Stricken with 'glief' at a newly empty nest

Posted: August 29, 2014

FOR THE PAST three months, I'd tell anyone who would listen that I was in "glief."

I made up the word to describe the simultaneous state of glee and grief I was experiencing as I prepared for my kid to leave home for college.

Glee that I'd get back the time that had become Addie's when she wailed into the world 18 years ago. And grief that this fulfilling phase of motherhood would soon be over.

"I am glief-stricken!" I'd say, insufferably pleased with myself for being in touch with my emotions.

Except I was only naming them, not feeling them. Big difference, but I was too clueless to know that until Sunday about 2:15 p.m.

My husband and I had just returned from dropping Addie at her New York dorm. The move-in was a snap. Her roommate was BFF material. Her room was adorable. And the free mini-muffins served by perky upperclassmen were moist and delicious.

On the ride back to Philly, I said to my husband, "Did we really just leave Addie at college?" I kept waiting to feel more than disbelief, but there was nothing.

Once home, my husband took a nap while I tensely wandered the house, which felt empty in a way it never had when Addie would attend camp for weeks at a time. Back then, my husband, luxuriating in our temporary freedom, would cackle, "I can see our empty nest from here!" And we'd toss back another beer, as if we could possibly know what our future empty nest would feel like.

So what did it feel like?

I found out when I spotted Addie's ratty, smelly flats under the coffee table. I lost it. I held those rancid shoes to my cheek and sobbed so hard I shocked myself.

The sobs were the convulsive kind, where you practically vomit while tears swell your eyes shut and snot runs down your arms when you try to stanch its flow with a bath towel. The grief that shook me was unstoppable, the kind I hadn't felt since my sister Franny died three years ago.

"But Addie's not dead! She's at college!" I reasoned, to no avail. So I scolded myself.

"Think of Franny!" I said. "She didn't live to see her boys go to college, and you're crying?"

But shame did nothing to end the primal spasms that felt like an exorcism. Hyperventilating, I texted my four surviving sisters.

"I'm a mess," I tapped. Marylou responded with a dinner invite.

"I can't make it better," she said, " but I can feed you."

I spent the evening with her and our sister Ro, drank too much wine and felt raging envy as Marylou's three young sons filled her house with bedlam.

Back in my silent home, I collapsed in bed and woke early. I did a wary spot-check of my heart. Hmmm, no grief. But something else was lapping at its edges.

What is this feeling? I wondered as I inspected my eyes - puffy as those delicious mini-muffins - in the bathroom mirror.

Downstairs, I opened a cabinet while the coffee brewed and saw two containers of vile, unopened vanilla-almond milk, Addie's favorite. I bagged it up for my neighbor, who loves it. I tossed out the funky green powder that Addie would add to protein smoothies so putrid they made me gag.

"Well, that felt good," I said.

I wheeled Addie's bicycle away from its convenient spot by the front door and to the back of the dining room, where my husband had taken to parking his bike. I rolled his to the front door, where he'd long enjoyed the convenience until Addie had appropriated the space.

"Hmmm, what else?" I said.

And as I ricocheted around the house, moving Addie's stuff to the background and pulling ours forward, I realized that Addie wasn't the only one about to get an education.

For 18 years, practically every decision my husband and I made took our kid's well-being into consideration. We did this reflexively, out of the belief that, when a child comes along, life is no longer about the people who made her.

So we'd watch "Mary Poppins" 10 nights in a row, because she loved it, even though we craved a rerun of "Goodfellas." Hosted kid sleepovers instead of New Year's Eve parties. Paid for braces instead of vacations. Waited up when she went on a date, instead of going on one of our own.

For me, being a mother brought fun to the mundane, gave meaning to tedium and, basically, relieved me from pondering the existential question of the human condition, which had tortured me before she was born:

"Why am I here?"

"I am here to be her mother," I answered, as I held Addie for the first time. "Next question?"

Now that she's launched, I have to learn a new answer to that question. It kind of sucks, because I thought I'd nailed it. But it intrigues me, too, now that I've let myself shake the grief out of my system. By moving Addie's crap to less prominent places around the house, I wasn't purging her existence. I was beginning to rearrange it, airing out the spaces my husband and I had been glad to share for 18 years but will enjoy getting back.

And what did I feel?

A little gleeful.

That night, I choked up again. But the grief left in time for me to watch "Ray Donovan" and whine that Jon Voight should've won an Emmy.

I won't try to guess how long this schizy emotional careening will last. Anticipating this state of glief was nothing at all like experiencing it, so who am I to predict its duration?

It's like first-time parenthood. You can plan for it, but nothing can prepare you for that lock on your heart when you hold your child for the first time.

Same principle here. I have no idea what I'm in for.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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