Guest Author: Jenna Brooks And The Empty Nest Syndrome

Today, as part of my new Guest Author Series, I am highlighting the work of  Jenna Brooks:
Grow Where You're Planted
By Jenna Brooks


It’s been several years since my last child moved out on her own, and it was an unexpected sink-or-swim moment in my life. I knew it was coming, of course; however, much like we tend to shy away from the doctor until the pain is unbearable, I avoided it.

I was unnerved by the fast pace with which the moving truck was packed. At the door for the last time, I kissed my daughter quick - between her eyes, the same place where I had kissed her for the first time, nineteen years before.

“Be good,” I said. My voice sounded reedy, plaintive in my ears, like an old woman calling out to a strange sound in the middle of the night. I felt panicked: I wanted to say more. I wanted to be wise, to say something that would endure - or sustain her, perhaps, when the real world pressed in on her, and I wasn’t immediately accessible. 
I thought, at least I could make sure that I didn’t cry, that I didn’t make it too difficult for her to leave. 

I knew that she would look back for her two kisses as she drove away. I had always done that, blown two kisses off of my hand whenever my kids left the house. So I blew the kisses, and the truck rounded the corner, and our time was up. She was gone.

I stood there, lingering on the front stoop for a while, trying to prepare myself to go back into my home and feel all of the things that I knew I would feel in a life that now, officially, would be lived alone.

I put my hand on the doorknob, and my cell phone beeped. It was a text from my son. I love you, Mom, it said. Hating the desperate gratitude I felt at that moment, I went into my house, shutting the door slowly.

The days which followed were merely gray, I suppose. My emotions were a static hum, as opposed to a flatline, and life was a quiet progression of events for a while. I got up in the morning, I went to work. I did my laundry, and I shopped for myself. I turned on the porch light every evening and said a prayer for her, as I’d done for her brother every night for the three years since he had moved out.

It would be a while yet before I started thinking about my own life - the future, I mean - and at some point, I began a marathon of projects around my house. I painted the garage door, and repaired the living room window. Made a bit of a mess of it, but that was okay. I tore down the rotting wood that made up my front railing. A few good back-kicks felled those.

I planted a hydrangea for her - she loves hydrangeas - in front of where the railing had been. A few days later, it didn’t look like it would make it. I kept watering the little brown twig, hoping I was wrong, but it appeared to be dead.

August came, with the days getting perceptibly shorter and the evenings a little colder, and four months had passed since that day the moving truck had appeared in the driveway. I was fully settled in to a still, quiet life, one of hiding. After twenty-plus years of being Mom, I felt the sting of a dismissal that I had always known was inevitable, but somehow didn’t anticipate. My children were grown. They were up and out, as they say.

Empty Nest Syndrome…? I wondered. Is this what it‘s like?

My birthday was coming soon, and  my children were planning an evening at my favorite restaurant. They wanted to celebrate, so I agreed - because that’s what we mothers do, I decided. I told myself that much of what we do is all about going through the familiar rituals, even in the years after they’ve been emptied of their ability to reassure us, because our children still find comfort there.

I wouldn’t tell myself the truth, not yet, but something was stirring. Whether it was frustration with my own state of inertia, or merely boredom with my self-imposed martyrdom, something was in motion.

My birthday arrived, and it was a beautiful day. I took my coffee out to the porch, taking in the light breeze and the chorale of singing birds. I realized, as I sat in the old blue Adirondack chair, that I was smiling. And that my stomach felt strange. I wondered if the stirring, fluttery, almost painful feeling was something like… Joy…? I didn’t think I could feel that anymore. The past few years had been so painful: the end of a disastrous twenty-year marriage; the departure of my two children; and most of all, the confusion of trying to build a life that was mine, after all the years I had lived locked away, enmeshed in the needs of those around me. The most daunting task, it seemed, was in rising above my own harsh opinions of the world - and of myself - that came as a result.

But this day was my birthday, and it was a beautiful morning that belonged to me; and then, I realized that although I questioned my entire life at that moment, I had the space to do so only because I was, finally, free. In my mind’s eye, I regarded my former life as a homemaker as one I had lived in a cage.

Now, the cage door was open, and perhaps that was the real problem: there was freedom out there… and what now?

It suddenly came clear that my gloomy perspective was more about how timid I had become, than it was about being alone. I knew that much of the anger that was choking off my joy was due to my own resentments. I was sulking over the years spent holding everything and everyone together, and I believed I had nothing to show for it.

Or did I?

Then a thought occurred to me: 
Is this all there is to you? There has to be more than this.

Then another: 
f there isn’t, then that’s on you.

Yes, it was. Because the door was open, and I was free. Free to keep wallowing in fear, shrouded within the gloom of self-pity - or to walk out into a perfect day, and make it whatever I wanted it to be.

The cage, at that point, was one of my own making.

I looked regretfully at my empty coffee cup, and decided I’d better get going. Instead, I went into the kitchen and poured another cup. I didn’t want to get going, not yet. I returned to the blue chair, and the beauty of the day made my stomach turn over again, twisting with the joy I thought was lost to me. I cried a little, but it wasn’t from sadness. Not at all.

Later that morning, on my way out to buy myself a birthday gift, I checked on the brown twig that was supposed to be her hydrangea. It was time to pull the dead plant out. The sadness I felt surprised me: I didn’t realize, until then, how deeply it mattered that the hydrangea would grow; but as always, my legendary black thumb won that battle, and I smiled at the thought. I smiled at myself.
All that work for nothing. Oh, well.I pulled the hydrangea twig, and caught my breath as I held it up. It had living roots.

It was still alive, just beneath the surface.

I replanted it near the breezeway, where there was more room for it to grow, and I spent the morning tending to it.

Dinner with my children that evening was wonderful. I basked in the glow of the bond which flows among the three of us - the innate surety that I suspect was always there, but was briefly hidden from my heart by my own bitterness and fears. Our paths may branch out, breaking free of the others as we all grow older... But our lives are forever intertwined, and we’ll meet at the same place one day.

By the way, for my birthday gift to myself, I bought a peony plant. I love peonies. It was a little sprout of a thing, when I planted it where the hydrangea once was.

Both are thriving. 
Jenna Brooks is an author, columnist, and coach, living in Southern New Hampshire. She welcomes your comments through her website, The Senior Contentious Woman. Her new novel October Snow is available here on Amazon.