The Empty Nest

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I’m feeling very sorry for myself George. I came across a photo today. Another lifetime. My two boys having their very first trip on a double-decker bus in Dublin during a holiday there. I’m in Australia and they’re in Europe. Yes, my little ray of sunshine is still here, but as you know she’s already talking about moving to Europe too. 

I always said I wouldn’t be a mother who pined when the fledglings left the nest. I even thought it was vaguely pathetic. After all, wouldn’t it mean that I would have ‘more time on my hands’ to do ‘the things I’ve always wanted to do’? I don’t want any more time on my hands and I don’t care if I don’t do all the things I want to do. I want my boys back home––the way it used to be. I’ve joined the club of pathetic mothers. How foolish it is to talk with conviction about something you haven’t experienced. Serves me right.  

young ian kieran me 200People have the habit of saying ‘How are you?’ on meeting. Occasionally, instead of playing the game and saying ‘good thanks, how are you’, I tell the truth. Last week, I met a friend on the street. She asked how I was and I replied that I was missing the boys and therefore miserable. People are always surprised at such a response. I could have said, ‘I’m missing my boys but I’m fine’.  We can’t be ‘fine’ and ‘not fine’ at the same time.

After a pregnant pause she said,

“You’ll get used to it.”

I won’t”, I replied, instead of saying, ‘Yes, I suppose I will’.

Because I won’t. 

Grief doesn’t just fade away by your ‘getting used to it’. Rather, you learn to carry it––in an invisible backpack. Some days the backpack feels lighter. On others it can even seem as if you’ve left it at home. Right now, my sadness is raw and my backpack is heavy. I will always have to carry it because my boys will never live at home again. Those days are over. It’s very final. 

backpackI would have preferred if my friend’s reply to my revelation of misery was, ‘that must be hard’. Because it is hard—made harder in that I lost both my boys at the same time to the distant continent of Europe. No more needed to be said because there was nothing that could be done. We could have gone on to chat about other things. This type of exchange is typical, and it seems like a collective denial. People get uncomfortable if someone says they are feeling sad. They feel obliged to say something that makes it seem not ‘so’ bad, which is totally unnecessary. Why not just call a spade a spade. 

On rare occasions I get a refreshingly real reply if I say I’m not happy. A complete stranger I got chatting to recently while we waited for a tram looked at me in surprise when I said that I ‘wasn’t good at all’. My boys had left only days before. He replied, “I’m glad you said that because I feel terrible too. My wife just left me.” He added, “When people ask how I am I say, ‘I’m fine’, because they all seem happy. I don’t want to appear negative.” 

Ian Race Day_FotorThese days if you are not ‘happy’ you can be seen to be failing in some way in your inability to engineer it. Happiness can be rather elusive. There are so many things over which we have no control. Perhaps the preoccupation with the notion of achieving happiness is unhealthy—as if it was our right and indeed an obligation. It is neither. We must muddle along doing the best we can. Grief is allowed. After all, it’s part and parcel of life’s tapestry. The self-help shelves in bookshops burgeon with “How to be Happy” books. However, being ‘happy’ will always be beyond our reach in some way.

2015-04-04 15.31.39When asked how they are, Irish people often say, ‘I’m content enough’. Content is the best we can hope for. Adding the Irish ‘enough’ qualifies it appropriately. I’m content. . . enough. One of my boys could have become a drug dealer and I could be visiting him in prison.  

As far as grief is concerned, the self-help books talk about the ‘stages of grief’. The notion was popularised in a best-selling book some years ago. How foolish. It is not a matter of ticking off each stage.

Any ‘stage’ which seems to have passed can come back and pay a visit any time, even years later.

Common sense would tell you that grief is a mixed bag with many shapes and forms and different for everyone. A sensible person knows that though its manifestations will change, it will always be there.

On the bright side, the boys are making their way in the world, fortunate to have interesting jobs. This doesn’t make up for the dark side—their absence. My backpack feels heavier. The bright and dark co-exist and don’t always balance each other out. 

The apartment seems very quiet. Sometimes, not often, I go into their old bedroom and look at the two empty beds and the detritus they left behind; tatty posters on the walls, on the bookshelves an assortment of old schoolbooks, trophies, and an alarm clock long ago stopped. In the wardrobe there are old jeans, t-shirts, joggers, and their high-school graduation suits.

I feel a terrible pang. Sometimes I almost say what I must have said a thousand times. . . 

“Boys can you clean your room please.” meboys2248x3264

But the room is clean, the silence deafening.

It’s an expensive 30-hour plane ride to go and see them with one in Germany and the other in France.

Years ago, a friend asked how I would sum up the difference between being a mother and not. After thinking about it for a while, I replied that if there was a bullet coming for any of my children, I would step into its path without even thinking about it, adding that I didn’t know whether I would do the same for anyone else.

That primal urge to be close to our fledglings and to protect them doesn’t lessen when they reach adulthood.

George, I couldn’t be further from my fledglings and how am I to protect them when they are 12,000 miles away. 

Let’s go for a beer. . .

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