The Middle Ages

The surreal silence of an empty nest

Chris Erskine ponders his friends' and sister's new empty-nest status

As per Anaïs Nin, I believe only in the intoxication of other people. Silly me. As if that kind of high can ever last. As if people don't come and go.

We're in late summer, a time of farewells, broken hearts and parental pangs. Ran into a dad the other morning who said his wife was taking their daughter off to start college while he stayed home to mind the younger one. At that particular moment, his wife and daughter were stuck in Terminal 3 at LAX, vast purgatory of collegiate goodbyes.

Mom and daughter may never make it. The way LAX works, or doesn't work, they could easily spend the next four years waiting for their flight to North Carolina. The least that lousy airport should do is issue diplomas to anyone who's ever had to travel through there on the way to college, a special master's degree in suffering.

In the meantime, while this family is sending off its firstborn, two other L.A. friends (Paul and Sara) have just sent off their last-born, the house now so quiet that even their cat is suffering from empty nest syndrome.

One night, the distraught idiot (the cat, not Paul) tumbled through the bedroom screen and right out the window. Another night, when the freshman's voice burst from the laptop during a Skype chat, the cat pawed at the speaker.

Sending a kid off to college casts a little cloud around your heart, feline or otherwise. Me, I've never experienced a "fond" farewell. At best, they are terrible.

I've seen a couple of kids go myself now and got progressively worse about it. Like Robert De Niro movies, each was harder to stomach than the one before.

Fathers seem particularly blubbery over finally departing the dorm room, losing that whole stoic-dad mask.

Moms suffer more quietly and for longer periods. For dads, it's as if they spike the football, howl a bit, then get on with it. For moms, it seems a longer flu, marked by a lingering melancholy.

I'm worried about my sister. She just took the last of her six kids (four of them quadruplets) off to school.

Imagine having six kids and, assuming you even survived, finally taking the last little ducky — the baby, the one everyone teased — off to college.

I called my sister the other day because, you know, I worry. Since our parents passed, I am the designated worrier. I call my two sisters to quiz them on their fantasy football teams (turns out they don't even have them!) and to ensure that they're feeding the 401(k) to the max — all the stuff our dad would do.

In any case, My Sister the Mother of Six now has five kids in college at once. The oldest has graduated, and the quadruplets, all pretty as palm trees (except the lone boy, who's more of a sycamore) are juniors.

When I called my sis, she was sitting on the 50-yard line at one of their college stadiums. There was no game, she was just sitting there, waiting for a game to come along. Soon it did. From 2,000 miles away, I could hear the beautiful thunder of trombones.

My sister said she was visiting to check out her daughters' new apartment at the Big Ten school that two of them attend. She worried they didn't have a spatula and a toilet brush, significant stuff to a parent; to a 20-year-old, completely unnecessary.

Really, I think, she was there to escape the harsh realities of a too-quiet house.

With empty nests, you don't recover overnight. It can take a few days, in extreme cases a year or two.

The quiet bedroom is the worst. Once things settle and the kid is safe in the new school, you pass the old bedroom one evening, the one that once buzzed with chatter and slumber parties — for decades, they lasted. And there it is, that sudden silence.

"Finally!" you think to yourself wryly, but you'd be forgiven if you permit yourself an extra sip of the Christmas Scotch, in place of the priceless intoxication of other people.

Gawd, it goes fast. Gawd, what you would give at that very moment to have them 5 again and learning to ride a scooter and coming inside dripping with sweat, wondering what's for lunch.

"It's only 9 a.m.!" you used to tell them.

"But we want lunch!" they'd say with a giggle.

So you'd make them lunch, wondering if it would ever, ever end.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter: @erskinetimes

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