Empty Nest?

On allowing one’s nest to be empty so something new can come in

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Photo by Luke Brugger on Unsplash

Not five feet away from me, B. works to plant the elfin thyme between the flagstones beneath the table at which I write. His long, elegant fingers push, pat, brush, fluff, and press as he sets the tiny contents of each portion of the six-pack of elfin thyme into the ground. The evening light of early May reaches in, tinging each plant gold. His feet are bare. His second toe is longer than his first. Like mine. Someone told me once that characteristic is “royal.” I’ve never looked it up to find out what that meant, if anything.

My garden is flowering, is finally looking robust and cared for, is finally responding the way I always wanted it to. The way I always dreamed it might, or could. In past years, I got intimidated, or frustrated, or bored, or busy. I’d make an effort, a tiny effort, and drift away, and of course it didn’t go well.

I also spent years beating myself up about my garden because that is what I do. Beat myself up. About my garden or anything else that is handy. Actually, I still do it, unfortunately, but I am getting better. I know I am. Little by little, I am getting better.

I still lie awake at night and find myself filled to overflowing with regret, and it’s a bitter pill indeed. Regret is the worst of all emotions. It’s right up there with guilt. It is guilt, actually. Isn’t it? Regret is feeling you did something wrong, you failed, you made the wrong decision. The feeling that arises then is shame. Another is guilt. Shame, guilt, regret. What a trio. What a toxic and horrid trio.

I have never looked fully, frontally, at this trio.

Not now, not before, not ever.

I will, however, need to look one day. Some day.

Because these emotions have dictated and driven a large portion of my life, I’m afraid.

I think it may be true, though I’m not certain.

There’s a way that’s it’s obscure. Just as I’m about to see, to realize, my self and my demons, they shy away. I grasp, only to find air in my hands. My mind tries to grip onto what I almost figured out, but is left tantalized and frustrated.

What is my soul or my self, or my spirit, or whatever, so afraid of? Does some part of me think I won’t be able to endure the realization that I spent too much time, possibly far too much time, mired in these completely useless and highly damaging emotions?

Perhaps. And why not. It’s serious, actually.

I’m 52 now, and while the first half of my life is over, I do still have a couple of decades I can do something with.

What will it be?

B. bends over now. I can see his slim back in the soccer jersey he wears. He has many of these soccer jerseys, as do both of our kids. B. is from Venezuela. He lives and breathes soccer. It’s nothing like soccer dads here, from this country. They’re all book-learned, or field-learned. They don’t have soccer in their bones like the Latin dads have. Street soccer, everyday, all-your-life soccer. They don’t have that.

Whereas some dads wear schlumpy cotton tee shirts that stretch tight across their middles, some crisp, short-sleeved button downs, some Cuban shirts with front pockets and shell buttons (that was my dad), B. wears soccer jerseys with stripes on the sleeves.

I’m able to observe B. like this because he’s living with us. He’s been living with us for seven weeks, since the shelter-in-place order came down. I went and got him so he wouldn’t be alone. Alone, yet surrounded by five housemates, all with different trajectories in the world. I was concerned we’d be exposed to too many vectors during this pandemic, and also that B. would be exposed.

B. is fragile, and I couldn’t risk that. I picked him up. He said, “No, no. It’s okay. I want to stay here.” He was afraid to leave his room, his house. He was afraid of people, stoves, fire, food. He was subsisting on peanut butter and bananas. He was frightfully thin. For the third time, he’d lost roughly 40 pounds during a depression that hit in September and is only now easing.

I brought him home.

He didn’t do much for the first few weeks. He couldn’t bathe. He wouldn’t dress or change into pajamas or brush his teeth. He was suspicious of the food placed before him. He turned off burners when my back was turned and then flitted from the kitchen. He spoke in a monotone.

He’s enlivened a great deal.

B. is bi-polar, diagnosed only four years ago. It explains so much. I felt so relieved when I learned that. It alleviated some of my guilt.

Yes, he was hard to live with. Awfully. That’s why we separated when the kids were three-and-a-half and six.

And yet, here he is.

We’ve both dated many people. Too many.

The Peruvian doctor on his side. The Amazonian blonde who played college basketball. The Chinese mother with half-Italian kids. And many more.

On my side were the Israeli biomedical researcher. The architect (a few of those). The C-suite aerospace company executive. The NASA scientist.

And here we are. We find ourselves here, in this moment, shacked up together with our kids, the kids we made in love, the kids who are teetering on the brink of the nest, soon to leave for college, should in-person college occur in the fall.

It’s a rather special time, to say the least.

B. is here.

Our son at least three times has joked, “Papi, are you going to sleep in mom’s bed tonight?” (Papi is currently sleeping on the living room sofa.)

Once, he said, “Just kiss and get it over with.”

He’s being funny, of course.

That’s his sense of humor. He pushes the edge of everything. He can be highly inappropriate.

