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Half-empty nest syndrome

When you’re young, with two very small children, and you decide the most prudent move is to become a single parent, it’s as big a commitment as a marriage vow. You’re acknowledging that you are solely responsible for your children.

Sam and Grace were 4 and 2 when I realized it couldn’t be any more difficult to raise them myself than to raise them in tandem with my alcoholic husband. By then my so-called partner was like a giant drunken toddler. Let’s just say that when you ask a county sheriff to remove your husband from the premises, you’ve pretty much committed to single motherhood.

I should mention that a few years before this, we were in a car accident that claimed the life of our first born. I was physically injured pretty bad, but that paled in comparison to losing our daughter. Like me, Mark was grief stricken, but he was also alcoholic, and it ate him alive. Meanwhile, all the king’s horses and all the kings men managed to patch me back together again. This involved therapy, both physical and mental, along with several surgeries. It’s not that I didn’t sympathize with Mark. But beyond my own healing, along with caring for the children who came after Madeline, I had nothing left for him.

I’ve been thinking about those times a lot lately, even though years have gone by. Very shortly after I was divorced, I fell in love with an old friend. A few years later, we married. Keith has been the only father Sam and Grace can remember. He’s been a partner. Yet the promise I made to my children remains at the top of my consciousness. I am solely responsible for these babies, even though they’re now teenagers with snappy comeback lines and their own smart-ass opinions.

I knew I'd be sad when Sam went off to college, but I didn’t know how sad. I couldn’t imagine it. I think it’s like when people say to me, “I’m so sorry for the loss of your daughter. I can’t imagine what that would be like.” Except, I can imagine what it is like to lose a child. You wake up in the middle of the night, or in the morning, or you’re sitting there going about your day, and you remember: she's gone. It’s horrible, like having a panic attack in a black hole. In the back of my mind, I still beat myself up a little for not doing something that would have changed the outcome, so she would still be here with me.

Did I do everything right with Madeline? Of course not. But I ask myself the same question when I think about raising Sam and Grace. Cold weather came sooner than I expected, and we had to mail Sam’s winter coat, gloves, and a hat. In the meantime, he’s cold.

I take a walk around the block, the fall leaves amber and red, gorgeous and tragic at my feet. And I realized this grief I feel is normal and beautiful. In fact, as a parent, I’m lucky to have this sadness. It means I’ve raised one up, launched him into the world. He’s not gone. He’ll be home soon, if only for a visit. He won’t haunt me, even in love. He will be.
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