As the Nest Empties: Entering the Next Stage

After months of anticipation laden with some odd admixture of dread, pride, satisfaction, and a few other random emotions, our nest officially empties this Saturday night. Our third child, a junior at Barnard who has already lived at school for almost three years, leaves for a semester abroad in Copenhagen- much farther away than Morningside Heights. With our youngest in Israel for the year, our oldest in Florida, and our older daughter in Japan, we are left without children to pack up and send away.

This moment has been a long time coming-since September, actually. My wife and I have often joked about the old country song a friend taught us years ago… “How can I miss you when you won’t go away?” The truth is that, for all the lame attempts at humor, this is not a moment we have looked forward to, like some parents do. Our children have been the primary focus of our lives for the past almost twenty-nine years. In our clearest moments, between the inevitable stresses and strains of our relationships with them and our own lives, we have recognized- and hopefully always will- that they have been the greatest accomplishment of our lives together. They’re great “kids,” as are the spouses of the oldest two, and our house is eerily quiet without them.

Learning to appreciate the delicate moments of transition in life is a learned skill. This whole business of watching our nest empty out has taught us that. We know, of course, that we are richly blessed. All of our children are healthy, happy, and thriving. But that doesn’t mean that saying goodbye as they leave home is not a moment of loss. And saying goodbye as the last one walks out the door is saying goodbye to an entire stage of your life.

And speaking of that… I was privileged this week to attend, in Florida, a dinner celebrating the seventieth wedding anniversary of a couple from my synagogue. I’m married thirty-five years- not a drop in the bucket by anyone’s standards- but only half of this couple’s time together! It boggles the mind. My wife and I decided that if they made it to a seventieth anniversary, we should be there- and I’m glad we were. There was a lot of love in that room, and literally a lifetime of memories.

One of the more poignant moments of the evening occurred for me when the husband of the couple took me by the arm and pointed me in the direction of a neighboring table. Seated there were seven lovely women and one or two other couples.

“You see those women sitting there?” he said. “Their husbands were seven of my closest friends. They all died. I miss them all, but these women miss them more. I’m so lucky…”

As he was saying this to me, I realized that he, too, was living through a transitional time of his life. But of course, the nature of the loss that it involved was of an entirely different, more permanent and painful nature than what I was experiencing. I had to wonder to myself, as I so often have in the context of both my work and losing my own parents, what does it feel like to live long enough to see so many of the people whom you’ve loved for so long die? I wish there were a kinder and gentler way to say that, but even if there were, it wouldn’t adequately convey the force of the question. My friend has been lucky enough to have seventy years together with the woman who has been the love of his life. But when loss comes- as it inevitably does- how does on say goodbye to a spouse or a friend who has been a soul mate- or at least a companion- for longer than so many of us have been alive?

Most of us, I’m sure, don’t adequately appreciate the loneliness of aging. Having your body betray you, not to mention your mind, is difficult enough. But losing the people who bring you solace as life becomes increasingly more difficult has to be the hardest challenge of all.

As we baby boomers lose our parents, we all experience the myriad challenges of caring for them in their advanced years. I have long thought that the reason why honoring one’s parents is one the Ten Commandments has nothing to do with difficult-to-abide adolescents, and everything to do with how we treat our parents as they age. That’s the real test of honoring one’s parents. How one honors a lonely and ill father or mother is a true test of one’s commitment to the commandment.

But more to the point at hand… as it progresses, life is all about transitions. It is about handling them gracefully, and appreciating the blessings along the way. At the risk of sounding banal, the truly wise appreciate that each and every day we have with the people we love is a gift to us. Some people are lucky enough to have seventy years with a spouse; others, far less. Some people live to see their children marry, and know their grandchildren and great grandchildren. Others have to bury their children- surely the cruelest fate of all.

When my wife and I feel that inevitable tightening in our throats as we contemplate the newly empty nest, we count our blessings. That is the best and most appropriate response. Life transitions are rarely easy or kind, but they are, as Maimonides might have said, derech hatevah… the way of nature. They are a sign that things are progressing as they should. And in the context of inevitably difficult transitions yet to come, watching our children grow so successfully into maturity has to be considered sweet and gratifying.

We are, indeed, blessed…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.