By Rachel Penn Hannah
The kid moved out seven days before the shelter and place order blared on my phone. Twice. One for the county and one from our small city. Like so many things lately, it happened really fast. I knew the kid had been looking for a rental with two friends (a couple) who are older than the kid and have been living together for three years. But, to be completely honest, I don’t think that I believed the kid would actually move out.
I have three children; a 25 year old son, a 23 year old daughter, and a 19 year old kid. The kid is gender non-binary and goes by they/them pronouns. The kid has autism and hasn’t followed the traditional path of, well, of anything which is okay. Since high school ended, almost two years ago, they’ve made tremendous progress though. I’ve learned not to look at a particular week or month, but to look back over a year to gauge the direction the kid is going and when I do that, they are always moving forward.
As February approached the half way point, I was told that the kid and friends needed to find a place by March because the friends had a deadline. The place needed to allow them to have their critters including birds and a large service dog. Finding an affordable place in the Bay Area is hard enough without having multiple pets, so I listened with a distant curiosity and offered support but did not feel the imminence. However, during the last week of February, a town house about 20 minutes away was found, a lease was signed.
At the time, I was preoccupied by my growing anxiety about the COVID-19 and going to work in a hospital where I was sure I would get infected. My husband hadn’t left the house in weeks due to his being in two high risk categories. I had stopped going to events such as my beloved book group, I met friends outdoor for walks, and hadn’t had anyone inside our house for a while. My hands were washed red and dry.
On a gentle Saturday afternoon, a week before I stopped going to work due to the reemergence of OCD symptoms that had been at bay for years, one of the kid’s friends showed up driving a U-Haul to pick up their mattress, the only thing we couldn’t fit into our car. The next night, my husband, the kid, and I drove over a few boxes.
Take as little as possible, I advised the kid. I did this for two reasons. The first is that the kid loves stuff and I wanted to prevent them from overwhelming the friends and, well, the second reason is that I wasn’t sure they would stay at their new place. I never said the latter and I’m not proud of feeling that way, but it’s the truth.
We carried the kid’s boxes upstairs to their new room and I put the sheets on the bed. The kid didn’t plan on starting to sleep there until the following Tuesday, but when one of the friends texted a sad face once we got home at 10:00 pm, the kid took an Uber back to their new place, feeling wanted. Just like that, the kid was gone.
While the president was still saying the COVID-19 was “just like the flu,” my youngest child moved out. Two things were undeniable. First, the COVID-19 was spreading across the globe like nothing we had ever seen and second, that we were now empty nesters.
After a week in the kid’s new place, the kid and one of the friends became sick with mild symptoms of something vague. When their dad asked them if they wanted to come home, the kid declined. I was impressed. The kid’s dad went on to talk to the kid and roommates to ask if they were prepared if any of them, or all of them, got the COVID-19. They said as long as one of them were able to care for the others, they would be fine. One of the friends stopped by on the way home from work that day to pick up food and supplies and when the door closed the silence was enormous.
As the days tick by, the house gets cleaner and cleaner and I’m starting to experience an actual ache in my chest. When the first two left, it was dramatic with a clear expected demarcation. My daughter left at 18 to go to college in Oregon. She was the first even though she is the middle child. After her dad and I moved her into her dorm, the moment came when we had to leave her there.
As she walked us to our car, I remember willing myself not to cry. I had been crying for weeks. She had even seen me cry the night before. But in that moment, I felt it was important to keep it together, for me to convey all the genuine confidence I had in her bold move out of the state. After all, since my daughter was a toddler, she had taught me how to do things despite sadness and fear. I was determined not to leave her with tears. As my husband and I drove away, down a city street lined with trees, we both began to cry and once we got back to the hotel room, I heaved sobs into his chest.
Four months later, we drove our son to the San Francisco International Airport. He had been living at home while he attended community college. After submitting his applications to transfer to a four year school, he was going to Italy to study abroad for twelve weeks.
We arrived to the airport early and killed some time with a meal. Only our son ate. I had a knot the size of a basketball in my belly and the food looked like sawdust. And when it was time for our son to go through security, we watched him snake through the line, mostly only able to see him from behind, a backpack slung over one shoulder, the boarding pass in one of his hands. But we saw the other hand wipe at his eyes and, even now, the pain that that conjures is immense.
My husband thought that he was leaving the nest for good. I kept saying, “No. He will be back in three months.” However, my body told another story. One of grief. Happiness as well. I was thrilled for his chance to go to Europe. Turns out my husband was right. When our son returned, he was ready to move out. Like yesterday.
President Obama once said that having your child go off to college feels like someone has reached inside your chest and literally pulled your heart out. In my experience, that isn’t an exaggeration. I continued to have this experience for two years after my daughter and son moved out. When the two of them left after a visit home, it felt as if a part of my body was missing. It was that visceral. As with most things, two things are often true at once. While these were painful moments, I was truly happy that they had lives they were engaged in and wouldn’t have had it any other way. This was just as true as was the sadness when they left again.
The kids’ departure has been the same in that it hurts and different. What is different is that the kid moved twenty minutes away which would allow us to offer them more support, have more frequent visits, a gradual separation. These are kinds of support kids on the spectrum often need. What is different is that there was no last dinner, no drop off at the airport or trip to Target to shop for dorm supplies.
There was no moment at all.
No knowing right before or right after. Not only did the kid leave during the chaos of the COVID-19, but they moved relatively close to us, not to another state or country. The possibility that the kid will need to move home again in the future and cycle back and forth before finding their sea legs is real. But for now, they are gone. I haven’t even talked to them in over a week. I call and leave messages, text as well, but they prefer their dad who they talk to nightly.
This is not how I thought it would be, should this day come. After parenting with kids at home for over twenty-five years, I imagined sadness but also joy. With my husband sleeping in a different room due to concerns about the COVID-19, with anxiety about our parents and the pandemic, with tension about how to go forward in this moment, as if that’s even possible, becoming empty nesters has only slowly taken shape and not in the ways I would have anticipated or wanted.
Yesterday, I spent five hours in the kid’s room cleaning and organizing their book case. My husband had already done a big clean up the week prior. As I organized their books into categories, which I realized represented different parts of their life; the Harry Potter series, books about insects and animals, books about Asperger’s and also gender identity, and so on, the lump in my throat grew bigger and bigger. I really miss the kid and I am so proud of their bravery, their ability to be a part from us.
I’m reminded of a note that I found years ago on the couch. “I am all here,” was written in the kids’ handwriting like an affirmation.
Yes, I thought yesterday, you are. The kid has always been all there. Neurotypical? No. But just right.
I’m experienced enough with having my baby birds leave the nest to know that the pain of it doesn’t become tolerable for a while. I’m okay with that because my bigger need is having my children grow into the thriving, wonderful adults that they are. I didn’t expect this so soon with my youngest and I’ve been distracted by our current global crisis.
And, as the ache of my kids’ departure takes up more and more space, I now know not to fight the grief, but to let it play out. It’s all here. And more.
Rachel Penn Hannah is the mother of an incredible 19 year old who is on the autism spectrum. She has two older children. She is a writer and a psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area.