I come home each night, and things are as they were when I left. If there are shoes in the front hall, they are mine. I can always find the TV remote. The car is likely to need gas (that was Alex's favorite job) and the dog is in need of love and a walk (Evan was the one who best kept track.) There are no clothes on the floor of their bedrooms, no lights blazing during daylight in the hall, no empty snack boxes left behind in the cabinets after their contents have been eaten.
Everything is in the same place, but nothing is exactly where it should be.
Sending your first child off to college is seen as a start -- for them, for you. Sending the last is seen as a finish line. Beginnings. Endings. Words that should contradict each other, and yet I am feeling both at the same time. "Empty nester!" friends exclaim. "How is it?"
Just as I thought it would be. And completely the opposite.
I had expected to have more free time, and I do. The kitchen calendar looks spare without school concerts and SAT test dates and tennis practice. Family dinner is no longer a requirement, but rather a possibility -- something my husband and I rustle up if both of us are hungry, not a mandatory buffer between my boys and delinquency. There is a lot less laundry.
But time is a chameleon, and most days I lose track of it against the backdrop of too much to do. When the boys were infants I would wonder how on earth I used to spend all the hours before they were born. Now that I have those hours back, I marvel at how I ever crammed their needs and mine into any single day.
I had also expected to worry about them when they were away. And I do. Did they get their flu shots? Will they remember the (many) talks about "good choices"? If I haven't heard from them for awhile does that mean they are doing just great, or not well at all? On the other hand, the worry is mixed with reassurance. I have seen how they manage -- flourish -- without me. It's one thing to know they can pedal while you run along side them, and another thing entirely to stand still and watch while they bike up a mountain.
Do I miss them? Yes. More than I'd guessed. But, also (if you have read this far, you won't be surprised to hear this), less. Am I unmoored by having lost my primary role in life? No, because I took great pride over the years in the fact that my identity was not dependent upon theirs. But, surprisingly -- jarringly -- yes. Because, well, let's say my pride was a little misplaced. Perhaps being their mother didn't define me while I was doing it -- but being a different kind of mother certainly defines me now.
The missing, the disorientation, comes at unexpected moments: seeing the school bus drive by; watching the season premiere of "Parks and Recreation" all alone; starting to put too many plates on the table. When they are feeling sick and I can't test their foreheads for a fever. When they have doubts about schoolwork or friendships or job prospects, and I can only say "I'm sure you will figure it out." Whenever a hug would once have been the answer.
And yet, the spaces emptied by loss are more than filled by what I've found. Their texts and phone calls -- not because they have to, nor to ask for anything, just because they want to talk. Their genuine interest in what is going on with me. The chance to see them anew each time they reappear, to see them as the whole world does, but also like no one else ever will. As adults. Adults I happened to help create.
The weekend before the boys both left for their separate campuses, my husband and his sister spent days sorting through what was now theirs after their father's recent death. It had all arrived in a U-Haul, and for two days we lifted one item at a time, sparking memories. This glassware that had seen many a Thanksgiving. That ceramic vase that had somehow survived the horrific house fire. The artwork bought just a few years ago for their new home on Cape Cod, long after the children were grown and gone. The family portraits of four, then six, then eight, ten, eleven. The gifts given to them by grandchildren.
Decades blurred together in the piles. There was no line that said before and after, nest empty, nest full. The people my in-laws were before they were parents blended with who they were during and after. The same, but different. Ready for what came next, and completely unprepared.
In the days that followed, the boxes of the grandfather mixed with those of the grandsons in our front hall. Generations being reshuffled. New mantles being borne. Space being cleared, and being refilled. Then, in a blink, they were gone. The boys' rooms feel sparse, and their closets echo. But the walls are now covered anew in artwork that hung in their father's home back when he left it for college.
I feel the sadness I'd expected, but also such joy. I'd known they would leave, but now I also know that they find their way back.
My nest is empty. But overflowing.