Before my son graduated from high school in June 2019, everyone warned me that, when he left for college in August, it would feel like I’d been fired from the best job of my life. I would cry when I saw his empty room. “There will be a hole in your heart that can never be filled,” they claimed. But when I dropped him off at a leafy rural campus in Ohio, what I felt was joy. And relief. It was a happy day, a beginning for him, not an ending for me. I have a daughter too, who was a junior at the time, so that probably lessened the “empty nest” blow. I didn’t cry when I saw my son’s vacated room back home; I cheered—it was clean!
For the first few weeks, I followed him on the Family Map, mostly to make sure he wasn’t always in his dorm. Within a few months, we visited him in person. Then he returned home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I had plane tickets and a hotel room booked for a trip in April. I started following the virus news in January—I’m a catastrophist and have been fearing this for decades—but I never thought my son would have to leave school. Alas… My son plays a spring sport, so he was on the road with his team over Spring Break. They were playing in Virginia the day he got the news: because of the coronavirus, he had to come home ASAP, didn’t even have time to pack up his room. At that point, the school still claimed they would be back after an extended vacation. I had my doubts.
When I picked him up at LAX, I was terrified. I’d seen the footage of Italy; whatever was coming was so big and bad it shut down the entire world. After we hugged, my son slammed the car door—the first year he’d ever been happy at school had been cut short, like his sister’s junior year in High School. So, when the three of us hunkered down, we were in a bad mood. The job I’d been fired from, was suddenly mine again, though my specific duties had changed. I was not only a full-time mom of two, but also a grocery-store warrior, sanitizing specialist, and hoarder of coronavirus intel, researcher extraordinaire. We had so many meltdowns the initial few weeks, rules were made: my son had to be less of a slob, my daughter had to stop being mean, and I had to stop talking about the virus. Slowly, the three of us found a groove.
In our culture, kids grow up and leave. That’s the goal. If they’re fortunate, they go to college, get a job, and move on. They don’t typically return home to mom after less than a year. And they certainly don’t make ten-day meal plans with her, then spend an hour sanitizing groceries with their sibling in the backyard. But there my kids were, wiping down egg cartons and cereal boxes while chirping birds replaced the clatter traffic that disappeared from our inner-city neighborhood.
Reality set in when the rest of the school year was cancelled. There were no practices or plays or afternoon activities. Nowhere to drive. Nothing to do but cook and eat and clean and cry. So, aside from Zoom school—I was also in school then—and whatever writing gig I had at the time—that’s what we did. We ate dinner together every night like when they were little. We watched movies together like that was a special event. One night, I read children’s books out loud; we remembered every word, every picture, every page… I saw their little faces inside their grown-up-selves, and I couldn’t help but recall all the mistakes I’d made over the years, how I’d scolded over homework and grades, how I’d cared too much about meaningless rules. I spent a lot of those lockdown-dinners apologizing. If Covid hadn’t forced this upon us, I never would have stopped long enough to realize all of my parenting flaws.
I spent much of the lockdown finishing my second novel, which is about high school seniors, so my children were also my audience. I read them chapters and passages and chunks of dialogue to make sure it was current and real. The main characters are both girls, and not based on my kids, yet it ended up being sort of an ode to them, nonetheless. The awful coach in the book isn’t a male lacrosse player, but she sure shouts the same demeaning insults my son endured; the character who struggles in school isn’t my daughter, but if it weren’t for my daughter, I never would have understood that character’s frustration. As hard as it was to focus, I couldn’t have finished that draft without them in the house, and it wouldn’t have been the same book.
When my son left in the fall for his quarantined campus, I was much sadder than when he’d left the previous year. I’d grown so attached to him I couldn’t imagine not having him with me in the house. I experienced what those moms warned me about in 2019 times ten. But my daughter, whose school remained remote, was with me all day every day. Before Covid, we fought so much, I’d hide in my room until she left for school. And her anxiety was so severe, I often had to pick her up mid-day. With the stress of lateness and in-person school removed from our lives, we became happy roommates. Her entire senior year was remote, but her few closest friends joined our bubble (we were tested 17 times) and often spent school days in my house. They did homework here and took Telemed therapy appointments in the guest room. I couldn’t keep up with the cleaning—or even really get dressed—and neither could they, but that was okay with us. My role as a mom was supposed to be winding down, but instead it was like I had four daughters. Plus my son was home for a two-month winter break. They gobbled up all the snacks and played loud music and forgot to take off their shoes, and sure, it was a lot at times, and I complained, but I still loved it. They were the large family I never had.
Pre Covid, I’d been excited by the possibilities of having my own space and time after my kids left, but now I’m afraid to be alone. During the lockdown, I stopped seeing even my neighborhood pals, except for a few masked walks and backyard drinks. And by a few, I mean two. Everyone was coping with their own situations, dealing with their personal quarantine struggles. They were out of work, or overworked. They had young kids on remote-school screens in their living rooms. They were sick, or worried about family members, or bereaved. So, my children were not only my children, but also my shoulders to lean on, and my friends. That makes me feel guilty, that I put them in that position, that I broke that parenting rule. I keep apologizing because I keep making mistakes. But I needed them. And the truth is, as hard as this year was, if my children had been a few years older, established adults living away from me, maybe in different states, it would have been a million times worse.
So while I’m really excited for my daughter, who’s headed to the Pacific North West, all I can think of is coming back to an empty house. If my son leaving for his sophomore year was ten times harder than when he was a first-year student and Covid wasn’t even a word, my daughter leaving in August will be one hundred times harder than that. It took this awful nightmare for me to be the mom I’d tried so hard to be when they were young: dinner together every night, teamwork, empathy for each other, time shared… We’re vaccinated now and eager to enjoy a post-Covid world, and I’m so thankful I had that window, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I want more.
Last week, my daughter graduated from her all-girls Catholic High School in person, at the Hollywood Bowl. While the sun set over the Hollywood Hills, the graduates crossed the stage, six feet apart, in white dresses (and white masks!), carrying red roses. Their 6th grade class photos lit up the jumbotrons while a recording of the school chorus singing The Beatles, In my Life, played. And I cried and cried and cried. I’m so proud of her and her friends, for getting into college; for protesting for racial justice and working the polls; for learning to drive and tackling the DMV—all during a pandemic. None of it was easy, but they persevered. They grew up fast.
“Congratulations,” I’ve said over and over to all of them. “You’re going to have the best time. I can’t wait to see the wonderful things you achieve, how you change the world.”
But also: “What will I do when you’re gone?”