the dog from the yard, we got inside. I did what I always do immediately upon returning from a trip, I started a load of laundry. The pets behaved so obnoxiously they got what I knew full well was a second dinner. Daniel asked if I wanted to see the most recent episode of “EPISODES.”
This I did. It was an excellent half-hour.
This morning, I woke to the sound of an idiot complaining. We have two cats. Sisters. Squeakers and Diana. Squea prefers me. Diana is fixated on the kid. This is the only quality about Diana I can describe because, candidly, she is the most stupid cat I have ever lived with. If she ambles into the space between an open door and the wall behind it, she cries until someone saves her because she hsn't figured out how to either back up or turn around. But this morning she was having her annual idea and making such a racket I had to go determine what she needed and either give it to her or eat her.
Everyone had warned us how the child’s bedroom will be a bottomless pool of nostalgia, to be entered only if you are willing to book out a half-day for sobbing and watching home movies in the den with the drapes closed. With this in mind, we had closed the kid’s door before we left. The noise I was hearing was Diana running head-first into the door and then meowing, either because she was thwarted or because her head hurt. I felt badly for her. Daniel and I could text with the kid. Diana could not. Whatever pain the sight of my daughter’s childhood bedroom caused me was worth returning Diana to her familiar sights and smells. Also, the sound was terrible and Diana appeared to be learning nothing. Tentatively, I opened the door. Diana dashed in, jumped on the bed, crowed in triumph and trash-talked her tail for a while. I glanced in.
Then, I looked in a bit longer.
Finally I stood in the doorway.
My feelings were deep, pure and sincere.
“My God,” I said, “This room is a disaster.”
The Program had provided a detailed list of what to bring. The kid was adamant we not help her, it was her list, her life, and SHE’S NEARLY AN ADULT AND THE ONLY PERSON IN THE HOUSE WHO CAN GO ON SNAPCHAT WITHOUT CAUSING AN INCIDENT. Her father and I, benumbed by getting things notarized were aware she was days away from needing to make decisions on her own, so we didn’t put up a fight. The luggage we had taken to the airport was of such immense weight and volume I never really thought about what she left behind. I certainly hadn’t considered everything she left behind might be strewn about her bedroom. It was like Dr. Moreau had created a combination of a tornado and a drag queen. I felt pain, but not like what I was promised.
My eye rested upon something on the ground. Workout leggings. She’s much taller than I am, but leggings are leggings. With all my obsessive walking, I go through workout clothes at a clip. We'd just spent a ton of money getting her to Europe so it seemed only fair these pants — which, it must also be noted, I had paid for — get some wear. I grabbed that pair, and then another pair I spied under the bed.
Fashion insiders have a term, “Shopping your closet,” meaning to find new ways to use things you already own. For twenty glorious minutes, I shopped the kid’s room with all the emotional investment of a coroner in a morgue. I spotted a children’s book she and I had loved dearly which I casually moved to the side because I thought I saw a really nice hoodie tucked underneath.
We put her on the plane a week ago today. I’ve cried three times since she left. I’m still pretty certain my brain has decided this is just her three-week trip to sleepaway camp and on day twenty-two I am going to seal up her bedroom door and that idiot cat had better be on the right side of it. But for those people not here yet, I must admit I've felt far worse about far less consequential things and right now, I am kind of excited to see what comes next.
Speaking of path, over the past few months many seasoned empty-nesters gave us the same piece of advice.
“If at all possible, don’t go directly back to your house.”
We got this advice from people who went on a brief adventure and were glad they did. We got this advice from people who went directly home and were very sorry they did. Message received. So, instead of flying to the east coast, putting her on the flight with the rest of the teens from the Program and heading straight back to a now-empty nest, we’d stay east for a few days. The pet-sitter was hired for the extra days and the larger luggage was yanked out of the hallway closet.
[Possible gap year project: Determine how hallway closet is portal to another world populated by sentient ski equipment.]
