THE ALMOST-EMPTY NEST

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THE ALMOST-EMPTY NEST

Suzanne told me before my firstborn son left for college that I would get through it, I would be fine, and in time, I would even come to welcome his independence.

I didn’t believe her at the time, but she was so right.

Her only child—Julia—had left the year before that, and she was living proof.

Gail survived the departure of her first two children many years ago, so that was old news to her. At that time, her younger children were preschoolers. Like any challenge, Gail stares it down, accepts it as a fact of life, and goes on. She simply does what has to be done.

She does, however, feel it more than she lets on. I know this about her. And the older she gets, the harder it gets to not let it show. Oh, she is still tough as nails, don’t get me wrong. She’s just a little softer on the outside now.

She has always been mush on the inside, and that is a good thing.

I wear my heart not on my sleeve; more like on my collar. Or like a tattoo on my forehead. I once cried during a presidential inauguration on television.

Damn hormones.

Perhaps some mothers would have cried at my son’s snafu during graduation, but I managed to laugh—and I truly thought it was funny.

Every graduate, after they walked across the stage, was handed a yellow rose to take to their mother or other significant adult. The graduates before him did just that, offering heartfelt hugs along with the beautiful flower. Joel picked up his rose, and proceeded to sit back down among the rows of graduates. A fellow graduate likely nudged him, reminding him “You’re supposed to take that to your mom.”

So he got back up, searched and found me, and leaned in from the aisle across about 5 chairs, handed me the rose from a distance as I headed toward him for a hug, just as he turned and quickly headed back to his chair in the front of the auditorium.  The blurry quality of this picture shows just how fast it all happened:

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That’s my boy. He apologized later, and gave me one of his best hugs ever.

As my firstborn prepares for his fourth year away at a state university, Joel is preparing for a year at a local vocational training program. He will live at home for one more year. He will be independent, but he won’t be gone—yet.

I am thrilled. I’m not quite ready for emptiness. But I am ready for—as we say in the rehab field—modified independence. It will be the best of both. He will be here, but he will also be on his own.

His sense of humor is a gift to anyone in his presence. If you thought the graduation incident was funny, well, he didn’t even mean to do that. If you can catch him at the right moment, in the right mood, he will break out his impersonations. Any character, any dialect, as well as the voices of many famous people can be heard coming from his mouth.

He is a funny guy, and I look forward to more laughter with him. Then, perhaps after a year of training, I will be ready to let the last one go—at least out of the house.

It’s supposed to happen. They are supposed to grow up and move away from their parents. This is what we work so hard for, for all those years. For their first 18 years, we knock ourselves out to teach them all we can, and show them how to do things on their own. And then we are devastated when they do just that.

Damn hormones. Or soul-wrenching motherly love. Or the bittersweet Grand Design.

They, like all of us at their age, need to move forward to the next phase of their lives. We were ready at their age, and they, too, are readying to leave.

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Gail’s fourth and last child graduated as well. She was born on my husband’s birthday, and, like my last child, will be attending a program close to home. She will drive half an hour to her mother’s alma mater every day.

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Her oldest sister, Gail’s firstborn and honorable attorney-at-law Kate, was the graduation speaker.

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Gail and I, unlike Suzanne, will not quite have an empty nest. But kind of. They will be under our roofs by night, but yet they are out in the big world on their own by day.

I have convinced myself that I am getting the best of both: they are gone, but still here, too. My husband agrees. So does Gail, and her husband.

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Fourteen years ago Matt graduated from high school.

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Three years ago Jude graduated from high school.

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Joel’s graduation completes the trifecta.

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There is a lot of fun out there waiting to be had, and my name is on some of it. Gail’s name shows up too, as does Suzanne’s. Adventure awaits. More of the same kind we’ve always had, and perhaps—who knows—other kinds may find us too. We are open to that.

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I work with many patients whose spouses are present for therapy. They are visiting in the hospital room when I’m there, or they are at home with them when I am in their homes for home health, or perhaps they bring each other in for outpatient therapy.

I am struck every time I hear it spoken, and I always stop to think about this, and why it happens the way it does: so many of these patients and their spouses call each other not by their first names, but by “Mom” or “Dad.”

Clearly, they are married to each other; they are not parents to each other. Yet, they call them by their parental name. I always wonder this: was parenthood their only identity? Do they think of themselves only as parents, and not as individuals married to each other with a unique identity apart from that as a parent? Did they not have the luxury of thinking of themselves as a separate entity apart from their children? Was their devotion to their children greater than mine to my children, because I don’t now, nor do I ever foresee myself calling my husband “Dad,” instead of by his first name. He is not my dad. My dad is the only person I ever called or will call ‘Dad,’ and he is gone. Neither do I foresee him calling me “Mom.” His mother is alive and well, and that is her name to him. My parents called each other either by their first names, or perhaps a term of endearment, but not by their parental names. So too do my in-laws. My husband and I use these endearing terms sometimes too.

