An Empty Nest, Once Again
My children went back to college after being home for the summer. No big deal. I took the dogs for a walk. We passed the Korean Tofu House and the smell made me hungry. Why don't we eat here tonight, I thought, then realized that I was alone. We had gone there together just a week before and had a great time and talked about coming back. No one passing by could see the tears behind my shades.
The house had been full of laughter, song, and warm bodies all summer. We cooked and ate together. The kids even made strawberry rhubarb pies, their dad's favorite. We went hiking in the hills and took the dogs to romp on the beach. It was just like it had been in the good old days, before they had grown up and gone away. My friends had been right, the kids do come back home.
When I got back home the house was dark and eerily quiet. The dogs paced throughout the house going into the kids' empty rooms, whining softly. One lay down in his favorite place by the bed as if he was waiting for his boy to come home.
The next morning I got up. Both dogs were sleeping by me. I decided to make pancakes; the kids love blueberry pancakes. Then I realized they weren't there. I lost my appetite and skipped breakfast. I took the dogs for a walk.
An old lady coming out of the Goodwill looked at my dogs, smiled warmly and asked,
"May I pet your dogs?"
"Of course, they would love it."
As she petted the dogs she told her story.
"I had a golden retriever; Chunky lived to 15. He was never sick a day in his life till the very end. He wouldn't eat so I put gravy on my finger and he licked it. But the vet said to me, "You've got to let him go."
She looked up to the skies and back at my dogs and said,
"So I did; I let him go. . . . But I've never had another dog after that."
She put her hand over her heart and her face expressed her anguish as much as her simple English, "Hurts."
She smiled bravely, gave my dogs one more loving pet, thanked me, and walked away.
Letting go. Yes, I know that's what we have to do. But it's not easy. A few days before one of my students had asked me,
"What is the hardest thing in your life?"
I answered without hesitation, "Letting go. Life is an ongoing process of love and loss. We live fully by loving the people in our lives, knowing that some day we will have to let go. The longer you live the more you experience loss, but we have to keep ourselves open to loving and avoid either being devastated by our losses or descending into psychic numbing."
As I sat alone in the quiet house I thought about the old lady and how she faced the ultimate loss of her dog through death. I suddenly felt a little silly crying in my sake over my loss, which is just a natural part of human development, not life and death. In this kind of loss we can comfort ourselves by celebrating the growth of our children, feeling the satisfaction of having done our best to prepare them to meet the challenges they face. We can be glad that they are where they need to be, and grateful for our role in releasing them, launching them, rejoicing as they soar.
In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran:
"You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness."