Sunday, August 16, 2009

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Nothing good ever comes of waking up at 4 in the morning.

It's a mistake to start thinking at that hour; 4 a.m. produces bleak, dark, anxious thoughts. I can think the same thoughts at 4 in the afternoon and brush them off with a trilling Katharine Hepburn laugh: "Hahahahaha!" But at 4 in the morning, they give me a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, and a clutching sensation in my stomach.

That's how I woke up this morning—feeling like I was caught in a landslide with my feet slipping out from under me, about to be carried over a cliff. Oh, and my daughter leaves for college in two weeks.

Once upon a time, I swore I would never be one of those weepy mothers boo-hooing about their empty nests. "That's pathetic," I thought 20 years ago, when a friend admitted to crying constantly after her son left for college. "How weak."

And there I was this June, taking weepy stock of every "last" moment—last time dropping her off with her carpoolmate at 7 in the morning; last time picking her up from the bus stop after her crosstown ride back from school; last time stopping for a milk-tea boba in Westwood Village; last time driving toward home.

It was actually the mundanity of these moments that made me nostalgic—these were just the familiar routines of everyday life, the ones we'd taken for granted for four years. Now I was cataloguing them, pinning them to a board like museum specimens. And snuffling.

In this case, there is a one added twist to the garden variety empty-nest syndrome: As soon as my daughter leaves for college, I'm whipping her childhood home out from under her. That's what had me gasping for breath at 4 a.m.

In my "Little Women" post, I suggested that I'm pretty calm about the future, because I can envision a time when my adult daughter and I can hang out together, having lunch, shopping at Target, enjoying each other's company. Other posts have described my excitement about this new chapter in which I leave L.A. and finally move to New York, a city I've wanted to live in since I was eight. And that's all true. Especially at 4 in the afternoon.

But at 4 this morning, I was feeling something else—this huge undercurrent of guilt about taking away the home she's grown up in, the bedroom where she's spent hours doing homework and watching episodes of "Mythbusters" on her computer, the table where we ate dinner while the cat gnawed on her socked foot.

I don't always feel this way, and I don't think she always feels this way. We've agreed it's "weird" to think of this place not being here for us anymore. But we're both going toward something new and positive, toward adventures we've been anticipating for years. The loft in New York is familiar, almost a second home by now. She has a chest of clothes there, and books on the shelf. And her foot-fetishist cat will be there waiting when she comes down for long weekends.

People describe these vacillating emotions as a roller-coaster; I think of them more as a teeter-totter: down into the abyss when the sky is charcoal-gray and the moon is piercing the curtains, back up when the sun's overhead and the coffee's burbling in the pot.

You can hold two thoughts in your head at once, right? Sweet-and-sour; half-empty, half-full; jumbo shrimp. So I'm happy-sad, looking forward-looking back. Pathetic and weak—and excited and brave. It just depends what time of day you catch me.


marsha miller said...

My dear Susan ...

At 3:07 a.m. -- aka 4:00 a.m. -- this piece touches this sentimental fool.

irene nelson said...

Once again, I smile as I read your post and then reread it once more. Of course there is duality to everything. It sounds like your daughter is going to college on the east coast, yes?

My son is a senior in high school this year and we will also most likely be moving next summer. I share similar feelings that you describe. It is an incredible time of change. In addition to approaching empty nestdom, I am also trying to reinvent myself professionally. How do my 'seasoned' skills as a visual communicator fit in to our new world? Do I really have to have a blog???

I do not have a clear picture of what the next phase will look like or where. It is hard to get a good night's sleep. . . these days.

Seize the day!

Karen said...

The kindergarten teacher all 3 of my kids had taught us all a phrase that has become part of our family lexicon: the "double dip," or mixed emotion. It started when a kid would be excited about a day at kindergarten but also weepy when Mommy left. Or looking forward to going on the big bus for a field trip but also terrified. Now we use it for everything. My 12-year-old's last letter home from camp this summer said, "The end of camp is such a double dip! I can't wait to get home but I don't want to leave! I miss you but I'll miss my friends!"

For the record, I am reasonably sane during the day but positively NUTS in the middle of the night. My husband knows that any middle-of-the-night awakening can mean only cancer (the fast-acting kind, too -- where you haven't even been diagnosed yet but still die before sunrise). I have no capacity for rational thought during the night.

I still have quite a few years to go before I send a kid off to college, so I don't need to start worrying about it yet. (But I will, in the middle of the night.)

Miss Whistle said...

I am very familiar with 4am and 3am and they've become my friends. It's taken a long time but now we're buddies. Some people believe that 4am is the perfect time - the fulcrum between night and day, a magic hour if you like. After fighting with it for a long time, I realized that I should accept this notion, and be happy about 4am.

Meanwhile, your daughter's going away must be awful. I remember those feelings of despair. I do feel for you.

Another beautiful post. Thank you.

-- Miss W x