The Empty Chair

College has started, and many of us are sending children away who no longer come home when the school day ends.  I’ve always heard that we’re supposed to enjoy this new freedom and peace.  Really?

Time stands still when every minute brings some critically new development—or brings no development, perhaps, in the crisis upon which one’s attention is riveted.  A single day can seem a week in combat or in the hospital’s waiting room.  The minutes have no predictability.  As we step forward into each new moment, we may be steering our foot into an abyss.

Resisting such intolerable tension, we create rituals in order to objectify and manage time.  It shortens under the influence of regularity: it seems to grow predictable, though somewhat artificially.  If I know that I have three hours of writing time on a given morning, then I can gauge what project I should undertake and anticipate how much of it I’m likely to complete.  I can then focus my attention on nothing but writing, because I know that my other duties have also been allotted their proper slot within my waking sixteen hours.  Time, under these conditions, can accelerate almost hypnotically if the rituals sink in.  Years can pass in what seems the space of a few months.

As one gets older, the sand naturally tends to drain faster through the hourglass, because one has established a network of interconnecting routines that enhance the productivity in those areas where, after long trial and error, one has decided to concentrate one’s efforts.  At my time of life and with my preference for introspective tasks, one Christmas blurs into another, and I can work right through a summer without noticing the daylight hours wax and wane if I don’t make myself sit back and look. 

Somehow, amid all this regularity, I managed to be blindsided by my son’s departure for college; or I was taken wholly unawares, I should say, by the sudden huge gaps in my routine.  I had been telling myself for months that he would go far away, and that we probably wouldn’t see him (except through Skype) until Christmas.  I had thought that I was preparing myself.  I hadn’t realized that the hard part wouldn’t be having confidence in his physical safety and his work ethic—variables whose value I and others have stabilized pretty well.  No: the hard part is right here at home.  It’s in all the free time and new liberty I have… for in those gaps live quiet ghosts.

Over the weekends and the holidays, he would sleep late, like any teenager, and I would creep about like a burglar in our small house so as not to disturb him.  Adolescents need long sleeps to grow: I wanted to help out Mother Nature.  Now I don’t need to be restrained.  I catch myself easing doors shut or rushing to interrupt the phone’s rings, and I ask myself why it matters.  Now it matters not at all.  Not any more.  He’s long gone.

I no longer have to sally forth in hundred-degree afternoon heat to help him work out in the middle of a Texas summer.  He has some rare abilities as a baseball-player that won him a scholarship, and one of his buddies was going to keep him in fighting trim until September.  But then the buddy decided that his own college career would include partying rather than baseball, and the training duo disintegrated.  The replacement?  Who else, if not Dad?  Dad has bone spurs and other battle scars… but none of that was a fit excuse.  And so I dragged myself out of mothballs to throw long-toss with a brittle arm (he said I was making progress) and pitch batting practice with terrible form (I’ve never thrown easily from any angle but sidearm), and I somehow survived.  I would keep myself going with the thought that it would all end soon.  Just one more month… just one more week. 

Now it has all ended, finally.  And it isn’t likely to resume at the next vacation or over next summer.  It’s probably gone for good.  Now I can rest my old elbow and have two more free hours every afternoon.  How rich in free time I’ve suddenly become, like an heir informed of a surprise inheritance!  But I would rather not have the fortune.  I would rather that those days had never died.  I don’t want the time, and I don’t want the rest.  I didn’t know how much I enjoyed the feeling of being needed—so much, even, that I was willing to grind myself down physically to cling to it.  Now I have personal space, and peace… and my new routines will likely narrow my awareness of life more than ever, and the sand in my glass will drain like a flicker of lightning.  I’d throw all this order away in an instant if the summer could resume.

Evening supper used to be a time of mild annoyance, at least in recent years.  As he grew older and resented the constraints more and more of being a young man stuck at home, he would deride or contradict almost any remark made in casual conversation just to chaff at the bit.  His mother found this boorish perversity unbecoming of a gentlemen and would sometimes leave the table in a huff.  I could understand it a little better; and occasionally, once the two of us were left alone, he would ask my opinion about some touchy ethical or epistemological issue.  Why exactly is gay marriage wrong?   How can we know that there was a Big Bang if we can’t know what made the banging? 

Now supper is much more placid.  My wife and I don’t have to worry about sarcastic challenges from the other side of the table, for that chair is empty.  And it won’t be filled in a week or a month.  God willing, he will sit in it again by Christmas—and in a much more civil, appreciative manner, no doubt.  I have a feeling, though, that he will pose me fewer of those wide-open questions bursting from a hungry, naive young mind.  The child will not remain a child; at least, I fervently hope that he will not!  Yet the child’s hunger and naïveté… must that depart, as well?  Will I never see that again?

So here I sit, suddenly wealthy in new leisure, suddenly relieved of old burdens and affronts… and all I can think of is how poor and oppressed I feel.  Then I think of all the people I’ve heard extolling childlessness as the path to freedom and autonomy.  You pitiful dead souls!  Is what I’m living through now, then, your ideal?  To be needed by no one?  To be forced into tiptoeing by no child asleep?  To be commandeered into no athletic challenges by a child in training?  To be contradicted in conversation by no child whose mind is beginning to question the black between the stars?  Are the “self-actualized” heroes of feminism really so satisfied with empty rooms in which only their own voices echo?  Is the generation of men who walked out on families to find true meaning and happiness any farther down that road after years of self-gratification?

I am now where they all aspired to be, those Siddharthas of my generation… and I have never felt more miserable.  I said that many of my old rituals have been shattered, and that’s quite true; but perhaps, more than anything, my son’s participation in my life was a ritual of unpredictability—an anti-ritual, or a ritual-corrective.  Something new always followed him into the room.  And now he’s gone, and my clock’s hands are beginning to spin like a propeller.

Yet at least I know that I did my job by him, to the best of my limited ability, and I think did it pretty well.  At least my empty spaces hold beloved ghosts.  The enemies of parenthood who hoarded their “personal space” like Scrooge are placing the final touch on a complete vacuum’s hermetic seal as they near my age.

Now I need to learn a higher lesson, in my loneliness.  I’m not quite sure what it is, because I’m just getting started.

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