Coping with the Empty Nest

THIS SUMMER a pair of barn swallows lived up to their name and nested on a crossbeam in my family’s barn. Other than spiders and mice and stray cats, they were the first animals to call that barn home since the Eisenhower administration. These days, the barn serves largely as my family’s personal Superfund cleanup site: Everything goes there that is either too big to transport to the nearby landfill in a station wagon or too toxic to keep in the house.

In any case, throughout June and July I savored those birds. I watched the adults sculpt their cup-shaped nest, and then the mother’s patience as she sat on the eggs and, eventually, fed the four yawning yellow chasms that passed for mouths.

At the end of July when the swallows flew away, I placed what I thought was an innocuous status message on my public Facebook webpage. Facebook, for those of you who have lives, is a popular networking site on the Web and an absolute black hole when it comes to time. I wrote, “Chris understands why they call it an empty nest.” The result? Dozens of sympathy e-mails from people around the country who presumed this was my poetic way of announcing to the world that my wife’s and my only child had just left for boarding school. People who I will never meet but have read a book or two of mine were offering me lengthy treatises on how to cope with the fact that my beloved 14-year-old daughter had left home. At the time, my teenager was still very much with me, and I was convinced these kind souls were overreacting. I was going to be fine!

Consequently, I corrected my Facebook status: “Chris wants people to know that when he mentioned an empty nest, he really was referring to birds.”

A little over two weeks ago, my daughter did leave home. My wife and I drove her from our house with that toxic waste dump of a barn in northern Vermont to the school in Concord, Mass., where she is now a 10th grader. I realized quickly that my Facebook status messages, the both of them, were wholly inaccurate bravado. When my wife and I returned that night after dropping our daughter off, I found myself hovering in her empty bedroom.

Here, of course, is a difference between swallows and teen girls. When swallows fly away, they leave nothing behind in the nest. Not so teen girls. Technically my daughter’s bedroom was empty, but to work my way from the doorway to the window seat, I had to traverse a minefield of high heels, hoodies, coat hangers, earrings, tap shoes, glossy magazines, blue jeans, blouses, dresses, DVDs, and the snakelike cords for broken iPods and old cellphones. Somewhere underneath it all was her rug, but there was no sign of it beneath the chaos she had left behind when she packed. She took a lot, but she left a lot more behind. And everything came with a memory.

Now, I am not a man who cries easily. I am one of those uptight, freakishly repressed males who grow uncomfortable when other men cry, and I don’t care if their eyes are welling up at church or at Fenway Park. When my mother passed away, I didn’t shed a tear – and we had a lovely relationship, thank you very much.

But for half an hour I sat on the window seat in my daughter’s bedroom and studied the collage of magazine images that covers her ceiling and surveyed the remnants of her childhood. The old Brownie badges, the toddler’s ballet tutus, the delicate glass horse from Disney World. Suddenly, I was weeping. Pathetically. Wretchedly. With complete and total abandon. It was brief, but it was one heck of an emotional hurricane.

When I was done, I felt almost catatonically sad. It wasn’t because I suddenly felt middle-aged or I was pining for my youth. Good heavens, I’ve been middle-aged as long as Madonna. No, I was pining for my daughter and for the definition of family I have known for 14 years. I was pining because, finally, I was actually experiencing an empty nest.

(This column originally appeared in the Boston Globe on September 15, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.