Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Empty Nesting Sucks

I know . . . another tangent. I will eventually get back to the theological question about chance, luck and fate.

But today I’m writing because I’m hurting. I don’t know if I can even get through this note without tears coming to the surface and then dripping on the keyboard. That would be fine if I didn’t have to put on the old confident, happy façade as I start seeing patients in chronic, physical, pain . . . in about 20 minutes.

I’ll explain the factual situation then I can dive back into the emotions and even the theology behind it all . . . if there is one.

I’m the father of five children. We have four boys and a girl. The oldest, Bryan, is married to Renee and living far away in the Twin Cities. The second boy oldest just graduated from a local college (living away from home but still close). He is heading off to graduate school in Seattle in a couple of days.

My next son is still experimenting with college, but he too is moving to the other side of the state, Spokane, in a couple of weeks.

My daughter just graduated from high school is moving over a hundred miles away for college in two days.

I still have one son at home, and he is starting college (at age 16) in two weeks.

We’ve gone through these transitions before. It was very hard when Bryan graduated and went off to school. It was hard when he got married and very hard when he and his wife moved far away.

But this week has been especially hard. Bryan and Renee came for their annual visit . . . seeming briefer this time. It was also hard because I felt the grief of saying goodbye starting even as I was picking them up at the airport. I think when they stay a week, there is some denial that the goodbye isn’t coming and you can fake it for a couple of days. But as I sat at the arrivals at Sea-Tac airport, I knew that, on the ramp above us was the departure ramp, where I would be returning to in just a few days. It reminds me of an old Roger Whitaker (folk singer) song, with the chorus something about, “The first time we said hello began our last goodbye.”

But within a matter of one week, we will be saying goodbye to my daughter, as a major milestone or tipping point. Then my son, Daniel, off to graduate school. Not as hard for him as he has lived away for two years, but still hard. Then Tyler, my third, will be moving so far that he can’t drop by anymore. Then, on top of that, but with much less fanfare is the grief of saying goodbye to the warm sun of summer and anticipating the cool, dark and rainy days of winter.

If a crowd of people were sitting around my table here at Starbucks, I’m sure at least one would say something like, “Well, at least your children are alive and well. You have no reason to be sad.”

I really do thank God for that . . . their health and being here on earth. I’ve known several people who’ve lost their children. Just recently a friend of a friend’s son accidently hung himself. Levi was only 15. I can’t imagine that pain.

In college a good friend, Danny, was decapitated in a freak accident. I was numb, for a year. When I was in high school, one close friend was killed in an accident. She was 16. When I was a young child, my next door neighbors’ daughter was killed in a car accident.

We almost lost our son Daniel when we were missionaries in Egypt and he had typhoid. But I have never known the experience of loosing a child. But I have lost a dad, whom I loved very, very much.

So I would have to agree with the imaginary person sitting across the table that, yes, there are things that are worse . . . such as loosing your child to death, rather than distance. But I don’t agree with the conclusion is I have no reason to feel pain. I’m sorry if I do not feel guilty about talking about my own grief. It is still very real and its sting is tart.

Amy, my daughter’s passage, is most dramatic. As she prepares to move to college, friends have said to me . . . and me to myself, that it’s really not such a big deal. She wasn’t around that much over the last two years anyway . . . between her friends and work. But still, there wasn’t a single night I didn’t lay in twilight between awake and asleep . . . listening for her trademark entrance from working at the theater. She would go straight to the bathroom, then a run up the steps to her bedroom.

Amy’s bedroom is . . . excuse me . . . was directly over ours. While I didn’t see much of her, I did feel her presence at night. I could literally hear her breath, sneeze, talk to her cat . . .and certainly talk on her cell phone. I could even hear her pass gas . . . if girls did such disgusting things.

I know that she will sleep in that bedroom again. She will be home from holidays, maybe even for a few years. But it will not be the same. She is walking through a door of passage, a transition to a new place in her life and the old life will never, ever be the same. This passage brings me great grief . . . and that grief seems perpetual. I can remember feeling it the first time as I held Bryan’s tiny hand and took him to Hermantown Elementary School. We had just gotten back from the mission field and he had never been in school during the day before. I certainly felt it again, strongly, at his graduation from high school. I cried like a baby at his wedding, even though I love his wife Renee. But it was a door, a one way door.

Okay, I’m back. I’m sure that the pain has diminished enough that I can type without crying, but I’m in a safe place where I can cry and I don’t have to put on a façade in ten minutes to see patients.

Since I wrote last, Amy has left. Daniel leaves tomorrow as the leaving saga continues. Saying goodbye to Amy caused a dam to break in my eyes and it was terrible because I had to quickly swallow the pain for the patient-seeing façade as I said goodbye just as I left for work.

But as I contemplate this sadness, I see no resolution. I feel a kindred heart to Solomon in his book of Ecclesiastes. It is a book without resolution. Evangelicals are very uncomfortable without resolution. In his book, Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller said he gave his book such a name because it was an autobiography but one without resolution. He adds, that Jazz does not resolve. The broken hearted, confused don’t become unbroken or enlightened in Jazz.

But grief always brings me to a lonely place. You can’t talk about it with most Christians, because they feel that they must give a solution or resolution to the pain.

It was silly to stand in line at my dad’s funeral and listen to a parade of people coming by, most of them good Baptist people, saying really stupid things like, “God took him home for a reason. Now don’t be sad.” Or, “He’s better off now.” Or the worst, “God is took him to teach you x, y or z.”

That’s what I mean by resolution. So how would I resolve my present and enduring grief . . . the grief of watching my little children grow up, not need me anymore and move on?

