A voice whispered in my ear at the Starbucks’ counter.
“Wait until next week. You’ll be amazed how many houses go on the market.”
“What are you talking about?” I was confused yet intrigued.
“Last kid off to college. It’s either sell or split up, divorce or divest. Time to pack it up.”
This observation hit me like a ton of ton of brick pavers. My friend was laying it on the line… for some marriages, the end of the line started the minute they dropped their child off at college. Freshman year may offer a fresh new outlook for stale marriages pungent and unproductive. Sail away together or say bon voyage.
For some, it would be a long-anticipated goodbye to home repairs, and sun-drenched hellos to condo or apartment living thousands of miles away. For others, it would be a much-needed goodbye to spackling the numerous holes in their marriages, and uncharted hellos to separate lives and Match.com. The days of PTA meetings would lead to nights finding a new life somewhere or with someone else.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. When my wife and I first moved to the suburbs, childless and going through infertility, we would invite our friends to spend time with us in our suburban oasis. One night, with a group of long-time friends, we watched as a couple in their ‘50s ordered separate meals in a Chinese restaurant. Not a word was spoken. Each stared off into the distance. Lost in their lo mein, not lost in each others’ eyes.
It was like moo shu horror show, and we were scared and scarred. There wasn’t enough liquor to abate the uneasiness at our table. On the ride back to our house, we all commented that this would never be us. How could they not share their food? How could they not share their lives?
That was more than two decades ago before we became parents with grown-up responsibilities. My wife and I are now in our early ‘50s, like that couple from the past. Is their fate awaiting us once our youngest daughter goes to college in five years? My wife and I have been through so many ups and downs with medical and financial issues, Mt. Everest would be a piece of wedding cake, a walk down a suburban lane. Will our tanks be stuck on empty once the house empties out of children?
We know it’s coming along with the AARP memberships and a new roof. So we talk… and talk… and talk. We make plans for a life together. Will it be an apartment in Manhattan (or at least of a dream of a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan)? Will it be a house on a golf course in sunny Florida where we can cruise off into the sunset with new friends? Or will we stay put, welcoming home our children and their children, truly thankful to be together for Thanksgiving?
Some friends are bubbling with excitement at becoming empty nesters. Maybe they have an underlying resentment at having given up decades of much-needed time and space to their toddlers and teens. They’ve already started traveling and eating out on a Tuesday night. They’ve charted a five-star course to retirement. Two for tea and tees for two.
Others are up to their own devices, communicating with new loves even if the love only offers a temporary or one-night respite. They alternate visiting days at college to avoid the ex and have let some new family deal with an aging septic tank at their former family home. What ever emptiness they feel from being an empty nester or from a failed marriage can be swept under the rugs at their new digs. They can unfriend and untag their past.
But for those of us trying to contemplate what life will be like without kids under foot, how do we know when one’s house is a home meant just for two? Much-desired silence can be golden even in your golden years, but what if that silence drives you and your spouse apart? I don’t want to overfill my days with activities and shuffleboard through life just to get keep my dance card filled. I want my empty nest not empty at all.
I like the noise and the bickering and even those late-night arguments. I like taking out the garbage cans twice a week, and helping clean up after dinner. I like the daily routine and don’t mind when visitors interrupt the ebb and flow of everyday life. I want to go off into the sunset with the woman who’s been next to me since I had acne and a David Cassidy haircut. Whether it’s here knew deep in suburbia or some retirement community deep in the heart of Dixie.
Because while your nest may be empty, your heart doesn’t need to be.