But of course, he’s also clearly aware that B. and I love each other.

Yet, here I am, thinking, “Do I date during the pandemic? Should I look into virtual dating?”

Here I am, entertaining a few admirers via text and FaceTime and Zoom. Here I am, once again and still wondering if and how I will find my man. If I even want him. And who he is or will be. And what it all means. Especially at my age and time of life when I will soon be free of parenting.

My father died in June, and my mom died 25 years ago this week, so I no longer have parental units to care for.

My kids, now 18 and 22, are leaving for college, both of them, UCLA and UC Berkeley, respectively. So, that part of my life is wrapped up. Though I hope they come home a lot, of course. I’m counting on it. And I intend to visit them a lot. I joke with my daughter that I’m getting a pied-à-terre in Westwood.

I wish I could say this would be a fairy tale ending. That B. and I could be together. A part of me wants that. Of course it does. I’m rather dedicated and loyal, I’ve learned.

But bi-polar disorder is no joke.

Of course I love B. I love him to the bone. I will always be available to him.

But live with him? Be with him? Sleep with him? For the rest of my life?

This notion gives me pause.

And, hell, it should. It better.

If my oldest and dearest friends knew I was even thinking this way, they’d be alarmed. Greatly.

Yet, how can I not think this way?

B. is the father of my children. I take care of him, just as I do them.

He takes care of me too, though, in the ways he can.

The thing is, choosing to love B., to be with him, in a “real” relationship would be quite something. It would be quite a risk.

B. was so manic last year that he got arrested on a 5150.

When my son and I reached the emergency room at Alta Bates Hospital, B. was no longer in restraints, but he was so drugged he couldn’t hold his jaw shut or his eyes open. He had at least four heavy-duty anti-psychotic medications coursing through his body.

Sometimes I wonder if that incident is why his brain seems to be slower this time, when he’s coming out of this particular depression.

It’s happened several times now, this routine, these episodes. The mania is unbearable, untenable. The depressions are terrifying to the extreme.

And yet, each time this has happened, there’s been this sweet spot. This time, that — so far — has been agonizingly fleeting, where B. is almost… normal.

Right now, for example, he is watering the plants. All of the new babies he’s helped me plant in the last few weeks as he’s come more alive.

He’s happy here.

I want to care for him. I want to protect him.

I think of the movie Shine. Interesting that I remember it so well, that it had such a great impact on me. It must have been 1996 when I saw it. Our son, Bo, was born in 1998. I didn’t already know B. was bi-polar. Though I did suspect something was going on. I did suspect mental illness. Every year or two, a friend, acquaintance, or neighbor would ask me, “Is B. bi-polar?” I always said, “I don’t know.”

I hear the flatware clinking the drawer in the kitchen now. B. is putting the flatware away, transferring it from the dishwasher to the drawer.

This is such a rarity, I can’t even say. Something he can’t do at all when he’s manic or depressed.

What I’m trying to say is that, at times like these, I do dream of being together with B.

But the reality is, it’s probably impossible.

Not only would B. have to promise to take his medication (which he is now taking, which is unusual and incredible and striking), he would have to KEEP taking it, which people with this disorder usually quit doing as soon as they start feeling “better,” i.e. happy, high… manic. The mania feels great. People who suffer from this disorder don’t notice that they are alienating everyone around them. They, or at least B., thinks he is the life of the party.

Everyone else is just exhausted by their energy and antics. Their profound inability to listen or see or take into account anyone else. They live in a construct of the mind.

The depressions are just terrible. In B.’s case, paranoia, catatonia, rapid and profound weight loss. Of course, we fear the obvious. We fear suicide at these times. And we do all we can to support B. at these times. He’s lost to us, however.

And we go back and forth between these two poles.

B. is the father of my children. He is handsome and kind. He is guileless. When depressed and in this intermediate space, as he is now, he is arresting. He looks at me with so much love I can’t meet his eyes. He’s like a child. He is pure, diaphanous like a child, unable to hide anything. Unable to protect himself. There is no carapace. He is naked, tender, trusting, and sweet. He takes everything literally, can’t discern a joke.

So. Back to dating. “Dating during the pandemic!” I say cheerily. Can I date during the pandemic? The real question is, Can I date while B. is here? Can I date while B. is alive? Will I ever be able to give my heart truly to another?

And if not, why not? Is it because I truly love B.? Because I’m saddled with Catholic guilt? Because I’m ashamed? Because I feel responsible for the way B.’s life looks, just as I felt responsible for my mother drinking herself to death?

This is why I must get to the bottom of the difficult stuff.

I still have yet to do it. And until I do, I will be unconsciously or semi-consciously driven by it.

When will I allow myself to take my life into my own two hands?

I have an opportunity in the coming year, and years. My kids are launching.

Am I really going to take B. into the nest just as my kids fly out?


Writer, copywriter, editor, and word lover. Subscribe to my newsletter at christywhite.substack.com

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