This image has stuck with me throughout the past few weeks as I have helped my two youngest sons prepare to go off to college -- one to Boulder and one to New York City. While my mind was reeling with all the details of what it takes to set up a new life away from home, they moved in slow motion through their last lazy summer days, hanging out with friends and waiting until the last minute to pack.
When they finally reached the point when they realized they would need to take a few things along, we went shopping for sheets, toiletries, undershirts, socks, eyeglasses. They tore their rooms apart downstairs and I assiduously stayed upstairs. If they needed something, I would help them get it, but pulling it together was their job.
Finally, on an especially fine Thursday, the morning air slightly crisp and hinting at autumn, we drove the first twin to Boulder. The scene at the registration desk outside his dorm was surprisingly similar to their first day of first grade at Steele Elementary School, 12 years ago. Excited kids rushed forward, a little nervous and awkward, while their parents stood back watching -- proud, smiling, unsure what to do with themselves.
All week people had come up to me with looks of great sympathy on their faces. They asked me how I was doing, as if I might crumble in a heap of tears at the thought of sending off my two youngest kids. I laughed and told them I was fine. Twenty-nine years of kids in the house had been quite enough, thank you. They shook their heads and said, "Wait a few weeks. See how you feel then."
In Boulder, we unloaded the contents of the car into the impossibly small dorm room, then walked to the hip hill beyond campus and ate meatball subs and ice cream. Massive black thunderheads boiled up in the western sky just as we reached the dorm and prepared to say goodbye. I made my son promise to call or write an e-mail once a week. His brother kissed him goodbye and, for the duration of the drive home, my heart broke.
These boys had passed 18 years in each other's shadows, in a nest made of familiarity and comfort. When they were infants, I would sneak into their nursery, a converted breakfast nook off the kitchen, early in the morning, and stand in the door watching as they stuffed their fat fists into each other's mouths, smiling silently at each other, their arms and legs entwined.
Once a friend and I discovered them sitting in the stone cold fireplace on a summer morning, happily smearing each other's faces and bodies with soot. As toddlers, they shared a twin language that sounded vaguely like Chinese; as high schoolers, they shared the language of math, equally foreign to me. They embodied the descriptive "each other."
The next week passed quickly, and on Friday I delivered the second twin to the airport in Denver, to fly off to the big city on his own, his possessions crammed into an enormous duffel bag. I told him how proud I was, that he was going on an adventure bigger than any I ever had. I watched as he impatiently shuttled his overstuffed bag toward the terminal. I turned the car toward home.
How can I explain the feeling the next morning, when I awoke childless for the first time in 29 years? Initially it was overwhelming lightness. Later in the afternoon, it was a wave of exhaustion and blessed sleep. The year had been momentous and difficult. A son sent off to war and safely returned. Two sons graduated from high school and safely sent off to college. To prepare for the inevitable empty nest, I had launched myself into graduate studies and new job configurations. Life would go on.
My friends still greet me with concerned faces and voices, waiting for depression to hit. Maybe they are right and in a few weeks I'll feel differently. For now, I still feel light and full of the possibilities of all our lives.
This morning I filled the bird feeders, the thistle socks and the birdbath, then sat on the back patio and watched as birds swept down for a nibble and a splash. Maybe one day I will learn to be still enough to feed a bird from my bare hand, to hold steady and not blink as I watch it fly away.