When I am talking to my boys and referring to their dad, I do call him “Dad,” or sometimes “your dad” to them. I think perhaps it was simply easier for these couples to simply continue to use the names “Mom” and “Dad” after all those years of doing just that with their children. But I still wonder if they ever think of themselves as anything besides parents.  Perhaps I am over-thinking this, but I do notice it, just like I notice a lot of things in human communication. It is my job, and forgive my psychoanalysis if it appears that is what I have done. I am simply trying to make a point about one’s parental identity.

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So back to our kids: The passive parenting has begun. Gail spent 34 years in active parenthood, I have spent 21, and Suzanne spent 18, for a total of 73 years. That’s a long time. Our parents spent 33 years from the firstborn to the last to leave. Suzanne tells the story of asking Mom if she was going to miss our youngest brother when he was preparing to leave home. If I’m not mistaken, I’m pretty sure she said without hesitation: “No. I am ready.”

Gail was second to leave, I am guessing that was a little tougher. I was fifth to fly the nest, and I don’t recall giving a flip about how Mom and Dad felt about me leaving. I only recall being so excited to arrive at college, and when they dropped me off, I didn’t look back. I don’t know if they did or not.  One of our older brothers was at the same university for his last year, so I wasn’t quite alone.

Suzanne was next after me, and next-to-last. She went to the same university I did, but I had just finished. Again, it was probably a bit easier. So by the last one, they were experts at this after having been through it seven times.

Several of us—myself included—drifted back in and out again when we were in transition. They welcomed us until we got our footing again, and left once more.

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Joel is sitting next to me as I write, taking care of some form of business on his computer—the one I hijacked for last week’s post. (By the way, my new charger arrived in the mail from Amazon, and obviously, it fired up and charged my computer again.) He and I are plugged in separately, but we are together still. Perhaps this will be the new normal as he transitions into his year of post-secondary education, then into the big world. His next oldest brother will be back at the same university for his senior year. Their oldest brother continues to live just 100 easy miles down the road in Wichita with his delightful family.

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Our nest is almost empty, but our hearts will always be full with them as our children. I know in my heart this is how our parents felt, too. Our nest is blessed. Full nest, almost-empty nest and someday, perhaps, empty nest, we will keep them in our hearts forever. And this is how it supposed to be, this is what we worked so hard for all those years for.

Let the next phase begin.

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SWHEAT GIRLS PART TWO: NOTHING IS SURE BUT SISTERHOOD–AND THIS BRAND NEW TATTOO

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WELCOME BACK TO THE SISTER LODE!

This week I am honoring not only my sisters, but a special pair of sisters who have been an integral part of my life for many years.  Thanks for joining us!

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Left to right:  Tana, me, Amy

**

I wish I would have rolled that word around in my mouth a little longer back then, like a piece of hard candy.  I wish I would have realized its bitterness before I uttered it, before it had to be swallowed all these years later.  Now, it tastes more sour than sweet.

NEVER.

As in, “I am NEVER going to get a tattoo.”

I don’t know how many people I likely uttered it to in the last, oh, say, 30 years or so.  Probably at least several, because I thought it many, many, many times.

Life has a strange way of turning us into liars, even when we don’t want to lie.  Especially when we so desperately wanted to hang on to the truth as we once knew it.

The truth, however, is that the truth about ourselves changes.  It changes with us as we grow, as we evolve into that better person we are now today, different from the person we were yesterday.

And this is a good thing.  This is a thing to be honored at all costs.

**

Eight hours ago, I waved the big driveway wave as my dear friends drove away.   They were here for six days, and those six days raced by like six hours.  The other half of the group left before sunrise yesterday; we bade adieu before bed two nights ago.   Back to Phoenix they went.

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These two groups consist of two dear sisters and their families.  These two women have been in my life since 1984 when I was a mere 18 years old, and they were 12 and 8.

I was their babysitter. Now, their children are older than they were when I met them.  I wasn’t so much a babysitter as a household manager and a companion.  They lived with their farmer father during the summers, and their mother in Phoenix for the school year.  Their dad was a busy man who covered a lot of ground—farm ground– and he needed help with his daughters during his busy season.

And so it began.

We have pictures from their visits from the last 20-plus years; one such picture shows both me and the older sister pregnant with our now-almost 17 year old sons.   And here’s one from several years after that, with my sons flanking hers:

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Then, in just a few blinks of an eye, here they are again:

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They haven’t missed a year.  Their children, they tell me, start asking weeks ahead:  “How soon until we leave?”

We do essentially nothing.  We drink coffee until noon, work on a puzzle, talk, eat and then swim in our small above-ground pool.  We may enjoy a cold libation or two.   For the 4th of July, however, we become more festive.  We shoot fireworks, go fishing, and the boys hunt bullfrogs— as they are preparing to do above, and cook them for all of us to eat.  We have an annual water balloon fight.  We simply have fun, because, if you remember from my first post, fun is generally under-rated and under-exercised.

