Empty Nest

They call the process of a woman giving birth “labor.”  If that’s the case, my wife, at 36 hours spent in the old St. Catherine’s hospital, put in almost a full week’s worth in giving birth to our first child, Jon, born on September 5, 1985.  I think it was threat of overtime that finally motivated the doctor to grab a set of forceps and pull the boy out.

That was 27 years ago.  Until this past Monday, when we returned home from dropping our youngest child, our daughter Hannah, off at college, that marked the last time my wife and I were the only two residents of our house in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin.  Much has changed in that time, including the house, which we added a 2nd level to in 1996, effectively doubling its living space, as well as cultural and technological advances that will include me dropping a “Happy Birthday” message to Jon on Facebook. 

This past weekend, at our cabin in northern Wisconsin, was one of the increasingly rare times when all five of us were together as a family.   We hosted a cook out, and Jon drove over from his home in Minneapolis, and Nick and Hannah drove up from Eau Claire.   We had a great time, laughing and sharing memories of our time together.  At some point, as always happens when we are together, I looked at the three of them and felt the same combination of pride and sorrow and gratitude.   I am grateful that the fates smiled upon us to give us such healthy and vibrant and beautiful children.  I am proud of the people they have turned out to be:  strong, independent, smart and caring. 

It’s the sorrow I have trouble with.  I am left with such wonderful memories of each of them; of Jon sitting on my lap as I mowed our grass with our lawn tractor, of the winter’s day that I watched Nick, maybe two years old, through the window as he discovered his shadow, or the mornings I would bring Hannah her breakfast, pretending to be her loyal servant, announcing “Your breakfast is serrrrrrrrrrrrved.”   These memories have always brought me great joy; the pangs of sorrow that now accompany them seem somehow incongruent.

I think what brings me sorrow, what I am mourning, is that time goes by so quickly that when you are living it, it’s impossible to truly appreciate how wonderful life is.  When my children were small, they were with us every day, and every day some magic, some small miracle, unfolded right before our eyes.  But our eyes, as eyes too often are, were distracted, were filled with bills to pay and work and other trivial matters that seemed so important at the time but have since been long forgotten. 

It’s only years later, when our children become adults and the old house becomes an empty nest, that we realize what we missed in our preoccupation, and just how remarkable those times were. 

But then I look at my wife, and after 31 years of marriage she is still as beautiful to me as she ever was, and I love her more than I ever have, and I realize, even in these days of empty bedrooms and silent hallways, that is pretty remarkable, too.

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