The empty-nest years come too soon

“The last one is finally out of the house.”

That’s what I’ve been telling people in a jokey sort of guy way, with the emphasis on the word “finally,” as if I simply couldn’t wait for this moment to arrive.

But I don’t mean a word of it.

When we dropped Henry, our youngest, at college the other day for the start of his freshman year, it was like (not to be dramatic or anything) cutting off your right hand and leaving it with a stranger.

“Take good care of that hand now. Trim the nails. Use lotion. Ha, ha! I’ll be back to see it in a month or so. Or longer. Who knows? I don’t really care. Ha, ha! Joke, joke!”

But parents who have experienced kids leaving the nest know that freshman year at college is a turning point. They’ll come back for weekends and holidays, and there’s summer, of course. And you’ll visit them. Or we will anyway. A tailgate party with him is already in the works. We also threatened him with weekly weekend visits if he doesn’t text and call with us sufficiently. (He knows from painful experience that our ‘smother’ threats are a real and present danger).

But they’re never quite “yours” in the same sense. Freshmen year is the first step toward them permanently not living with you ever again. As a parent, you recognize that. On some level, they get it, too, but I have yet to meet a college freshman who thought much beyond the next party or exam. Looking ahead is not their thing.

To them, coming home for a month at Christmas is “same as it ever was,” to quote the epic Talking Heads song. To you — or maybe it’s just me — each visit home is one more step away from you and who you collectively were as a family when you all lived under the same roof and shared the same food, germs, joys, and stresses. Each time when they leave it’s like watching the tide roll out slowly, knowing it’ll roll in a little less slowly next time and probably not stick around as long as before. Kids ebb. That’s the sad truth.

Sorry, I’m still in the maudlin stage. I get that way. Marcia tears up. I brood. I’ve always feared endings. Sam left what, six years ago for his undergrad? Now he’s in law school. I still miss his goofiness around the house on a daily basis. Annie is a senior at the same school Henry’s attending, and she comes home a lot. But I still ache for her smart, sassy ways when she’s not around. (She’s got a Ph.D. in putting up with me. She gets her master’s level eye-roll from her mother, of course).

As I mentioned, Henry is our youngest, so our empty nest years are suddenly here, and it feels unreal. We’ve had the noise and busyness of kids for 24 years now. I think both of us have forgotten what life was like before them. I suspect we’re both wondering how this thing is going to go when it’s just her and just me.

Maybe it’ll be a ball. We’re the types who seldom took time off from the kids. We even vacationed with them because we wanted them to be a bit “worldly,” so they went to Jamaica, Hawaii, Costa Rica, New York, Washington, D.C., and a hundred other places with us.

Maybe traveling on our own will be a revelation. Maybe not working all day, then doing kid duty all evening — baths, homework, chauffeuring, cross country meets, cheerleading, dance class, sleepovers, baseball practice, soccer practice, etc. — will be a good thing. Look at all this time we suddenly have! Whoohoo!

Some couples tell us they love it.

No offense to these people, but I suspect they’re lying.