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And, of course, we do a puzzle.

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The girls and I love to bake; their mothers don’t.  This year, it was fresh cherry pie with cherries from our backyard tree, raisin cream pie and baklava.

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They enjoy my siblings as well; we stopped to see Suzanne at work.

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Gail passed through on her way to Michigan to see her daughter, taking her younger daughter along.  Those two sisters got to enjoy each other’s company, something they don’t always get to do.

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There are four children and one husband between them.  They are the houseguests extraordinaire.  They don’t stink after a few days, as the saying may suggest.  They are beloved by my husband and boys as well.  They know and love my siblings.  They keep the wheat separated from the chaff.  They make me laugh.  They make me cry.  They made me get another tattoo with them.

**

Tana and Amy have stuck together through thin and thick.  Through their parents’ divorce.  Through the loss of their beloved stepfather.  Through a divorce each. Through infertility, adoptions, the loss of one child’s father, estrangements, life and all it had to throw at them.  Through it all, they kept coming to see me.

Every summer, they join us for the 4th of July.  Every summer, since 1984, we have enjoyed jigsaw puzzles together.  Last summer, I was touched and honored by Tana’s idea:  “Let’s get matching tattoos of a puzzle piece with the American flag.  You have to get a border piece, because you have always held us together.”

And so we did.

This year, to celebrate our wheat farm-girl heritage, we had the same idea separately, from a thousand miles apart:  “Let’s get wheat tattoos.”

And so we did.

A single stem of wheat, with the writing of our choice woven into the stem.  Tana’s simply says “home,” because she will always think of The Wheat State as home.  Amy’s says “ad astra per aspera,” which is the motto on the Kansas state flag.   It’s Latin for “to the stars through difficulties.”  Mine, because I saw this on an antique poster long ago and have always loved it, says “swheat girl.”   Imagine that.  It is in my own handwriting.  My father likely would have rolled his eyes and laughed at this on earth, but I feel him beaming with honor and approval from above.

Each of these are small, meaningful, tastefully and discreetly placed.  That is all you need to know.

Through these difficulties, these “swheat” girls will always have a home in my home as long as they wish to come.   May they continue as long as we are all able.

**

So now I have these tattoos.  I swore I never would.  Never say never.  Greater than that, I am thinking about how I judged—and still judge– others for things besides their tattoos; other actions I have no right to pass judgment on.  Few of us ever have the right to do that.  Few of us ever have all the information.  Few of us can prove a spotless record and the authority that allows us to determine when others are doing something “wrong.”  And the definition of “wrong,” as we think we know it, may change over time, or from situation to situation.   Or our definition may be different from theirs.   I strive to make every day Non-Judgment Day.  It will be a lifelong effort for me, but I am trying.

**

In those early weeks and months after my parents died, I know my actions reflected my state of mind.  Unlike tattoos, however, this grief was hidden deep inside, invisible to anyone who didn’t know what was going on in my life.  I was likely–in alternate and unequal measures–sad, angry, flippant, depressed, crying, laughing, unaware, grouchy, sullen, short-tempered and any other emotion imaginable.  I likely treated people poorly in my efforts to make it through the day—or the moment.  If someone had treated me like that, I likely would have judged them—without having all the facts.

Now, when I encounter a grouchy waitress or an unkind stranger, I think, perhaps, “maybe her parents just died.”

I have a friend who has multiple tattoos.  She wants more.  She swore she never would.  Then, her college-age daughter died of cancer.  She pays tribute to her in this way.  It is one way she honors her daughter’s memory, and that, even though she once thought it was, will never be wrong.  Ever.

This post was hard for me to write.  It was hard to expose this part of myself.  Most of you don’t know me, but if you do, this may surprise you.  I was a wallflower for many years.  Now, I realize, I have become a wildflower.

“I never would have thought Kathleen would get tattooed.”  I hear your thoughts.  I still hear them in my head, too.  But, in order to honor that truth I spoke of in the beginning of this post, I got them.  And I am writing about them.  They are meaningful to me, just as other’s tattoos are meaningful to them.  They are art for the body, and art is a good and necessary thing—no matter what form it takes.

It’s more fun here on the wildflower side.  There was nothing wrong with life as a wallflower, but it was time.  Time to listen to the little voice that begged for expression through writing, my other favorite art forms and through the tattoos.

It is highly unlikely that my sisters will ever decide to take the tattoo plunge, and that’s the right thing for them.  They have supported my decision, and I am grateful for that.

**

No regrets, my friends.  This is as sure as sisterhood—and the tattoos.

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Once again, Happy Independence Day.  Keep it alive every day by separating the wheat from the chaff, and honoring the truth about who you are deep inside–even if it changes.

Special thanks to Brandon, our go-to guy for tattoos. Let me know if you need his expertise.  And, without the one-and-only Edgar Hake, I would have never met these “swheat” girls.