All By Myself

stroller2My ladies boarded a jet plane last week and disappeared to Texas, on a visit to family, leaving me alone in an empty house, and I took no time in regressing to a primitive, almost bachelorlike state.

‘Superbly awesome’ is really the only phrase to describe it. I wake up in the morning in this big bed and there is no pressing need to leave it. The house is quiet. No one needs a diaper swapped and there’s no one for whom to make oatmeal. I stretch my arms and legs out their full luxurious length and roll over for a few more zzzzz’s, and when I wake up, guess what? Still no one needs me!

What I’ve done with my evenings isn’t terribly exciting — Spanish class, going to the mall for some shirts, running, beers with colleagues after work — but it’s how I’ve done them that’s so liberating, leaving work without quite knowing where I’ll end up, acting on whims that have no room in the punctual regime of parenting. At the mall food court I casually masticate my way through a Chipotle burrito, watching the goofy gangly teenagers giggle by, and after shopping I mosey on home at whatever damn hour I please. I left my bike right in the middle of in the living room, confident that no little hands would grab the greasy chain.

Back when Dubsie was just a bump in Mummy’s belly I did some math and declared to myself, 2031.That is the year that Dubsie would turn 18 and that I would no longer be responsible for her (at least in the legal sense). Mummy and I would, hypothetically, be sprung back to the our breezy life of doing whatever we want. Eighteen years, I muttered. Whew. That’s really quite a long time.

The strangest thing about the absence of my ladies is the silence. The crunch is loud when I step on one of Dubsie’s abandoned Cheerios. This isn’t a stealthy, Dubsie-is-sleeping kind of silence, but is more like a big blank canvas, and me an artist eyeing it with paints. I could stride around in my underwear and sing at the top of my lungs, or leave a pair of scissors unguarded on the coffee table, or read a full-length book, without pictures in it, and without the risk of Dubsie running up with a substitute. I could follow a whole yoga video without someone climbing on my back. Yet in the pauses, in the moments that I haven’t stuffed with activities, the silence is oppressive. I watch the childless hipsters strolling down my street and inwardly say What do you do with all that free time? and simultaneously You poor lonely things.

camaI also read a piece in The New York Times magazine — not just the first few paragraphs, but the whole story — about the difficulty of raising teenagers. In it, the novelist Rachel Cusk proposes what all the parent-adolescent strife is really about. Perhaps it’s that your child, that little extension of you, ceases to be an actor in your story and starts telling his or her own story — or even before that, discovers that the family story that the parents devised is a bunch of B.S., shot through full of lies and inconsistencies. (Dubsie, if you’re reading this as a teenager, know that my version of that narrative is being drafted as I type.) Halfway through the essay I discovered that I was blinking back tears, projecting forward to the day that Dubsie will be a young lady who is impatiently on her way out the door, and leaving her Daddy to his silent house.

Once in an airport I encountered a classic tableau: A family bidding farewell to its son who was off to college. The boy was so excited that it seemed he might float away before the plane could take him. His little sister looked up at her older brother with admiration. His mother gently said goodbye, and it was clear that she had made her peace with her son’s impending absence.

The father, however, was a trembling, wet-eyed wreck.

bathHere was a man who hadn’t prepared, had been living in denial. Once his son walked through security he would be gobsmacked and bereft. Once he left the airport, the fabric of his world would hold an empty cut-out piece.

The interesting thing is that, despite this spectacular week of bachelorhood, I have since Dubsie’s birth developed a very different attitude about 2031. Pre-Dubsie, every intervening year held a packet of dread, and 2032 was full of promise. Now it’s the next 16 years that feel full of excitement, and the prospects for 2032 seem dim and uncertain. Eighteen years? That’s all I get? Come back, I wave to that future daughter already receding through the airport. I love you too much to let you go.

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