By Wendy Biller
Nothing really prepared me for the day when my child would go off to college, and I would join the dreaded “empty nester” club.
We do everything in our power to try to brush it off like a bad case of dandruff, but the term gets slapped on anyway. One day you are a parent. The next day, an empty nester. It takes you back to your most primal self. We birth our children, protect them in the nest, and then they are yanked away from us, leaving behind a path of blood and regrets. No matter how we prepare ourselves, there is nothing natural about their leave-taking.
Friends and family try to be hardy and forthright and write you emails with the subject line HEY EMPTY NESTER! The exclamation point being the clincher. But I was determined not to fall into the “empty nester” stereotype. I would accomplish this by making sure I did not have a moment to breathe. I would drop my daughter off in Oklahoma City, where she was beginning college, and then immediately segue to New York City where I was fortunate to have my play in rehearsals. I had already experienced this with my other child, saying goodbye, four years earlier. Weeping unabashedly for weeks, venturing off to the supermarket for the first time. Joining the ranks that clutch that box of Honey Nut cereal, knowing that it might never get off that shelf. Discarded, because it was a kid’s favorite cereal but he is no longer around. And you don’t think the others can smell your despair? It’s like a scent that permeates through the supermarket. The scent of the lost tribe of motherhood.
But when there is a remaining child, you do not join the empty nester club. You are spared from that title. In fact you parade the remaining child around, reminding everyone that your membership in the club is years away. You shower the remaining one with gratitude and chocolate and neediness until they want to kill you. In fact, they can’t wait to leave the nest, almost throwing it in your face. “Ha ha, you will soon be an empty nester. Get used to it sucker!”
I vowed not to let my sentimental side get the best of me when we arrived at the college. That would mean doing things I hated. I hated going to Bed Bath and Beyond where I’d have to feign enthusiasm over a garbage can. And let’s not forget Target, for the rest of the billions of necessities for dorm living like posters, and special tape to hang the posters that wouldn’t damage the walls, or make the paint peel. I feigned enthusiasm for meeting all the other dorm gals, from the sullen hipster from Westchester, NY to the perky church gal from Texas. Back again at Target, I faked excitement for picking out towels, and a mesh shower caddy holder. But then something strange happened. As I clutched my huge bag of popcorn that I secretly bought for comfort, I forgot I was in Oklahoma. The layout of the store was exactly the same layout that was back in Los Angeles, my hometown, with one minor difference. The people seemed kinder and gentler.
And then I glanced up, and saw my daughter down the aisle. She waved to me. I waved back. The realization hit that she wouldn’t be coming back to Los Angeles with me but staying on that prairie where “the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.” For one fleeting moment, there was a pit in my stomach. But I brushed it off burying myself in the popcorn.
The day finally came to leave. We said our goodbyes, mine behind a humongous pair of black sunglasses. I headed straight to New York City, got on the sweaty trains, headed to Long Island City, to watch the actors rehearse my play. Not one actor knew where I had just been roaming. I even spent two nights in Brooklyn with the first born, who made the mistake of saying “How does it feel being an empty nester?” I wanted to smack him. I was fearful of sleeping with this thought in my head. Luckily my thoughts were diverted when a mouse darted out from the closet. I began screaming and tripped over a rug, pulling a leg muscle. The rest of the trip was spent in pain, which I strangely welcomed.
Two weeks passed quickly. I felt like a vagabond with a suitcase filled with filthy clothes. But I was determined not to get back to LA. Six hours later on a Peter Pan bus, one ferry ride, I arrived in Martha’s Vineyard to talk shop. “Hey Ray, maybe you would consider directing a play I wrote?” I exhausted everyone with my non-stop chatter. Three days later it was time to leave. Bus and ferry back to New York. There were no more places to crash. No more rehearsals. People stopped answering their phones. There was no other choice. I willed myself to Kennedy Airport where I booked a flight using frequent flyer miles. Sadly the flight left on time.
That night I stumbled in around 1am. The house smelled dusty. Like it had been hibernating for weeks. I finally figured it out. The smell of childhood was gone.
I set my alarm clock. Morning came. I opened the door. Dirty underwear under the butterfly chair, papers and candy wrappers, and a stuffed teddy bear with one eye. But the bed was empty.
Wendy Biller is an award winning screenwriter and playwright. She has written and produced projects for Showtime, TBS, Fox and won the Writer’s Guild of America award for best family film as well as the Andaluz jury prize for her play The Refrigerator that was produced as part of The Seven (Cell theatre, New Mexico).