Then the question became, where to go? Daniel suggested a friend’s lake house in Connecticut where I had my New York Times Caucasian Moment. But every time we’ve been there, we’ve been there with the kid. The kid who is now far away.
“So, should I call and ask Steve if we can—“
I barked, “NO!”
Maybe I was a little more emotional about this then I realized. I took a breath and tried to find a pleasant expression that would convince Daniel I wasn’t about to start beating him with a broken ski pole we just found in the hallway closet.
“We should go someplace we haven’t gone before," I said. Which is how we ended up on Cape Cod after Labor Day. Even this neophobe has to admit, it was damn near perfect. Warm air and blue skies during the day. At night, cool breezes and a chaos of forest music (Bugs? Frogs? Both?) that announces a postcard New England autumn is just around the corner. We had a new beach to try out every day. If we had arrived just a week earlier we’d have been crammed between every mental-health professional on the East Coast taking their annual August reprieve from hearing about people’s mothers for profit but now, the week after Labor Day, the coast was, quite literally, clear. Hell, even the parking was free. We had miles and miles of beaches on both sides of Cape Cod pretty much to ourselves — two intermittently melancholic parents periodically asking each other what time it was in France — along with a few die-hards, a handful of locals and a truly bounteous collection of Labrador Retrievers allowed, once again, to cavort on the beach.
[I’m starting to think one of the requirements of closing escrow in the Outer Cape is: “Do you have a Lab? We will accept a Golden Retriever but only if you have evidence that the dog in question once snuck into the kitchen and ate a lobster roll.”]
And there was one other group.
Like all good rats, I have familiar patterns that soothe me. One of them is I must get in 10,000 steps every day. If I don’t, I sleep even worse than usual, which is saying something. I’ve marched the length of my house at 11:45 at night to hit my number. This step thing is somehow both healthy and not-healthy in equal measure. So when confronted with a narrow beach of great beauty and greater length and a pedometer which — because of a time-zone glitch now saw me somewhere below “sedentary,” possibly in “persistent vegetative state,” off I strode. I hadn’t made my number the day before so I had to hit 15,000 today if I had a hope in hell of a REM cycle. I left our nearly-deserted area of the beach and walked south toward Wellfleet, the Atlantic throbbing along rythmically to my left. After about fifteen minutes, I noticed a couple sunning in matching tan bathing suits. I walked a few more paces, squinted.
Not matching suits.
I looked around the beach. Empty save this couple, lying face-up on a blanket, holding hands like some 3-dimensional “Love Is…” cartoon, only with pubic hair. The tide was high, which meant I got to walk entirely too close to them. Close enough that my brain shouted helpfully, “SAY HELLO TO THEM, BECAUSE IT’S WEIRD TO WALK THIS CLOSE TO SOMEONE AND NOT ACKNOWLEDGE THEM! AND THEN COMMEND HIM ON HIS DEFT APPLICATION OF SUNBLOCK TO HIS PENIS!”
My brain and I settled instead on my whispering “Hello” to a horseshoe crab skeleton several feet from their towel. I looked up to scan the horizon. Only a few people as far as the eye could see. Probably just a one-off here. Everyone else would be wearing some version of bathing togs, including the Labs. It’s Cape Cod!
It is Cape Cod and, I came to learn later, Cape Cod has a nude beach but in that wonderful New England way gave no indication you might have just found it. I was torn. On the one hand, I fear the sun so I was dressed in my typical beachwear: a sweatshirt and jeans, and was possibly committing the fauxest of nude beach faux pas and should probably go back. On the other hand, I was nowhere near my steps. On the other hand, I was tired of staring fixedly at the sand, not the least of which because many of these nudists were kind of sand-colored and I had nearly stepped on one. On the other hand, when it came to the human form, I was no naïf. I had seen Harvey Keitel movies. On the other hand, when I looked up, even if I kept my eyes as vague and horizon-focused as possible, I saw things which were, at best, complicated. A naked man wrestled with a folding chair. There were soft bits rushing pell-mell towards hinged bits. I worried about him. Then there was that man just standing there. Having never had a penis, I might be mistaken, but I really do feel he was brushing sand off that thing longer than was absolutely necessary. I wondered if Gap Year Quinn would discover she’s actually the kind of person who practices really thorough open-air genital grooming. I guess the year ahead would tell me. But I’m pretty certain I’d let people walk past without that searching eye contact. Sand-Brusher barely blinked.
