Just before entering graduate school at our state university, my son abandoned the nest and took our living room sofa. My wife, Shelley, had never liked the sofa — too big, too green, long as a bus, and twice as heavy — so, from her perspective, getting rid of it was an excuse to replace it with one of astounding beauty. On the other hand, I took my late afternoon power nap on that leather monstrosity with the dog curled at my feet, and I liked that both ends of the sofa sprung out as recliners when you wanted to sit back and put your feet up. But I wanted to be a benevolent dad willing to help our son furnish an apartment near the University. So I said, “You can have it if you can move it, but I think it’s too heavy.”
He said thanks, got a wrench and broke the sofa down into six modules that he then loaded into the bed of his pick-up truck. The sofa was soon put back together in his apartment.
Being an elderly dog, Maggie didn’t appreciate losing the sofa she’d slept on for so long. For a while she slept on the dents in the carpet that the sofa had left behind. When I began napping on the green leather love seat that had no space for her, she banged her butt against the side of it to let me know her feelings. When the kitchen timer beeped to wake me up, she reached up and tugged at my arm with her teeth.
Jesse had graduated from college with high honors and a special award in Computer Science. He had marketable technical skills and was nearing independence. Why then did he want to start over and get a second bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering? “It’s a prerequisite for getting a master’s degree in Motorsport Engineering,” he said.
So he began working on a second bachelor’s degree, while I paid for another round of tuitions and his apartment near campus. Almost immediately he complained about the large undergraduate classes, foreign instructors who spoke unintelligible English, and that the University was requiring him to take non-engineering courses instead of giving him more credit for those he’d taken in college. He said he missed the small class sizes of his previous college. But he had met engineering seniors who were building a race car and had let him test last year’s model, hinting afterward that he could be one of their drivers in the spring international competition in Michigan.
As Shelley and I began adjusting to the empty nest, I came across an issue of Good Housekeeping in which three authors wrote of their children’s departures. Elizabeth Fishel wrote about the joy of redecorating her house. When her husband asked why she had bought a plush chair for their bedroom (since they both read in bed), she said, “Just in case one of the boys is home and needs a place to sit and talk with us.”
Kim Barnes said she missed family discussions in their hot tub but that she and her husband could now drive off spontaneously for romantic picnics. “When we do return to the nest, it is Bob’s job to check the hot tub’s temperature, a silent gesture of seduction, a bit of unspoken foreplay. If the tub is ready, so are we.”
Ann Hood wrote, “It is hard to imagine that day when both Sam and Annabelle will be living their lives away from me. It is hard to imagine sleeping late, without the rush of making lunches, finding missing socks and notebooks and car keys…I admit this future sounds carefree, whimsical, blissful. But I know better. When that day arrives and my house is child-free, I know how loud that emptiness might sound…In that distant life, I will watch Sam and Annabelle grow from afar instead of from beside them. But for today, in the fleeting moments we have, I will keep knocking at their doors, hoping they will let me in.”
As with these writers and their spouses, Shelley and I knew we would enjoy more time together now but thought it impossible to deny the pain of missing a child who, for so long, had been an integral part of our days.
After a rocky first semester, Jesse came home for his Christmas vacation break and said he was unhappy at the University. He felt no enthusiasm for the mechanical engineering program and his initial idea of getting a second bachelor’s degree. He didn’t want to spend five more years learning Motorsport design when his true love was driving a race car. He wanted to finish school soon, get a high-paying job, and buy a race car.
I suggested his best chance for a high-paying job was to transfer into the Computer Science graduate program and get his master’s degree. If he e-mailed the head of the Computer Science Department, we might be able to drive there for an interview and possibly change his curriculum before he headed back to school for the spring term. So we did that just before New Year’s Day.
That February, Shelley and I took our first vacation without him. As interesting as the Florida Keys were for one week, the thought of never again hearing the little guy say, “Papa, what are we gonna do when the sun comes up?” made it seem as if conquering the empty nest would be like challenging the alligators we’d observed in the Everglades.
After completing his first semester in the master’s degree program, Jesse and a friend loaded a red race car onto a trailer in early August and towed it to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway for an event sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), causing Shelley and me to anxiously imagine speed demons crashing in various airborne configurations. He’d purchased an older Mazda Miata sports car for $2500 and worked on it with his friend during the spring and most of the summer, converting it from a used street car to an SCCA regulation Spec Miata while slowly depleting his savings.
What do you say when your man-child asks, “Are you coming up to Loudon to watch me race?”
Do you say, “I’d rather watch finches at the bird feeder”? No. You say, “We’ll be there for one day. Which day do you prefer?”
The stadium bleachers that hold 100,000 during NASCAR races were empty, but scores of SCCA members, crew, and family were camped throughout the infield. Jesse’s old engine lacked the power to pass other Miatas on the straight-aways, but his driving skill allowed him to catch some on the corners. In his last race, two drivers spun in front of him, forcing him onto the grass. There was exhilaration in his face when the race day ended.
I still did not know what Jesse would become but hoped he would follow Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs advice to the 2005 graduating class at Stanford University: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
With respect to the empty nest, it seemed ours would be a long transition rather than an immediate reality. Despite my anxiety about his racing, I was relieved he would still be inviting Shelley and me into his life occasionally.