I've been crying a lot for the past five days, not just misty-eyed. This is hardcore, tears flowing-down-my cheeks sobbing, the stuff that happens when you are consumed by grief.
Walking into our empty apartment, I'm an emotional wreck as Marly greets me with his usual, thrilled-to-see-you howls. But our beagle's unconditional love and enthusiasm can't compensate for the silence that screams from two empty bedrooms.
My babies' favorite stuff is gone from the walls, their dresser drawers contain mostly unworn, unwanted stuff and the overall tidiness of both rooms makes me weep more.
Taking Jake to Tufts, my stomach churns. When we return to Massachusetts to drop off Emma at Boston University, I am numb with anticipatory misery. Both kids are at their dream schools in a great college town. They have wonderful roommates and ample closet space. Spirited upperclassmen welcome them.
So how can I burst with excitement for my kids -- proud of their accomplishments, thrilled for their new adventure and all the good stuff awaiting them -- while feeling an emptiness and sadness, the depths of which I never imagined? Nobody died. Everyone is healthy. Yet my heartache is unlike anything I've ever experienced.
I remember their first day of pre-school, each of their first sleepovers and the first time we dropped them off at summer camp. My emotions then pale in comparison to how jarring and gut wrenching I feel now.
A friend of Peter's says that when his daughter left for college, it was like losing an arm. Maybe it's because we have twins, but I feel as if I've lost both limbs.
In my new book, Shift For Good, I write that my yearlong bout of anxiety over the impending empty nest finally gave way to contentment. I worked hard to convince myself to take comfort knowing that I gave two great kids wings to fly -- and that this is their rightful time to soar.
The raising-great-kids part was true, but my strength and bravado about being ready to see them off was wishful thinking. I turned to mush the second we left them and my contentment reversed course, unexpectedly. I am fixated on the loss of what was and worried about what will be.
This hit me so suddenly, a sucker-punch that caught me off-guard, which rattles this normally levelheaded Mama Bear. There was no yellow light. No warning sign. No radar to signal what loomed ahead. It has pierced me unlike any other pain in my 45 years.
Friends and family are quick to offer well-meaning advice.
When she sees my Facebook posts from Boston, a colleague offers to come over with wine and Xanax. I've never been a drinker or pill popper and I'm not starting now. A friend says a child-less home means that Peter and I can have sex in any room, anytime. Thanks, but our bedroom works fine. Another suggests I take up a new hobby. Sorry, but having kids didn't preclude me from always doing what I wanted to do. Someone says we should take exotic trips, but a vacation to Bali or Marrakech won't change a thing.
That mother is foreign to me as is any parent who feels relieved no longer having kids under their roof. I miss that already. My brother and sister-in-law offer unlimited access to my adorable niece and nephew, but as much as I love them, the best day with someone else's kids can't compete with the worst day with my own.
The truth is I never had a bad day with Jake and Emma. Not one. Nineteen years ago, I underwent fertility treatments because I was desperate to have a baby. I longed to be pregnant, but I never could have believed that motherhood would be as rich and fulfilling as it has been, times two. I have literally cherished every minute of it.
Friends who know our family encourage me to write a book on how to raise really good kids, but that's a story best told by Jake and Emma: the credit is all theirs. They made it easy for us. Never a tantrum or a timeout nor a call from a teacher or parent. We are good parents, but the lifting is easy when you hit the Powerball as we did with them.
They weren't ever an excuse to get out of something: when we turned down dinner invitations or passed on professional engagements, it was because we always preferred to be with our kids. Being ignored by Emma as she stares down at her phone when we do errands is still more enjoyable than walking down the street alone. Being under the same roof with them both was a privilege.
I'm crying again as I recall Jake referring to us as the Core Four or Emma saying we're the Inseparable Squad.
The night before we drop her off, Emma suggests that she and I have a slumber party in her room. She tells me I'm welcome to sleep in her bed anytime I miss her. Sweet sentiment, but it's not the bed: it's the girl.
In a bathroom in her dormitory, a mom begins blabbing as if we were old pals. "His father and I told him, 'This is it. We did our part. You're on your own. This is our first and last trip to Boston.'"
Emma and I say nothing because neither of us can relate. On the spot, I am in tears again. "So much for that mascara being waterproof," Emma says, gently wiping the black stuff off my cheek.
On the ride back to New York, Peter and I agree we had a great run and wouldn't have done anything differently -- no regrets, no wishes for even a partial do-over. The rational side of me knows my kids love me and that in some ways they'll always need their mom. But I still cry.
I wake up Sunday, the first official day of this New Era, thinking I'd give anything for Jake to be watching Netflix on the couch and Emma laughing over the web in her room with a girlfriend. At some point, we'd all take a walk in Central Park or Emma and I would head down Columbus Avenue for manicures.
But today there will be no trip to the Great Lawn. I yearn for one more summer of sleep away camp or that month they spent in a rural village in Ecuador, knowing that even though we were incommunicado, they'd be home for good in just a few weeks.
Obviously we have visits, vacations, holidays and even a weekend soon when Jake gets his wisdom teeth removed. We'll set usage records for text, FaceTime, Snapchat and phone. And yes, I know intuitively that in the circle of life when something ends, something new begins. But right now I'm having trouble seeing the beginning part -- and I can't imagine that I'll like it much.
In an email, my friend Lisa tells me that the "best part is parenting an adult...I promise." I want to believe her. Her words and all the thoughtful suggestions should ease my pain, but they don't right now.
Emma, wearing one my favorite tees that she swiped from my drawer, sends a Snapchat that says, "Good morning, sunshine."
Minutes later she calls. She knows I'm down, way down, and I hate it because parents shouldn't put this burden on kids. It's my misery, not theirs.
"You gotta remember our motto, mommy," she says. "Every morning you tell Jake and me, 'Go make today better than yesterday,'" she pauses to gauge my reaction. I'm silent. Speechless. I don't want to ruin this moment -- her moment -- by sobbing. "Well, now you have to do that. We have to do that," she continues.
I want to believe her, too, but at this raw stage, logical thinking escapes me. I want my babies back. I am desperate to feel whole again with kids filling our home with love, noise and dirty laundry. Where did the time go? How did 18 years blow by so quickly?