I wrote this seven years ago. It’s on my mind again this week, as Allegra has left for ten days in Europe on a school trip. Every time I walk past her bedroom, my heart clutches. It’s dark in there. She’s not on her bed, listening to music. Her whiteboards of to-do lists are static. There are no carefully placed piles of clothes on the floor, one for each day that week.
It’s dark in there.
It was 2:10 a.m.
As is often the case, I was up late. The day had been particularly fun, for — thanks to my aunt, who holds a yearly “Camp Grandma” at their lake home — we were kid free. My husband and I had ventured out that afternoon for coffee and pie, after which we enjoyed the rare experience of sitting in a movie theater. Later, we brought home Greek food and sat on the deck, eating gyros and spanikopita and drinking beers. To close out the day, we had a cuddle on the couch and watched The Colbert Report. At one point, we looked directly at each other. Two times during conversation, we completed full sentences.
During that day, we lived the fantasy of a long stretch of together time, just my husband and me, free of the clamor and interruptions of life with children. Since we were married only 4 ½ months before Allegra came along (so precocious was she — *cough cough* — that she only needed to gestate for 18 weeks!), during Camp Grandma we deliberately play out some of the time we didn’t have together before the onset of The Kid Years.
Beyond just wanting to get to know my husband (suspicion: I might like him), there is also the fact that, generally, getting my own self through a day is as much as I can handle. Adding small people into the mix shoves me to a place of overload where I’m chronically late, sometimes snappish, and frequently found holding Clue Junior, soccer cleats, and a dozen eggs, a look of befuddlement on my face. Indeed, I am the parent who waves jubilantly when her kids to go away for a while, allowing her the space and time to be prone, turn some pages, and fluff her hair. In the best possible way, time with my husband feels like being alone. With him, I can eat gyros and still manage to fluff my hair, and it doesn’t feel at all taxing.
So there I was during those days of Camp Grandma, relaxed and pipping and blissed out.
Then, at 2:10 a.m., after hours of reading Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and being completely absorbed in a young emigrant woman’s feelings of loneliness in a new city, I finally stood up to honor my bladder’s kvetching.
As I stumbled through the hallway to the bathroom, my glance fell to the left, through the open door to the kids’ room, and suddenly, the rich contentment of that day fell away, leaving behind an unexpected ache.
That room. Usually a brightly-lit, tumbled, tousled visual cacophony of colors and textures, it startled me with its dark quietness. Empty. No shuffles, no classroom of Animal School laid out across the floor, no chatter, no thumps, no singing.
Frozen, I felt the emptiness more than saw it; without the kids in it, their room is a place of lapsed energy, a place without its people. Frozen, I felt the future more than the present; without the kids in it, that room will become an echo of previous times. Even after Allegra and Paco move out and launch themselves into active negotiation with the world, that room will always be the setting of so much of their everything. I will never walk into that room and not feel the impulse to give goodnight kisses, to pick up a slinky, to help find a glue stick. They will move on, but I’m not sure how my heart will.
Standing there in the hall, the wrench of anguish was startling.
A sliver of my heart shaved off and dropped onto the hardwood.
It’s one thing for me to feel exhausted and overwhelmed — to want the kids gone and then savor the vacation when it happens. Knowing they will be back shortly imbues the temporary quiet with liberation and celebration.
It will be quite another thing for them to be gone, permanently, of their own volition — because the world holds more for them than I do. Knowing they will be gone for the rest of their lives, with occasional popping-in over the holidays, creates in my crusty little heart an unexpected hollowness.
There will come a day when, instead of their following my every movement around the house, I will be the one tripping at their heels, wanting to carry their suitcases, make their favorite dinners, hear about their new friends. They will hold the power as I offer an adoration that seeks confirmation.
Fighting through melancholy there in the hall that night, I caught a whiff of my fifties, a decade when my kids will become adults, when I could end up spending many a 2:10 a.m. standing in the hallway outside empty rooms.
May I not be pathetic, as I offer to wipe their bottoms when they come home from college. May I not be pathetic, as I hold out Clue Junior and a slinky to them over the Thanksgiving turkey. May I not be pathetic, as I sleep in their empty beds at night, clutching a stuffed monkey to my chest. May I not be pathetic, as I try to carve my way into the edges of their new lives.
Standing in a darkened hallway in the middle of the night, clutching at my bladder, dabbing tears from my cheeks as I realized my children will leave me one day…
I was — just possibly — a little bit pathetic.
Briskly, I wiped my eyes, threw back my shoulders
and swept up the shard of my heart from the dusty floor.