The First Bird

Returning to the nest after someone leaves

On Tuesday, my family dropped off my eldest son at college. It took the morning to help him unpack, and we were on the road by noon, returning home with empty bins. By the time we reached the Indiana border, it sunk in that our goodbye will take quite a bit longer.

My own college arrival 32 years earlier is understandably fuzzy. I remember my Mazda truck—which I realize wasn’t really mine—packed tight with a wooden loft my dad made, cut to fit its bed precisely and heavy enough to make moving a workout. I’m sure he helped me reassemble the loft before leaving, likely after a last supper, walking away with my mom as I sat alone on a hill by the soccer field.

For my son, we meandered through narrow Chicago streets and suffered a long afternoon in the Schaumburg IKEA to outfit his assigned dorm room to reflect his style. This guaranteed several trips up a flight of stairs to deliver the goods. Once inside, I opened several boxes, tightened some screws, and piled up the recycling for my son to deal with later. On my last look around, I noted a few familiar artifacts of his recent youth, but everything else was new.

These experiences claim at least the ritual similarity of parents depositing a child on the doorstep of an institution of higher learning, leaving both parties to deal with the separation in their own way. The three decades in between, however, have created differences that makes this current event feel unprecedented.

In a quiet bed at home, I process the emptiness that won’t let me sleep.

As new parents, we had a plan. It was informed by a Lamaze class and a shelf full of baby books consumed by my wife in preparation for our first child. The plan was a response to our lifelong critiques of our own upbringing, seeking to do better than our parents, as all children do.

One of the rules I flexed after Carter arrived was to insist that he not be passed from adult to adult without a reassuring return to his parents. The notion, not found in those books, was that when encountering someone new, our precious boy could count on familiar arms to refresh him before again experiencing the world without us.

It was an annoyance to grandparents, of course, and ran counter to expectations of friends and co-workers who queued up and reached for our child. The parental buffer proved impractical over time, as we strained to deal with other parts of life that benefited from a few extra unsupervised hands. If I repeated the ritual with our second child a few years later, the practice was quickly abandoned the first time we had to shadow Carter into another room.

We institutionalize this practice in other ways. As our children grow up, we require them to be home for supper and sleep, to keep our shared home as their base of operations before venturing back out to encounter the new, the exciting, and the anxious. There were so many other opportunities to reinforce for Carter that his family would try to be a place of comfort and reassurance, to be the people capable of re-filling his cup. I don’t know if returning to our loving arms as a baby proved significant for him.

It most certainly was reassuring to me. By decree, I guaranteed Carter would come back. He had no choice in the matter, but I suppose I had doubts about my unproven effectiveness as a parent. I didn’t want to fade to the wall as an observer. I didn’t want to be abandoned.

At some point in my life, I felt abandoned, though nothing about this memory survives as precisely as the terror I experienced in the moment.

I was old enough to walk, yet sufficiently young to need a parent to tow me around the mall. Magical corridors filled with dressed windows must have enticed me away from my mom’s side. At the time, I didn’t sense the impending doom of the separation. Now, when I watch The Christmas Story, a reflexive anxiety makes me look for Ralphie’s parents as he presses his face against Higbee’s department store window.

When I peeled my own face away from whatever fascinated me, I looked up to see someone else standing where I thought my mom was. Discarding the stranger, I looked for a familiar face, but found none among the hundreds of shoppers milling through their own hectic lives.

Like any lost bird, I tried to cry out, but heard only grated air from my lungs. My voice failed me, and my inability to form audible words exposed me as alien among the humans. I felt completely alone in the crowd, with a growing despair embracing me with whispers that it would be this way forever.

My paralysis ended when, somehow, I clinged tightly to my mom’s hand. For a while, I chose to say nothing, not knowing if my voice worked. Eventually, I told her about the treasures of the window and begged her to go back.

There is nothing in this fragment that my mom could possibly recollect. It was a personal trauma, barely distinguishable in her eyes from the other times I wandered away or didn’t respond to verbal urges to pick up the pace. Unseen and unsaid, it now reminds me how much I don’t know about my son’s private terrors.

As was the case when I was in kindergarten, the walk to Carter’s elementary school required crossing only two streets. One was a highway, however, and neither had sidewalks or crosswalks. I used that to my advantage, envisioning daily walks with meaningful bonding time, lingering in the classroom to engage with his many, many friends.

His school disappointed me. They put up barriers to parents outside of prescribed PTO fundraisers, encouraging separation in both their signage and counsel. A tension quickly emerged between my desire to be a part of Carter’s education and my inclination to follow rules.

