Tim Woodward’s new columns are alternating with Woodward Classics during the pandemic. This one originally appeared in The Idaho Statesman in 2007.
It’s almost spooky at our house these days. The other night I woke up and went downstairs to turn off a light that wasn’t on. I thought it was our son, up for one of his nocturnal snacks with a light turned low, but it was the moon shining through a kitchen window.
I see him in his room, on the computer, around every other corner. I hear a television and think it’s his voice. I start to reply, then realize he isn’t home.
And won’t be any time soon.
Our youngest left home last week to attend school in another city. For the first time in years, there are no kids at our house. Just the two of us now, rattling around in a house built for five – seven if you include a deceased dog and a pet cockatiel that has long since flown.
Some of the changes have been okay. We buy a box of cereal and it’s still there the next day. The stereo is getting a breather, the fury of Metallica serenely absent. These, however, are small things. The big thing is more complicated.
When you first have kids, you feel like they’ll be around forever. Then you make the mistake of blinking and they’re gone. That’s when you start to wonder, in all that unaccustomed stillness, whether you wasted too much time along the way. You wonder whether you appreciated them enough, whether you did enough for them.
Were you a good enough parent?
If you had it to do again, would you do it differently?
Everyone who has children knows a time will come to let go, but the generations don’t seem to learn much about it from each other. A letter my parents wrote after I left for the Navy has come to mind a lot lately. They wrote about how quiet it was around the house – I was the last kid, too – and how they were struggling to fill the time once taken by parenting.
A few blinks later, I’m in exactly the same situation, never thought to ask them how they handled it, and now it’s too late.
Should we do what they did – play golf, go fishing, buy an RV?
Somehow I don’t see myself in golf shoes and a pork pie hat, muscling a gas hog around Arizona.
Part of the problem is that we didn’t plan for this. Like many parents, we’ve been so wrapped up in work and being parents that we never gave a thought to how we’d fill the time when there was no one around to parent.
Canoeing, maybe? Canoes have always intrigued me. Maybe we could buy a canoe.
No, that wouldn’t work. My wife hates canoes.
No, too expensive.
No, one of us is too clumsy. (Hint: it’s not my wife.)
One thing that does help fill the time is that we’re having to do the things our newly departed son used to do around the house, primarily cooking. He gets it from his grandfather, who also loved to cook.
Maybe there’s some hope there. I have my eye on an Internet cookbook. Maybe a latent gene will kick in and I’ll while away my anecdotage puttering with pots and pans.
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. When people learned that our nest was newly empty, their reactions varied wildly. The wildest was an observation that with the kids gone we could walk around the house naked.
The neighborhood is breathless with anticipation.
The most insightful question anyone has asked so far is whether we still know how to talk to each other now that the kids are gone.
But a fair amount of the conversation tends to be about the kids. Something that fills three decades of your life doesn’t just go away. You never really stop being a parent.
You do have to move on, though. It would be nice to tell you we have that part figured out, but we don’t. Not yet, anyway. Talking about the kids and puttering in the kitchen will only get you so far, and continually seeing a face that isn’t there is one of the worst kinds of lonely.
If any of you who read this have a suggestion, I’d love to hear it.
And if you read this, Mark, know that your parents still miss you like crazy.