This summer, the birds started moving in when our last child started moving out. Our daughter has been packing for her final year of college for weeks. That’s about the same time the Carolina wrens picked our back study window and the house sparrows chose our attic window for their nests. Our house is now a full-nester. And if you think I could move the nests away from the house, you haven’t met a real angry bird. The house sparrow flies around your head to keep you away, and the Carolina wren mom dive-bombs and actually screams. We keep the shades drawn by her window. Her bird screams remind me of my children’s screams. The “he took the remote control from me” or the “we don’t have any more milk” cacophony was, I realize now, not necessarily music to my ears but the sound of my sense of purpose; now it is dwindling away. Basically in a week or so, our house will have a sad emptiness. At least we won’t be empty-nesters.
When our first child left for college, my husband and I were thrown off by our emotions. My insides hurt. Wasn’t the whole point of parenting to have successful, independent children? Didn’t we dream of going to a movie instead of a PTA meeting on a school night? So why did we miss him so much? When my son finally called the landline in mid-September, my husband and I raced to the phone and actually yanked the receiver from each other — jabbing one another with our elbows to gain the best ear space. The call lasted one sentence, just long enough for “more textbook money.” Over the next few weeks, we got two more short calls. No extra information provided. Nothing about the roommate, the courses or the food.
I found a way to get some solace. On phone call number four, right before the receiver was about to go click, I threw in something about our dog at the time, about her foot. Our Labrador’s paw bought me 10 more minutes on the phone. Okay, most of the talk was about her ailing foot, her food-stealing mischief and her long gazes. Not interesting necessarily to everyone, but very interesting to our first-year student. His voice cracked when he asked where she was sleeping. He wanted me to tell him more. I wanted him to tell me more. Amid the dog talk, I learned he had made a good friend and his bunk bed was too high.
My college kids had to fake being happy during those first few months away, since they were supposed to love the experience. Chin up and that sort of thing. But there are no societal rules for how they are supposed to feel about their pets. Our pet discussions have opened a healthy valve for their bottled-up homesickness, as well as the sadness I feel from missing them. They don’t have to pretend not to miss their pets.
Year after year, as another August has come and gone, our house has become less crowded with the removal of items bound for dorm rooms and with fewer kids. Now we are down to one college senior. The others don’t come home anymore for the summers. They have other places to live. Occasionally, they refer to those places as their home. I can’t allow myself to hear that. Instead, I walk into their empty bedrooms and fluff their pillows or water the plants I stuck in their rooms so there is something alive in there. When I go into their rooms now, I don’t scream that there is too much mess. Why did the dirty clothes on the floor bother me? Didn’t I realize the clutter and the noise was an extension of them? Thankfully, for now, I can hear the bird noise from the window wells. And, thankfully, for now, I still have my daughter’s untidy room. The strewn clothes comfort me. I vow to myself I won’t clean her floor after she takes off.
My daughter is gathering her things to take back to college into a pile in the living room. Yes, another nest. The dinged-up blue bed lamp and the extra-long cotton sheets. The two tea mugs that she picked after meticulously going through the cupboards are balancing on the stack of books. Meanwhile, the Carolina wren mom brings her stuff into our house day after day, piling up her tiny sticks and twigs into a little heap of a mess. Stuff in, stuff out. Kids leaving, baby birds arriving.
Our dog paces by my daughter’s college pile. I wish he were a little slobbier and a little noisier to fill the void. I mentally gear up for her last year at school. The sad feelings won’t be a surprise to me, this time. I expect them. Our dog shakes his head, and pants as he paces by her nest, giving me ideas for my dog tales to lure her back for a moment or two of time.