A Prelude to an Empty Nest

My son is about to turn fifteen and for some reason we have agreed to send him away to a very fine and very expensive military academy.  This is what he wants.  Our boy is extremely patriotic.  He believes in serving his country.  In many ways, the threat of the world being what it is, this is a parent’s worst nightmare.

But let us disregard this complex for a moment, try to ignore the viral dangers of the present tense (this particular school seems, at least as far as we nervous parents can tell, profoundly prepared to keep our children, alongside their teachers, safe).  This is a boarding school, a sleep-away training camp lasting for the bulk of the year, and I am already feeling the loss of my boy, my firstborn, in a terrible, terrible way.

I mean, there he is right now, downstairs ignoring his parents like any usual fourteen year old, anxious and nervous over the potential embarrassment we might expose him to, and he decided not to watch the boxing match we’d discussed happening tonight (happening as I write this) because he wanted to play video games online with his friends.

Now ordinarily this would be fine.  But my son is going away in three weeks and we will not be able to communicate with him for another six after this (including the day of his fifteenth birthday) because those are the military policies of the, as I said, excellent school he will shortly be attending.

It was my agreement, to be honest, that sent our son on this road, my awareness that this structure would be best for him and his future.   And yet tonight I sit in agony, literally with tears in my eyes, missing the child still awake and downstairs, and wondering if I will ever truly know him again.  It is agony.  It is agonizing to miss someone still right in front of you.

I have a daughter, younger and staying with us until she finishes high school.  She is not attending a private school out of any neglect or bias on our part, but because of an awareness of our children’s individual needs.  Our daughter will continue to thrive in public school until she, too, leaves the nest to thrive on her own outside-of-our life.

I begin to feel the torment, sometimes cynically dismissed as peace, when no one is left to care for beyond the one another you have sacrificed for your children.  And I realize it is too soon.  I don’t want my boy to grow (to go), and I want him to stay young and hopeful forever, avoiding the disillusion that I and so many of you have suffered throughout our aging decline.  I want him here forever, my baby, my first born, that figure from the highest point of my life: youth, the start of a family, hope, the future, joy forevermore . . .

Of course none of this is real; it isn’t true.  Reality comes so quickly, that second week when the baby keeps waking you in the middle of the night and the real world, and struggles, and depression and bills and hopelessness and hatred resume their shadowy fragments of our lives.

Yet we try–all of us try no matter how terrible some of us wind up as parents because we want to show another person what it means to be loved.  And yet the cruelty of awkward youth at odds with the uncertain frustration of aging creates that generation gap we like to blame for our differences.  But age has less to do with it than those impatient moments of cruelty, and those passive instances of neglect.  As Harry Chapin said “My boy was just like me.”

This is what we finally fear, isn’t it, at the end of our guardianship over youth?  We fear our own mistakes, all our irrational anger and impurity that dashes our pride and whatever delusions we have over how we “did the best we could.”  We see those things that we hate in ourselves on the surface of our children not because they are predominate characteristics of their nature, but because we seek ourselves for anything that might go wrong in their future.  And, should we be honest with our children, should we plumb the psychiatric depths about fear and anger and anxiety and treatment (as I shamefully have) we find that they smile and sympathize and have no idea what you’re talking about.  This creature you have formed, and who has stayed through such agony and joy, has moved beyond all your monotonous misery and formed a life of their own complexities and happiness and sorrow, and never again will you be privy to the deepest fears and desires of their souls.  You will grow apart.  Your lives becomes a distant flame, a smoke signal at holidays and on rainy Sunday afternoons when there is nothing better to do than talk with the past.  You fall out of touch.  When discussing one another, parents and children alike, conversations start to drift to shaken heads and laughter over one another’s flaws.

This is the future for everyone, for all of us no matter how close and kind and supportive and loving all of us might be or are.  We grow beyond one another, life a series of phases, every new path exciting, every triumph haunted by loss or sadness.

I already miss my son.  I love him, love him even more than ever now that he is about to leave, a painful recognition of all my mistakes making our parting even more sorrowful.  I will miss my son.  I will miss my daughter when she goes.  I miss my parents, now, in hindsight, perhaps feeling some of their once expressed resentment for what it truly was.

I will miss my child.  I will miss him.  And, as every parent dreams, I can simply wish that once he returns home that not so much has changed and that all of his dreams will be fulfilled.


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