Essay : Letting go takes time to learn
We just took our youngest to Boston to start college. For the past few weeks the focus has been on packing, medical forms, course requirements, farewells. As visitors poured onto the Island Friday for the Labor Day weekend, we quietly slipped off. Our station wagon was overflowing with pillows and whatever comforts of home we could stuff into it. I noticed, gratefully, that there were several other families on the boat who were doing the same thing. Their cars were also laden. Their faces also contained in equal measure the anticipation and sadness I recognized in my own.
The next day, after a welcome speech for freshman families, a picnic in the quad, and innumerable trips up four flights of stairs into a cramped dorm room, there was nothing to do but go. Our daughter was launched and in a place that seemed right for her. A new life could begin when we departed. She had begged us not to cry when we left, so she wouldn't get upset too. We thought we had succeeded, but with the final hug there were tears all around. Waving goodbye, we pulled away in our empty car and turned toward home.
Today I spotted a bird's nest on the edge of our yard, in a thicket of briar. Somehow it had become dislodged, and it now tipped sadly onto one side. The soft patch at its center was rudely exposed. I could see the animal hairs and downy bits of plant fluff the parent birds had woven to cushion first eggs, then babies. Watching this effort flap uselessly in the northeast breeze was more than I could bear. Surprised at my urgency, I plunged in to the thicket.
The nest was held fast by only one thorn. Detangling it was easier than I thought, and soon I was standing amidst the briars, covered with scratches, but holding the nest in my hand. It fit perfectly into my palm. Both sturdy and delicate, its construction amazed me. How does a bird know what to choose and how to make such a wondrous home? Nest in hand, I pull myself back through the thicket leaving behind a few of my hairs on the sharp briars. Perhaps they will line a new nest next season.
I've put the nest on my desk in a china saucer that belonged to my mother-in-law. It's still empty, of course, but at least it's right side up and no longer dangles in the briar patch. I hope the parents were able to lay eggs in its cavity and kept them warm. I hope chicks shed their shells here. I hope they opened their mouths for food in this hollow and gradually filled it to bursting. I hope the parents taught their fledglings to fly from this nest and that they vacated it before it was loosed from its mooring.
The expression "empty nest" always bothered me. When people said, "Oh, you'll have an empty nest now!" it rubbed me the wrong way. The metaphor seemed so pat, so clichéd; but now that I'm studying this nest here beside me, it makes more sense. An empty nest is clean. At home today there are no dirty dishes in the sink, no sticky negotiations for staying out late or borrowing the car.
An empty nest is quiet. This weekend, the TV has been blessedly off, and the phone rarely rings. The silence is welcome, but I miss the vitality and electricity my daughter always stirs up. An empty nest means the task is completed. Here perhaps the comparison falters some. I'm not ready to believe my job is done. Yet our daughter is off soaring solo, as she is ready to be. Last night she called from a North End festival celebrating St Anthony, and her excitement lit up the wires. She was not looking back, and I don't want her to. Now, l still need to rescue a used nest, as the briar scratches remind me, but in time I expect I'll learn better how to let go.
Laura Wainwright is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury. She is a frequent contributor to The Times.