Those are big shoes by the door. They carry big dreams. Big plans. Big feet. They belong to our youngest son, who will lace them up, walk out to the car in two days and get in the back seat. We'll motor to the end of the driveway, take a right on Rutledge Street, then drive into the heart of his college senior year.
I had just gotten used to those shoes. There, by the door. Again.
The empty nest is not an empty nest. It's a bus stop. And lately ours has been a transfer point. Riley's shoes have been by the door all summer. They're like stepping over a golden retriever. When I hop over them I know he's home. Just like the old days.
When they're there I know he's off work, somewhere in the house, occupied with an art project or a podcast or some other classifiably zany activity like the one he was immersed in last night: calling the 800 numbers on old 1980s instructional VHS tapes just to see who answered.
These are worthy endeavors. These are massively entertaining scenes to wander into. These are things I'll miss when we drop him off at school in Asheville this weekend and make our way back home. The shoes will be gone and so, too, will other things. Like some worry.
Because there's this: Even though he's 21, I worry about him when he's home. When he's out at night. Doing his thing like he should be doing. I lie there in bed clinched with worry. Thinking about him biking around in the dark after a late work shift. No helmet. Thugs on the bike path.
Thugs on the bike path!
When he's away at school? Five states away? I hardly ever worry about him. Why is that? Is he safer? Is he any more reasonable?
It's a different kind of worry when he's away. A larger one. Instead of concern over what will happen in his night, it's a worry over what will happen in his life. Having young adults is like looking down on the world from a swinging pendulum. One never stops being a father, but one must dial down being a parent. That's a complicated calibration: letting go -- control -- letting go -- control.
When you send a child off to college you get very starry-eyed about it. It's their time! "Be whoever you're meant to be!" you say. "Go where your heart tells you to go!"
Two years pass.
"You're majoring in what? Are you out of your mind?"
The first year they were all gone was ass-clutching hell. Damn them! Confusion and fear. Like hugging the boat rails in a stormy sea. A confession: I didn't know who I was before we had children. But I knew by the time we raised three. Then, all of a sudden, I didn't know who I was after they left.
That first year was rocky. But after a year in our cruelly quiet house, Peggy and I looked at each other one night and we realized we were, like, on a never-ending date. Hey! Nachos at the Great Dane and a movie at Sundance turned out to be a lot more fun than a soccer game! I hate soccer!
Then #2 graduated from UW and made her way back home via Bogota, Colombia. Empty nest? We were just getting the hang of it! Suddenly that all seemed like a fuzzy dream. Now? Her shoes by the door. Her appearance in our TV room. The biggest wake-up call was her seat selection.
"That's where I sit," I instructed her one night when I came home from work. I pointed to the couch cushions. "Those butt cheek indentations? Those are mine."
"Over there? Those are your mother's ass cheeks." Maggie looked at them, then looked back at me. "That's quality leather," I said. "And those are quality ass cheek indentations. Lovingly formed over time.
"You sit over there."
Seating arrangements do not house order make. To be fair, it couldn't have been a picnic for Maggie to live with us, what with moving in on a perpetual date. But this is the give and take when the empty nest becomes the boomerang bedroom.
I'm bad with transitions. This week is no exception. My machinery creaks and resists these things. There's a difference between parenting runts and young adults. For all the hullaballoo of raising small children, it's really just one constant thing. A humongous deal that's no different day-to-day.
Young adults fly in and out of your life like needy UFOs. They speak a different tongue and, like aliens in sci-fi movies, have demands that seem overreaching. And they don't pay rent.
But God help me, I'm going to miss those shoes.