Published in the June 2015 Issue of Bakersfield Life Magazine
As seniors across Kern County walk across the stage to collect their high school diplomas, parents are preparing emotionally for what will likely be a huge step in their own lives. In just a couple months, many graduates will move away to begin their college careers, leaving mom and dad home with the remaining kids or, in some cases, they’ll be home alone with each other for the first time in 18 years or longer.
The prospect of becoming an empty nester isn’t something people like to talk about much, not until it’s staring them in the eye. I know — I’m in the middle of a staring contest right this moment! Our youngest son, Zack, will be attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the fall. While Zack prepares for his big move, his older brother Jake is preparing for his own graduation from Cal Poly. Sure, this is exactly what we’ve all worked toward and hoped for all these years, and we couldn’t be happier. But let’s be honest. As happy as we are, change — and the unknown — can still be hard.
Four years ago, we also had back-to-back graduations — high school and junior high. But we really had one thing on our minds: Jake was leaving. How would we make it without him here every day? As hard as it was for Darren and me, it really broke our hearts that Zack was so sad to see his brother go.
When the time came to take Jake to school, we loaded up our Suburban and his pickup and headed west. The trip was just two hours long, but we stopped along the way for breakfast, delaying the inevitable as long as possible. Setting up the dorm room took no time at all, and after a quick trip to Target for last-minute essentials, it was time for one last hug in the parking lot.
As we pulled away, I was surprised at how good I was feeling! I looked at Darren and said with pride and surprise, “I’m doing okay,” only to see Darren’s wet cheeks and quivering lip. So much for okay! We pulled back into a parking spot and held each other, sobbing. A quick peek toward the dorms confirmed that Jake was long gone into the building and thankfully hadn’t seen us stop. He was likely bouncing happily down the long hallway to his tiny room, while Darren and I clung to each other in our now gigantic and empty SUV.
Finally, we drove to our motel, where I could barely tell the clerk my name without breaking down. I managed to eventually tell her why we were there. Desperate for a pick-me-up, I asked where we could get coffee nearby.
“I make the best cup of coffee in town, put your things in your room and I’ll make a pot,” she said.
Hug-by-coffee. I’ll never forget her.
Little did we know something else was brewing at that very moment and my mom’s “shingles pain” wasn’t really a shingles issue at all. She had multiple myeloma (cancer in her bone marrow) and we were about to embark on a two-year journey of doctor visits and hospitals. As much as we missed Jake, the magnitude of our new crisis suddenly put everything into perspective.
Very quickly, we came to appreciate that Jake was just a couple hours away, allowing for frequent visits. From the beginning, he flourished and did well socially and academically (did I mention socially?). Now he’s grown into a young adult whom we enjoy even more than before! In an interesting twist, while Jake’s been away at school, Zack’s personality has begun to shine. Without his older brother’s safe, cozy shadow to nestle in, the younger brother came into his own. He’s gotten four years of being in the family spotlight and it’s been fun to watch him grow, too!
So here we go again. We’re very different parents than we were four years ago — different people in a lot of ways. And this time, after we pull away from that dorm, it will be just Darren and me here at home. Empty nesters.
This is going to be different for us, and the thought of it might be a bit unnerving. But we’re learning to embrace change and we’ve already started “practicing” by playing more golf and spending more one-on-one time together.
I think we’re going to be just fine.