I don’t remember how it started, but it was something we always did as a family.
Whenever we traveled by plane, at the moment of take-off, we would instinctively reach out and grab each other by the hand for no more than a minute, until the plane was well off the ground. When it was time to land, just as the plane touched down, we held hands again, counting silently to five before letting go. Every time and always.
Even when the girls grew into sullen teenagers, they acquiesced to this little ritual, no matter who was watching or how awkward our seating arrangements made it. As they grew up and wanted to sit in a different row than their parents, it meant we had to reach behind us to grope for a hand we could not see, or across the aisle in the kind of conspicuous public gesture of parental love that teenagers generally hate. And, considering for a while there we were flying down to Southern California to see the girls’ grandparents twice a year, the ritual had become a habit that none of us wanted to break.
Last week, my youngest daughter at 17 boarded a plane alone, bound for South Korea where she will be for almost a year as an exchange student. Six months earlier, her older sister had flown away as well, to the East Coast. And in each case, I tortured myself thinking about that moment when each girl was strapped into her seat, flying thousands of miles away to a situation unknown to her, to people she had not yet met. And I wondered, at take-off and touch-down, whether her hands twitched a little bit, as an urge to reach for a sister or a mom or a dad who wasn’t there. Mine certainly did.
I have to admit that, as a parent, I never took Empty Nest Syndrome too seriously. It had always seemed the mildest and least dramatic of life’s self-conscious landmarks. It certainly never carried the air of tragedy, or even sadness for me. In fact, in the throes of the teen years, it seemed like something to be greatly desired, to hold in anticipation, like a Hawaiian vacation.
But I am surprised at the sense of suddenness of the feelings of disorientation. Like almost every loss – a death, a job loss, an injury or illness – the abruptness is jarring. Yet that’s not really the hard part.
The hard part is in recognizing that the day my daughter got on that plane was a bookend moment, bringing a pronounced close to the period in my life that began just as suddenly, when my first child was born on New Year’s Day of 1993. It seemed interminable while we were going through it. But the giddiness and stress of having children in the house is for me a part of the past never to return. It’s not just a new chapter. It’s an entirely new book.
Of course, we all accept the idea of our children as mature people intellectually long before we accept it emotionally. We are burdened by images of them in vulnerable moments and, while pets might be dependable in making us regularly feel heroic in attending to their needs, children are not so dependable. They are changed every time we help them to heal a skinned knee or a broken heart, until that moment when they can heal themselves. And we parents are left only to withdraw our attentions with grace.
That child you comforted when she was called names by a bully in the third grade is gone forever and exists now only as a ghost inside that young adult who now e-mails you twice a week. She has transformed; you’ve just gotten older.
There comes that time when the parent and the child can look at each other for the first time eye to eye, with the natural authority of parenthood changed or gone altogether. The best thing you can do for your child is to accept that new reality as soon as possible and not be playing out those old rituals while they approach their thirties. That means, essentially, building a new relationship on the scaffolding on the old one, and that’s not always easy.
As your period of hands-on parenting recedes into your shared past, you must accept the fact that your children will create their own narratives of that past that may or may not reflect you in the light you prefer to be reflected in. But you also have to accept that there will be entire areas of their lives in which you will now be merely a third-party audience, and others in which you won’t even be that.
When my daughter flew out of SFO to Seoul, we were not allowed past the security checkpoint. We had to say our goodbyes well before she took off. I had planned something, a few words to comfort her, to let her know how deeply proud I was of her. But when the time came, in that last embrace, the words got trapped in my throat. I could only express them with gestures, and tears.
We watched her snake her way through the long line until, like a boat on the horizon, we just lost sight of her.
Less than an hour later, we were back on the road heading south on that picturesque stretch of I-280. My wife was the first one to notice that the clock had reached the minute of her scheduled take-off.
She gestured to the clock, sighed and reached for my hand. I accepted it gratefully, counting silently to five.