I checked my phone. I was at 7,000 steps. That would put me right around 14,000 by the time I got back to clothed people. The hotel room was modest but could be lapped a few hundred times to make up the difference. The tide was rising, narrowing my path among the enthusiasts. I methodically rolled up my pants legs, headed down to the water's edge and hoped my flash of ankle was taken as a sign of solidarity.
For anyone reading this who just frowned, let me help. A “Gap year” is a year after high school or sometimes a year after college and before graduate school, where students learn something new, work, travel, volunteer, or a combination of all of the above. The term originates in the UK, but many countries around the world have either an official or an unofficial version of the Gap. For students burnt out on standardized testing, AP classes, the increasingly complex and demanding high school curriculum, a year off to breathe, to mature, to discover interests not because they look good on a transcript but because they sound interesting, leaves many of them in a better position to get more out of higher education. Fingers crossed, a happier university student becomes a more well-rounded adult.
This idea isn’t completely alien to people over the age of eighteen. College professors take sabbaticals without drawing comment. Belgium allows one year of absence from one’s job to prevent burnout. Because this is Belgium we’re talking about, I’m assuming both the burnout and the cure for the burnout revolve around beer. But if you aren’t Belgian or teaching Comp Lit at a private liberal arts college, you may not have considered stepping out of your life for a year. It may sound alarming and, candidly, I’d agree. When you look at statistics about people over 40 getting hired — which is to say not getting hired — it seems suicidal to ask for time off. When Irma hit landfall in Florida, there were reports of Floridians being told if they didn’t continue to show up for work even as the evacuations were being enacted they would be fired. America isn’t always kind to the need for a time-out.
I live the kind of life weirdly suited for this idea. Yes, my salary was spotty and terrible, with my being a writer and all, but I’ve been a writer for ten years. I'm used to a spotty and terrible income. My family pays for its own insurance, so it's not dependant on my employer. As I pointed out, my daughter no longer needs me in the same way. For nearly ten years, I had also been taking care of my mother, but she’s been gone two years now.
But what about Daniel? What about the man I love, the person I trust above all, the person who misses our kid as much as I do but also talks longingly of time where it’s just the two of us? I broached the subject carefully: a gap year, maybe some travel, time together, time apart, THIS IS NOT US BREAKING UP.
[This had to be said, We know several couples we know broke up after their last kid left home. Both breakups began with a whole bunch of “Me time” projects for at least one of the partners. You want to know who isn’t going to make it? See who just splurged on new carry-on luggage.]
Daniel looked thoughtful. “So, like Italy?”
Two years ago, the kid took an immersive Italian class in Rome through a community college near us. Because she was 15, I had to go along as her chaperone. It was just the kid, a cluster of community college students suddenly legally allowed to drink, a small handful of teachers, and me. I speak no Italian. The kid, acutely aware my presence reminded everyone she was a baby, actively ignored me for three weeks. I understand it sounds ungracious to say I had a terrible time in a glorious country, but I had a terrible time. But on the America side of this story, Daniel got tons of work done and renovated large bits of the house. He missed us, was pleased to have us back but make no mistake, he views that as one of the more productive months of the past decade.
Being offered a few of those in the upcoming year caused him to sit up happily, glance at the foyer he’s been threatening to demo for years. He caught me noticing his foyer-glance.“I mean,” he said, composing his face in what he hoped resembled mild sorrow, “If you must.” He then went to his woodshop to imagine all the sawdust he could look forward to creating. I was busy commending myself on my cleverness for having come up with a heretofore-unthought-of idea and decided to do something about it. At some point. In the future..
