By the time you read this, we will have crossed to the other side — the side of the empty nesters, still parents — but on standby.
For the past 20 years, our family unit at home has been my wife Amy, me and our two daughters, who’ve grown in a time-lapse that is so surreal that we humans have been designed to not really digest it. In fact, I felt a need to write this now, before we crossed over and dropped off both our daughters, Lilah, 18, an incoming freshman and Ellie, 20, a junior. Surely, upon our way back with the empty van, the transformation will have taken hold.
We’ve already had a taste, dropping Ellie off at college, not once but twice, watching her shrink in the rearview mirror. But at least we had her sister crying silently in the back seat.
Rather than confront the void and the quiet of a childless house, I wanted to capture this sensation of life shredding like a space capsule, ripping through the atmosphere. It’s all beautiful and temporary, and fading and real, but as permanent as wind in grass. And yet, I strive to hold an essence of these passing moments in my hands, which, of course, is impossible. Even childhood photos, elegantly framed and well-placed, don’t age too well on the walls of empty childhood homes, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
And so, I actually took notes, particularly of the mundane, like when Ellie was 2 at the beach.
There I was, writing down her play-by-play interaction with a seagull, and 16 years later, there I was taking notes about my voice booming on some field in obnoxious support of Lilah. This was her last game of field hockey, a sport I hardly understand. But my all-access pass is now expired.
Being a parent, you are tricked into thinking you’ve got ringside seats for life, starting with them being swaddled at birth, continuing through the years that seem to grind endlessly, and then, snap, they are staring at their 20s. Somewhere in between, your kid breaks from you. Your advice isn’t heard. Your presence isn’t appreciated, that is, until it is, and you rush in.
You have unexpected moments, like this spring when Lilah agreed to hang out with me in Druid Hill Park. We found ourselves poking around the ruins of a Victorian-era fountain and we appreciated its dilapidated state. There’s truth in coming upon lost foundations buried under weeds and tree roots.
Nothing is forever, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to hack time or searching for and, yes, finding, a trap door that leads to unplanned moments of closeness. There was Ellie’s freshman year when she announced she was DJ Kewpie, with a midnight radio show. In a list of greats, lying on the couch, coasting toward 2 a.m., listening to her giddy, wry DJ banter rates damned high — a ship out to sea sending radio signals just for me. How unexpectedly beautiful, how short-lived.
By the next year, her attention swerved elsewhere. Of course, this maudlin great countdown state is much more about me, about my comprehension of my own shrinking mortality, than it is about them. That doesn’t make it any easier when I hear Lilah singing from upstairs, her voice trailing down the old wooden stairwell, so unabashed, soon to be rare or vanishing altogether.
As the hour grows near, I find myself searching for some kind of big moment, something to frame the significance, or at least offer us solid ground to spring out all defined and ready.
In the days of packing, somehow we forgot to get the all-important knapsack.
We jumped in the car, just she and I, and it was like it’s always been, just driving my daughter somewhere for something — a friend’s house, a doctor’s appointment, a soccer game, a two-hour trip to Field of Screams where I waited for hours listening to the World Series. I’ve become pretty sly with car talk, dipping into the deep end of conversations, a skill I inherited from my father, who navigated our best chats while sitting side-by-side looking at the road ahead. And I needed to tell Lilah something.
“I got this song, what they call an earworm, yeah earworm, and the weird thing is it’s a song that I haven’t heard in a while but now it’s blasting in my head and the only antidote is to play it.”
She gets out her phone.
It was ELO’s “Raining All Over the World,” I said. Actually, she corrected, it is called “Showdown,” and it came on booming and fresh and felt like scratching a nagging itch in the middle of my back.
She cried to the Southern Wind
About a love that is sure to end
Every dream in the heart was gone
There’s going to be a showdown
We talked about how the tune would make for a great soundtrack about some kind of caper gone wrong, but it was feeling like a movie right here, too, breaking through the darkest day before sundown, grooving in our car. That’s the way we like to roll. I looked at Lilah, dubbed by her mom, “Our Little Pal, who can’t go.”
Lilah nodded her head to the music, a sign that she approved. I was glad I had my sunglasses. Tears were on cue for sure, and I made the decision to hold them back. I knew if I cried, she would cry even harder, and this whole thing would erode into a soppy goodbye. And this isn’t a goodbye. Yes, she is leaving, and so is Ellie. They will leave us in this stunning silence as if this whole child-rearing thing never happened, and we’re supposed to go on like we woke up as if from a dream. But no, this is not a goodbye.
Two years ago, I visited Ellie one weekend and witnessed her on the radio. When it was time to leave, there she stood in bent agony in the rearview mirror as I headed off. The pain of leaving your kid cuts only a notch shallower than the first time, but it hurts plenty. I knew she was crying, and I turned around.
I pulled up, rolled the window down, but before I could even ask, she blurted out, “Is this it? Am I not coming home anymore?”
So bitter, that she could think that her expiration date had passed and she was on her own, but so sweet that she cared that much, that we are that vital as she pushes into adulthood. I take nothing for granted.
With the song hitting its ELO orchestrated jam, I turned to Lilah as she spoke in stoic clips about leaving her tight-knit friend group where she thrived, but that she was also fired up to be grabbing that rucksack we ended up buying and heading into this adventure, knowing that beyond yonder lay a whole new world of friends, and potential, and yes, some semblance of what she might end up doing with her life. She was about to cross over into all that.
We will move on unceremoniously, with little ability to preserve any more than fleeting memories. But, still, that won’t stop me from taking note as we will find more sweet-spot moments that lie waiting on the other side.
Charles Cohen is a freelance writer, filmmaker and Baltimore native. He and his wife, Amy Lynwander, just sent one daughter off to college and another one back to college.