While trying to honor the school’s drop-off process, we walked our son to his class one morning early in the year. I don’t know what set him off, perhaps a comment from his teacher or another student, or just by noticing his own reflection in nearby glass. It became clear that Carter did not like his new haircut, fresh from the day before, robbing him of his familiar waves in time to be documented for posterity. It was Picture Day.

He was immediately inconsolable. He tried to hide his new hair under his massive backpack and refused to allow the day to proceed. With all the confidence and helplessness of a parent, I wanted to stay to see him through the moment. Instead, his teacher convinced me to go, saying it would be easier to help him without me present. Rules won, and I left.

I learned later that it took a while to get him tracked. His teacher eventually passed Carter off to her principal, to allow her to attend to the other children who did not have backpacks on their heads. He walked with the principal up and down the hallway, until his sobs became his signature banter.

Carter took his picture. He proved consolable, by someone else.

In sixth grade, my grandmother died. I had only met her a few times, on some holiday trips to Maine, but I loved her dearly. In breaking the sad news to us, my parents said they couldn’t afford to have us go to the funeral, too.

A year earlier, my grandfather had died. We didn’t go to that funeral, either, but neither was I upset to stay behind. I remember the moment most as one of the few times I saw my dad cry. It seemed appropriate that only those who felt that much about a life should attend to the death.

I felt that much about my grandmother, amplified after a year coping with our previous loss. The emotions came out in waves, some of it while pleading to go to Maine with them, begging them not to leave us with neighbors we liked but barely knew. Frugality won, and we went our separate ways to grieve.

My parents were not witness to the car ride north to some Wisconsin summer home, four kids crammed in the back seat of a station wagon for the interminable ride. My sister and I took turns breaking down, consoling the other. The sounds of car travel songs were interrupted by our collective wails.

I imagine our surrogate family, in recounting their own experience of this big ask, provided only the highlights: “The kids struggled at first, but they had a good time eventually.”

An echo of that sorrow and anger remains, though it is softened by time and raising my own kids. My parents did not see me grieve, but I didn’t see them, either.

My wife’s father tried to take my boys to Disney World. I resisted, wanting to be there with them for that magical moment. Instead, they left for Washington, D.C.

By this point, I had experienced separation from my wife and children on a few occasions. When Carter was 18 months old, Amy supported my carefully planned baseball barnstorming trip around the Midwest, intentionally less than a day’s journey home, should it be necessary. Growing lonely, I skipped the final leg of the trip and let Adam Dunn hit homers in Louisville without me.

There were some professional trips, too, to conferences in places like Boston and Denmark. The longest span away from my family came in 2006, when a two-week start to a summer internship piggybacked on a weeklong conference in California. While the separation was difficult for us, my kids always had a parent at their disposal.

For the D.C. trip, our boys would be entrusted to the care of others—albeit relatives—where their routines would be disrupted and our parenting style challenged. This would all take place over 600 miles away.

With fewer logistical challenges that week, Amy and I lived simple, but not without worry. At night, I stopped by their empty room to imagine them sleeping in their beds, and I would hear the phantom cries for comfort that would disrupt my late-night writing. Only our daily schedule enjoyed a reprieve.

A call did come, from a distraught Carter on behalf of his inconsolable brother, who lamented the loss of our nighttime rituals. The details have faded, but not the sense of helplessness being so far away. We could offer our voice and our ears, but not our hugs, not the safety of familiar surroundings and schedules. Our boys were on their own as they adapted to the practices of different caretakers.

Such moments build future skills, if not also fears. Carter learned to disappear for a week each summer to attend show choir camp, and as a new adult, he has already taken trips beyond state borders with and without friends at his side. Archie, our younger son, now seems to live elsewhere a night at a time. Both remember the D.C. trip for more than its rough beginning.

As parents, we also pick up new skills and fears. Like her brothers at the same age, our daughter enjoys the idea of a separation more than its practice. She will often cut short a planned sleepover in favor of the safety of her own bed. The proximity of those 11:00 p.m. calls allows us to be the home to which she returns. Over time, as she learns to stay through the night, we learn to fall asleep in her absence.

During the fall of my senior year, I took a couple days off school to visit colleges in Indiana. My friend Tim went with me, and we delighted in getting lost, seeing cute girls at a Wendy’s drive-through, and experiencing a sliver of campus life on our own. The trip was arranged in advance with both my high school and the two universities.

Undoubtedly, my dad remembers it differently.

