“I have news,” she suddenly announced. “Natalie’s moving in a few months. She asked me to rent an apartment with her.”
“I’m so excited for you!” I hoped she didn’t see through my best pretend smile. That night, behind closed doors, I was surprised to find myself crying into my pillow. I knew my young tenant had a temporary visa in her childhood bedroom, but I didn’t expect to go through empty nest syndrome twice.
Once was bad enough. When Amy left for college five years ago, she was afraid of being homesick, I was afraid of missing her too much (turned out they were both true but temporary). At the end of orientation, we both cried. So did my husband, even though he now claims that’s an alternative fact.
I teared up at graduation too, this time with pride, squinting at my cap-and-gowned only child accepting her diploma a football field away. Some parents feel like crying when their kids unpack four years of dusty possessions from their dorms, unloading plastic bins of disorganized junk. I confess it was a bit of a rocky adjustment. She was moody at first, missing being able to walk down a flight of dorm stairs into instant socializing. My husband had taken over her bedroom, and he had to squeeze his photography gear and computer back into our bedroom. We nearly needed a couples therapist to work out Photoshop time and sleep hours.
And so we put everything on the table like a union negotiation. We wouldn’t charge her rent while she was still eking out somewhat of a living as an hourly-paid intern without benefits. She was welcome to make her lunches from anything in the fridge, but when out with friends she had to swipe her debit card. She did her laundry, pitched in with grocery shopping, washed dishes, bought her own clothes, and solved our technology snafus.
“How does it feel to be back home?” I inquired.
She shrugged. “It feels like I’m still in college.”
She still slept late on weekends, rousing for breakfast when I was finished with lunch. I requested, more than once, that she stop leaving her computer charging wire stretched across the living room where I always tripped over it. I instituted a house rule: If she didn’t commit to dinner before leaving for work, she had to fend for herself. I criticized her for not putting away pots after leaving them to dry overnight. “Are you insinuating I’m not a good roomie?” she asked in a hurt voice.
One weekend my husband and I visited friends upstate. When we returned, Amy told us she’d entertained friends both nights. “It was like having my own apartment,” she said. “I wish you’d go away more often.”
But mostly we enjoyed each other’s company. As long as I didn’t point out that it might rain and she should take an umbrella. Or if I probed too deeply where she was going, with whom, when she’d be home. I left the light on in her room so when I shuffled into the bathroom in the middle of the night, I knew she was soundly sleeping. What was she doing till 3 a.m.? When she was 175 miles away in college, I couldn’t lose sleep over her nocturnal escapades. Distance is denial.
On my birthday Amy presented me with a gift. I unwrapped a glazed ceramic Japanese tea pot and two matching cups. She knew I’d developed a taste for brewed afternoon tea. “I just want to let you know how much I appreciate you letting me live here rent free,” she explained.
I began to relish our reunited living arrangement. When I walked in after a late night as an adjunct writing professor, the aromas of her homemade pasta sauces comforted me. After my dental surgery, she was in the waiting room when I staggered out, ice pack on my cheek. My escort home made sure I had Advil, pillows and pudding before she returned to work.
I’d enjoyed watching her grow more mature with each year of college, but now, free from worries about midterms and will-I-ever-get-a-job-when-I-graduate, we were two adults. We debated politics and analyzed museum exhibits. When she broke into an impromptu silly dance while reading a recipe from my iPad, I boogied alongside her. I stopped asking why she never made her bed.
Just when we’ve gotten used to each other again, she’s about to leave.
Even though our cohabitation was never meant to be permanent, I was already regretting that we’d never have this special time again. What surprised me was how difficult it would be to let her go a second time. She would no longer be back home for summer vacation. I’d sent her off to college as a child who still needed and relied on my guidance. Now I was sending an adult into the world, the one I always hoped she’d be. There was even more to miss this time.
I also lived with my parents for 10 months post B. A. — until a grad school classmate invited me to rent an empty room. My first-generation parents were strict, believing girls should live at home until marriage. Unable to break the news, I lugged home empty grocery store cartons one afternoon. “What are those for?” my mother asked. “I’m moving,” I blurted, avoiding eye contact. “When?” she shrieked. “Tomorrow,” I confessed as if it were a sin. She shed tears for me to see in full guilty view. I departed quickly, almost furtively, as if shirking my last month’s rent in the middle of the night.
Unlike my mother, I will help my daughter pack. My second bout of empty nest sadness must not interfere with the joy of her exciting milestone. My husband will take down her framed pictures, leaving behind blank outlines in the lavender walls they painted together. He will hang them to launch her new life elsewhere. My husband will fill the empty space in her room again with his stuff, and I’ll cook meals without being her sous chef. I expect to still burst into dance routines while making dinner, smiling as I imitate her kooky moves. And some mornings I plan to go really wild: I may not even make my bed.
Candy Schulman is a writer whose essays have appeared in many publications. Follow her on twitter @candyschulman.
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