Grief and relief. Depression and elation. These are some of the back-and-forth feelings I’ve been experiencing since my wife and I dropped off our younger son at college last month. We are now empty nesters—at least until Thanksgiving.
It’s been a long time since I’ve run such a gamut of uncertain emotions about the future. For over two decades, my life was a familiar routine of work and family and . . . family and work. As we drove away from campus, with the backseat noticeably empty, my wife asked where to set the GPS. I thought for a moment and blurted out, “Anywhere!” The open road, the world at large, was ours alone again. How exhilarating. How scary. How uniquely sad. We made the six-hour trip home then took a nap.
Our house is quieter now. Once there were two bustling boys filling up every conscious moment—and many sleeping ones, too. When our older son left for college, there was an empty bedroom in our home. But the younger one was still there, and many rides to high school and back remained for us, along with deep thoughts about the future and finances and life goals. And there were family prayers. Now there are two empty bedrooms and only two plates at the dinner table. It feels strange doing the dishes so quickly, like I’m skirting my home duties.
Yes, my wife and I worked hard for this: putting one son through Catholic college, putting the other one on the same track. We want our boys to enter the wider society and make their way in the world; to meet with peers on equal terms on campus; to get jobs and move far away or stay in the area as needed. When I think of them living close to each other in D.C., one on campus, the other in an apartment near where he works, I feel a sense of pride and contentment. This is what we hoped and prayed for—what we have given so much of our lives to bring about.
But we hadn’t prepared ourselves, and probably could not have, for the heart tugs that come when passing photos of them on the dresser: all energy and innocence at six and two years old; serious at First Communion; beaming at school graduations. And it’s tough to comprehend the passage of time when I have the urge to call out at 10 p.m. to ask if homework is done or to announce bedtime at eleven, and there is no familiar response. Tug, tug, tug. The old heart beats in all different directions. There’s no cure for it.
As a father, my greatest consolation is that both sons practice their faith, with knowledge and commitment. The older one has served Mass every Sunday for five years at “America’s Church,” the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The younger one, schooled in St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, could teach a master class in morality—with deep knowledge and an occasional biting wit that gets the attention of friends. Studies show that the religious practice of the father is the greatest predictor of the religious practice of the children. I can’t promise them money, jobs, worldly success or security, but in the faith of our Church, I have, with God’s immense grace, handed on to them the pearl of greatest price.
Now my wife and I realize that we have our own lives to live, and one another to care for as we age. We have discovered ourselves as husband and wife again, not just as father and mother. We love our boys, and love being parents, but we also have recalled the love that brought us together and made us parents, the love that has been the foundation of our family for 25 years and counting. We eat together at a half-empty table. We talk of work, thankful we have regular jobs and income, and about our plans to move to a state more hospitable to our faith and values, one that is more affordable as well. But our talk always redirects to the boys: “Did you hear from Stephen?” “Did you text Justin?” “How do you think they are?” The difference between a mother’s and a father’s love—pronounced when they are young and growing—seems to merge in our common long-distance concerns. We both worry first about their welfare and safety.
Over the Labor Day holiday, I did something I hadn’t thought of doing for quite a while: I slept late each morning. Then during the day my wife and I began organizing our financial documents and throwing away old stuff in preparation for selling the house and packing for our move. We laughed a lot, argued a bit, looked at old photos and discovered cherished items we forgot we had tucked away here and there. But all the while we knew the other was wondering whether our sons would call or text sometime during the weekend. The nest is not so empty after all, and never will be.