Then, this past July, I was sitting on the porch of a friend’s lake house in Connecticut, reading the Sunday edition of the New York Times when I stumbled upon an entire article about adults taking gap years.
[Note: I may write a more Caucasian sentence in my life, but I don’t see how.]
It seems that there aren’t many of us, but there are enough adults intrigued by the idea that a company which has spent two decades sending middle and upper-middle class teens off for their gap years has launched a side business of moving their parents around as well. I merrily filled out their application.
Which countries might I be interested in going to? I clicked countries I didn’t primarily associate with bugs.
Which skills did I possess? Sadly, “A mordant wit and parallel parking” were less important than I might have hoped, but I found a few things I could do that seemed relevant.
What kind of things was I hoping to do? I tried to phrase “Amenable to nearly anything, so long as it didn’t involve bugs” in an inclusive way.
I clicked “Send.” Within minutes, they sent back the first date available to talk to a gap year counselor: NOVEMBER? But I needed to get things rolling the minute I get back from dropping the kid off on the east coast. Otherwise, Border Collie brain would set in. I was going to have to do this on my own for a while. As I drove around getting the last of the kid's year abroad-related errands run and objects procured, I firmed up a few rules for whatever I did gap-wise:
1. Ideally, it had to be all-encompassing, either by virtue of my not knowing what I’m doing, or requiring my full attention. From the inside, my brain is most pleasant to be around when it’s fully engaged. Also, while I expect to miss the kid quite a bit, I would love to skirt the avoidable pain. If I’m completely focused — which is to say distracted — I’m going to be happier.
2. I hate traveling but am hoping to travel. There are reasons for both sides of this statement. I hate traveling at least in part because my father died in Los Angeles when my mother and I were in New York and most trips for me are a constant humming dread of a shoe dropping. Like all good phobics, I decided this was such an unpleasant sensation, best to avoid it entirely, which means my life gets smaller and smaller. If I took one of those high school career aptitude tests now, I assume I’d be told I’m a natural to be either a lighthouse keeper or Emily Dickinson. I once read a book about the history of rats in Manhattan and the writer said rats are neophobic, literally afraid of new things. In the perfect-world or fat rodents, a family of rats spends generations living in the same dumpster, skittering down the alley to their favorite food dumpster and then back again. It’s imperative I stop agreeing with vermin.
I also want to travel because, in the past eight years, I’ve buried two good friends, both of whom enjoyed traveling tremendously. I can’t pretend to be looking forward to getting on planes (I forgot to mention I hate flying) but Mary and Gabrielle should still be here, having adventures. Since they can’t, I’ll go places for them and I’ll think of them lovingly while I stand far away from my familiar little dumpster. There is something about giving a eulogy or being a pallbearer for someone your age that reminds you to wake the hell up, look around, and get going.
3. I’m hoping, assuming, most of what I will do will be volunteering but if it isn’t for the benefit of others, I must do something purely for myself. For the past seventeen years, eighteen if you count the pregnancy, my priorities were as follows:
4. My mother (moved up during health crises)
5. Everyone around me
6. That dog I saw briefly walking down the sidewalk without a person that might have been lost,
7. Polar bears standing in miserable confusion on rapidly decreasing ice floes,
17. Sea turtles
18. Pink dolphins which are now extinct somehow thanks to me
25. That person with whom I had an awkward social interaction years ago
I want short-term projects into which I throw myself completely (see #1), but eighteen years ago I happily lost myself in a job. Now, I have to find my way back out again. If what I’m doing could be described as “selfish” by someone who doesn’t like me, I’m probably on the right path.
Luckily, I already knew what was expected of me as a woman with a child leaving home. I knew this because someone who thought they knew me really, really well had already told me. I speak, of course, of Facebook. I hate Facebook. Rather, I don’t understand the point to Facebook, which causes me to hate it.
“Hello! We were in second grade together! Remember me?”
“Of course you do! Mrs. Fleigelman’s class! The turtle! We sat next to one another!”