Although I insist I was transparent in how we planned this excursion, the signs of departure were missed by my parents. From their perspective, their 17-year-old son went unexpectedly missing, taking their spare car in an era without cell phones and Internet.

I can summon my father’s fear when imagining a similar scenario today, despite the advantages of modern communication. I breathe in his worry, fueled by uncertainty, and the frustration of being gated from his charge, perhaps even discarded. I can see it as rebellion instead of freedom, with no good place to put my anger.

The Indiana trip is as fuzzy as my experience in the mall. It is reduced mostly to feelings of joy, empowerment and dread that overwhelm any memories of logistics or words exchanged. My dad was angry. I was steadfast. I’m sure I was grounded from something, but it didn’t scar us.

It takes nine months to make a human being. This delay is important, not only for mother and child who experience biological changes that prepare for birth, but also to allow parents to get used to the idea of sharing their existence with someone new. The separation from adult Carter seemed to take just as long.

After gaining admittance to Northwestern, Carter began to leave. I was immediately relieved that the Christmas holidays wouldn’t be spent frantically submitting another round of college applications, accompanied by weeks of anxiety about their results. I welcomed my new anxieties about finances as a tradeoff for that escalation in his stress.

However, more and more, this new Carter became unfamiliar. He cared a little less about high school, and he invested more time in his friends and their social lives. Much of his summer was spent staying out late, occasionally camping in the woods. As a result, we saw less of him than anticipated.

Rather than soaking up all of the precious remaining moments, we had to let go a little bit every day. By the time we reached September, I was convinced the band-aid had fallen off on its own.

When the time finally came to drive our son north, we left his brother behind. Archie, not one for travel, was concerned about missing too much of his own school. He said his goodbyes in the driveway, his own sense of grief and freedom buried behind the front door as it closed. Motivated by comfort, convenience and closure, though, we took our daughter with us.

Traffic excepted, our drive to Chicago was delightful. We listened to favorite podcasts and a lengthy playlist of joyous songs. The details of our conversation are already evaporating, but I will remember that connection between us as we delivered our son to new caretakers.

On Tuesday morning, Carter was understandably anxious about getting out the door. There was a four-hour window in which we could unpack his things and allow him to make sense of his dorm before, by necessity, he had to kick us out to attend an orientation. It was an abrupt end to a slow goodbye.

My wife held her tears until we reached the car parked streetside. I sat next to her through Chicago and then moved to the back to comfort a needy and neglected Matilda with a Rick Riordan book. There were songs that could not be played and conversations not yet ready to begin.

Having parted on their own schedule, neither my mom nor dad have ever told me what their drive home from my college was like. They have never described my childhood home in the aftermath of that trip. Now free of any kids in their home, however, they certainly traveled more to exotic locations and did some redecorating and landscaping. I don’t know if the absence of live-in children in any way contributed to their eventual divorce, many years later, but it is clear patterns changed. They must have wanted something new.

My son is alive in the place he chose. As many who go to college do, he will return home someday soon, probably with laundry and a healthy appetite. He will certainly have stories to tell. The grief of his absence, though, feels like some part of us died.

We re-enter a house Carter will likely never see again, as we expect to conclude an unrelated move next month. I see artifacts of his life everywhere, from the mess he left in his packing to the ceramic mugs and bowls he crafted over the past year. His height is marked on a hallway wall. Some of these things do not have the luxury of preservation. In this new version of our home, we can see the space where he once was. It does not look like freedom.

In the weeks before Carter left, I printed out some favorite pictures of him as a kid and decoupaged a metal container as a keepsake box. I then stuffed it with envelopes filled with prompts to explore his new surroundings and just enough cash to make it happen, an homage to the honeymoon gift my parents gave us years ago. Together with others in the family, we also dropped in notes for inspiration and memories of our love.

When I last saw it, the box rested on the top shelf of his desk, camouflaged by other knick-knacks and awaiting a future moment of discovery. Maybe he saw it immediately, or that evening or the next day. I don’t know what he’ll do with the contents, or how much he’ll share about how he experienced those envelopes. At some point, the box will be empty and ready to be filled with something new.

I try to paint a happy picture of a future where my son willingly and frequently returns home, recognizing that I seldom return myself. I still want to know his private terrors and offer 11:00 p.m. hugs, even while not wanting to burden him with the fears I cultivate about his uncertain future spent out of sight. We cling tightly to the weight of eighteen years, wanting it to remain by our side forever as we wait for a better time to let go.

In the meantime, screams of grated air fill this new space in our home.

Community experience designer / geek dad / recovering Informatics doctoral student / whiteboard artist / author / feminist

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