I do lean in the post millennialism direction when it comes to eschatology. I really do believe that things are getting better rather than worse and that the Church is here to redeem the universe, then Christ will reign here on a new earth forever.

So as I reflect on that scenario, I’ve imagined what I see as true resolution, the new earth. So I imagine everyone I have known, in good health with new bodies (including my dad). I see us living at a very high elevation in the Alps . . . or maybe Himalayans. We would all be in the same quaint village with houses made of stone and smoke meandering from the chimneys. We, that’s me, all my kids, my parents, my sisters and brother, uncles aunts, friends . . . then add Denise’s family . . . all living together in the wonderful village. You might through in George McDonald, Francis Schaeffer and a few more people of history.

But then we come back to my kids. If they are there, how old would they be? Of course, I would want them small . . . not one of their heads above my waist. I loved being a dad to small children. I was their hero, their philosopher, their teacher and protector. By the time they become teenagers, I am reduced to not much more than a financial provider. They don’t need protection (at least they think). They don’t want heroes, confidants or wise counselors . . . just a credit card or my Pay-pal password.

What would I give to have them small again. If there was some type of weird principle of physics, where I could go back and be their dad again . . . you know, with them small . . . but then after five years I would explode or something . . . I would do it. I would take five years again as their dad, with them small, than the next 10-30 years that I may have with them as adults.

I would love to reach down and pick up Amy and swing her up on my shoulders with one hand . . . like I use to do. It wasn’t that long ago when she looked into my eyes with such wonder, begging me with her bright smile to tell her about the world. Not any more. She knows the world. She knows more about many things than I do. Her heroes are other people now, real, world heroes.

I would love to have my little solider boys all decked out in Indian paint, or some Star Wars storm trooper cloths as we built tree houses to fight off the evil dragons or dark empires. That’s the only resolution I can see, at this moment, for my pain.

I just learned yesterday that I have a grand child on the way, my first. As I’ve mentioned how much I miss being a dad, I’ve had several grandparents tell me that grandparenting is even better. Maybe so and I hope for that. But we will only see our grand child for, maybe, four days a year. Still my heart still aches to have my little warriors, my little princess small again.

So I can not resolve this pain with some imagined new earth where my kids were perpetually children . . . forever. But how would that work? It wouldn’t be fair to them, to go back and be little children again, as if their new bodies from God will be tiny bodies. Would it be fair to Renee if Bryan was six years old?

Then what about my parents? My mom has longed for the days when I would came running in the house wearing a loin cloth and a Bowie knife, pretending I was Tarzan. How can my kids be little, me be a father . . .yet I be little for my mother? There is just no way to resolve this pain.

They say that time heals all wounds. I think that is wishful thinking or denial. I do believe that time dilutes all wounds. I still carry (very diluted by now) heartbreaks from when I was seven. So if you want to call it resolution, then I know my awful pain, which I feel in the pit of my stomach right now, will eventually, insidiously be diluted. And maybe that’s the best I can hope for . . . a kind of resolutions.

But if I hear one more person saying something stupid, not authenticating my very real pain, I’m going to punch someone. How many parents have I heard tell me that they popped the Champaign when their only child finally moved out. Good for them but that doesn’t help me. It hurts like hell! It is part of hell, it has to be. Surely God never created us for such pain.

So, you put on your façade, place one foot in front of the other and smile. Why? Certainly not for yourself. If it were for me I would scream and cry and pull out what hair I have left. But if you are sad for very long, you will loose what friends you have, and that will bring another form of grief. Solomon, I hear you. Vanity!

But all I can to do now is to have an existential faith that somehow God will resolve . . . but how? I have no clue.


MJ said...

I will continue as soon as I can type again without weeping. Amy just left for collge this morning . . . so it might be a few days.

Hope T. said...

What poignant writing. What raw grief. I almost hesitate to comment because I am afraid of say the wrong thing but I wanted you to know that my heart hurts for you.

I have five children also. Most of them are still little but my oldest is 16 and can't wait to give his wings a try and fly far from the confines of home. I will still have all these little ones at home but I know how fast the time will go and then they will join their brother out in the world.

It must be much harder, though, for men to feel this deeply and try to express it to others. In our culture, it is much more acceptable for women to feel this grief (for a short time anyway). Men are not even allowed a moment of it. I don't think it is just the evangelical culture that is so uncomfortable with strong feeling (any strong feeling really, not just sorrow). I see it in the popular self-help/New Age practitioners also. A strong dose of Buddist-type detachment is urged in order to attempt to rid oneself of suffering. Not sure why so many are trying to run from suffering; it seems like that just makes it worse. The Biblical model appears to be bearing one another's burdens; weeping with those who weep, etc.

You mention George MacDonald. He is a great favorite of mine. I could be wrong but I imagine him saying that in heaven, our personalities would be the best of us at all ages. In other words, we could enjoy our children as both tots and adults and ourselves as parents to little ones and big ones. Best of all worlds.
Another hope I cherish is that no joy is ever lost and the smiles of our babies are something we will be able to "replay" again and again in heaven.

I hope you will be blessed with someone to cry with you at this difficult time.

MJ said...

Thanks for your comments. Yeah, it is like Lewis' A Grief Observed. I am really grateful to him for his willingness to allow us to see raw human emotions . . . without appology. He didn't aways say or think the right things, but as I read it, I knew that his love for his wife was intense and his sense of loss real.

I'm sure that when I look back at this posting in a year, I will wonder why I wrote in such strong terms, but in the grasp of pain, it makes a lot of sense.

I do have someone to cry with, my wife. However, do to her work schedule and mine, we haven't cried "together" this week but at our own private times.