“I raise Wheaton Terriers now! Here are a thousand pictures of them! And some in-jokes about that turtle! I sell Arbonne! I have some products which will help you with whatever you mention! I also have some incredibly irritating opinions about vaccinations I’m going to share with you!”
But give Facebook its evil and omnipotent due; it knows everything about you. Sneeze in your crawlspace and by the time you get back downstairs and click "update", you’re getting Claritin ads. So by them having my basic information and whatever they glean from the DNA samples they suck from my keyboard, I’ve been getting ads and articles telling me all about my new life as an empty-nester. Facebook assures me my life will revolve around wine and genealogy. Targeted ads led me to understand women my age get their greatest satisfaction from knowing what “once removed” means in a family tree while coasting on the buzz of an oaky Chardonnay sipped out of the coffee mug currently being offered to me on the right-hand side of my page, a page that also reminds me “Wine Is Nature’s Instagram Filter.” This seemed highly improbable for many reasons, not the least of which is I have virtually no relatives and I’ve always counted that as an asset. When being able to count your blood relations on one hand causes a one to do a small victory dance, you’re probably not a natural candidate to oversee the next family reunion. Add to that the fact that I don’t like the taste of most wines and it’s safe to say Facebook may know you, but they do not know me. This pleases me, because I am perverse. Also, because observation has shown that women who look like me age like this:
3. Getting way too invested in the dog
5. Develop group of women I persist in referring to as “The Girls,”
6. Wardrobe based on sweatshirts
7. FWD; FWD; FWD; FWD; FWD; What THEY don’t want you to know about Microwaves!!!!!
8. Newly-found racism that flares up at holidays or at ethnic restaurants
9. After several minor car accidents, the Kid flies back to relieve me of my keys
I’m not saying you can avoid #10. I am suggesting not starting the list might postpone #10. Which makes that moment a few weeks back all the more alarming, when I was on a genealogy website, a glass of Chardonnay by my elbow. As my soon to be overindulged dog is my witness, I have no idea how this happened. I will say two things in my defense. First, my family’s earliest ancestor to appeared in North America in 1723. He was named Pierre Pierre, which gives you some sense of why I’ve always avoided these people. Second, it was a very dry Chardonnay.
I love being a parent. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I’m still a parent but have shifted from a full-time employee who cheerfully worked nights, weekends and holidays for seventeen years to a part-time consultant. One of the reasons homeschooling worked so well for my brain was it was one of the few jobs that rewarded my default settings of constant low-level anxiety and a tendency towards hypervigilance. There was always something new to research, to try to upgrade, to sit up late at night and morbidly obsess that I was forgetting to do. I once woke Daniel out of a sound sleep to tearfully announce I'd just realized I had forgotten to find our daughter an Art History class.
Well, now she’s in Europe, which is basically one giant Art History class. She’s in a regular classroom and since we have not received any texts indicating she’s unhappy or being mocked for her appalling lack of some basic knowledge, I might safely breathe out. Having breathed out, I then wonder, “If I’m not going to stare at 15th century German birth records and count down the days until I go on a chauffered trip of the Napa vineyards, what am I going to do?” I know myself well enough to know “Pick up knitting again” or “Farmer’s markets twice a week, and try a new vegetable each time,” while laudable goals, wasn’t going to be nearly enough to occupy my brain. Have you ever met a Border Collie? They’re unbelievably useful when given complex jobs to do but left alone in a very nice co-op all day they make their own fun and frequently eat a couch. Without many, many jobs, my brain will eat the couch. For the better part of two decades there was only job that kept the working dog in my head from committing mayhem. That job just left for Europe.
What I really needed, I thought earlier this summer as I marched through the “Before she leaves” list, was a block of time where I figured out who I was in this new stage of my life, tried a ton of things I hadn’t done before, took what I had learned until now and put those skills in new places. A chance to grow and change.
What I needed was a gap year.
