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When They Start to Say Goodbye...Prepping for an Empty Nest

You may see the big picture stuff like graduations or getting a license as the signs your kid is getting ready to move on, but there are other signals that are much easier to miss.


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“That’s preposterous.”

My three-year-old son looked at me, his dark eyebrows and earnest brown eyes were a stark contrast to his pale skin and blond curls.

I was taken aback, but only a little. Joey’s verbal skills came in early. We’d been having discussions since he was a year old. He had never called me preposterous, though.

Joe learned to read by age three, he would read anything we gave him, but his favorite thing to read was the newspaper. He would read as “grown up” as we would let him.

Joey has three siblings who are much older. The closest in age was already 11 when he was born and by the time Joey turned 3, his oldest sister had stepped into adulthood and her father and I learned how to say goodbye to one of our children.

Having much older siblings worked for Joey. He wanted to understand everything and having an older brother and sister living with him gave him four big people to pepper with questions and theories.

I’m pretty sure the question churning factory in my son’s brain was run by squirrels on crack. I loved hearing his questions. I loved watching him process something new. The conclusions he would draw and the questions he would ask were endlessly fascinating.

Well, maybe not endlessly fascinating.

I would reach a point every evening where I would rather lick broken glass than listen to another question.

One evening, after a long discussion about the planets, I warned Joey that he might run out of words.

“What does that mean?” He asked.

I said, “Well, each person can only say so many words in their life and if you use them all up when you’re little, then you won’t be able to talk when you get old.”

That was when he said the “preposterous” thing.

Telling him words with three or more syllables counted as two words in the word limitation count did nothing to convince him I was any less preposterous.

My conversations with Joey are some of my favorite memories. I remember when he argued a compelling case in favor of using a word that is a common word, but can also be considered vulgar. It ended with me telling him “Joey, just call them roosters. We’re done talking about this.”

I could hear the future in his voice. All of our conversations were hellos.

Joey was in grade school when his brother moved out and then his sister. Those goodbyes were more difficult than our oldest child. The goodbye conversations with Joey’s brother and sister were more sad and more harsh than I had hoped. We all learned, though. We learned how to get past the goodbyes to childhood.

I am pretty sure that I only blinked a few times before he was a hulking teenager who marinated in body spray every morning before school and communicated in intermittent grunts and smells. Talking with Joey on the phone was painful. Here is a typical conversation:

Me: What time will you be home?
Joey: Garble warble Elliot glump.
Me: I did not understand a word of that. Do you have cotton balls in your mouth?
Joey: We’re gah blah warble food, then galumph gurgle.
Me: Did you just invent fire?
I could hear his eyes rolling and his enunciation cleared right up.
Joey: What are you talking about?
Me: You sound like a caveman.

I could hear the goodbye conversation with Joey start to whisper when he was in high school. When he started rejecting advice that I knew he should take, or when we argued over grades or curfew, I could hear the goodbyes coming. As they should. This is how life works. Our children pull away because they are supposed to. They are supposed to go into their adult lives and find out who they will be. It still stings, though. When they pull away. Like a scab coming off before it should, the skin underneath still red and raw and vulnerable.

Joey still lives with us... but not for much longer, he is no longer a child. The last time we had snow on the ground, only 75% of our children were adults. Now 0% are children.

High school is over. My conversations with Joey have become more defined. I can understand him again when he talks on the phone. We don’t sit around in the evening and discuss our day like we used to. I work during the day and he works in the evening. We still talk, though. Maybe just for a few minutes at night before I go to sleep. Or on weekends when he has a lull in his social calendar. I look forward to these conversations because I know soon he won’t be here every day. Our conversations aren’t as silly as they used to be. Mostly. Sometimes, they are. Even the silly conversations are starting to sound like goodbye.

Even though I’ve had these goodbye conversations before, this one is different. For all the other ones, there was at least one more waiting to happen. The last one seemed so far away and now it’s rushing by so fast that it is taking my breath away.

I am not mourning that soon it will be just my husband and me at home. I’m looking forward to remembering who I used to be before I had children. I know she is in there, waiting to come out to play again. I’m looking forward to spending time with my husband and focusing on each other as we find out what life is like with just the two of us.

That doesn’t mean that these last goodbye conversations aren’t hard. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have moments when I want to grab my baby boy and squeeze him and tell him that he has to stay with me.

Joey would look at me and say, “that’s preposterous.”

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