A little over seventeen years ago, I was told my partner Daniel and I had a very small, very new and very beautiful daughter. She was put in his arms. He brought her to me. We could finally put a face to a name. She was squeaking in confusion and protest but upon hearing her father’s voice and then feeling my finger on her cheek, she fell asleep so quickly and so thoroughly it was as if she'd been hit by a tranquilizer dart. Her father and I smiled goofily at one another.
And then she was whisked away.
“Where’s she going?” I said, craning my neck as much as I could, but still feeling nothing below my sternum. Daniel said something about “…newborn stuff” and followed the nurse to comfort our baby while various small indignities happened. They went one way out of the operating room, I went another.
She’s been been leaving ever since.
That’s what our children do. They leave. A little bit every day, some days more than others. Every new stage of their lives, the cord between parent and child is supposed to get longer, and thinner, and more irrelevant. One day, frayed from use and fairly irritating to at least one of the participants, the cord snaps. It’s time for them to fly. Ships are safest in port, but that isn’t what they’re built for. Chose your hoary metaphor. At graduations, at dances, at any rite of passage where adults gather that isn’t a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, someone murmurs about how they’re growing up so fast.
[That doesn’t happen at Chuck E. Cheese because no child is acting in a way that indicates they’ll ever move out and also it’s hard to murmur over the din.]
Most parents know they have their children until the end of high school, eighteen years or thereabouts. Then they are adults and whether that means college, or work, or military service, or something else, they are coming and going in a very different way than ever before. You have eighteen years to get used to this idea.
Unless, like Daniel and me you have a child who decides she wants to spend her senior year of high school in France, living with a local family, going to high school in a foreign country. Unlike college, she will not come home for holidays. Unlike work, she will not swing by to have dinner some night because dinner with the folks is free and she’s waiting on her paycheck. On the other hand, unlike the military, the greatest existential threat she might experience is scooters.
[A side note: Motorcycles become more stable the faster they’re driven for reasons Daniel has explained to me several times and maybe some day I will understand. Scooters are never safe. I knew two people killed in a scooter accident. Sure, teenage girls craving Instagram Moments may look adorable posing on one. But save your parents tears and heartache. Pose but do not ride.]
My friends whose children weren’t leaving yet stared at me and would ask, “What’s it like, her leaving?”
I would answer honestly, “I have no idea. She’s still here.”
Not only was she still here but since we learned she had been accepted into the program in April, my life had been an increasingly long to-do list, all of which was mandatory, most of which was Byzantine, a terrifying amount of which had to be approved by the French government. You know the French government, right? The people who gave us the word bureaucrat? So when someone would pat my hand sympathetically about how heartsick I must be thinking about her leaving, a small mutinous voice in my head would say, “At least when she’s gone I’ll be done getting things notarized.”
When I wasn’t hearing from the parents with children younger than mine, I was hearing from my friends who had just sent their children out into the world. Here are some things I heard:
“I cried for a month. And then I got better and then she came back for Thanksgiving and when she left I cried for two weeks.”
“It gets better…eventually.”
“It’s like a death.”
A few people softly whispered that it was actually kind of fun (shout out to the friend who explained that the kitchen wasn’t just for food any more, if you get my meaning), but that wasn’t the overarching narrative. “Tissues, everywhere, for longer than you can imagine” was the overarching narrative. And they got their kids back for holidays. At best, we’d visit her once in early spring. Why wasn’t I hysterical? I mean, usually, I’m not what anyone would call “emotionally operatic,” but isn’t this exactly the sort of place where I should be? Shouldn’t I have been smelling her hair constantly? Sure, she wouldn’t let me, but shouldn’t I have been trying? Is this something that’s coming and I just haven’t figured it out yet?
But let’s imagine the absolute lack of a daughter nearby stops making me cry or I run out of tears, what do I do then? Sure, I can write, but one of the pleasures of writing was how I could do that while parenting. I could write jokes while sitting waiting for her someplace. I could finish an article while sitting near her as she avoided working on her SAT prep. I could do a phone interview while sitting poolside during her practice. Perhaps I need to do something besides write. Perhaps I also could try standing up.