It Gets So Quiet So Fast

Mona Charen

12/13/2013 12:01:00 AM - Mona Charen

"Our house is as quiet as a tomb." So said a friend who's at the same stage of life -- that is, a mother of three with only one child still living at home. Her youngest, unlike mine, is an introvert, but like my Ben, he is exceedingly busy in his last years of high school, thus leaving the house echoing with emptiness.

As a college sophomore, I visited my academic adviser with a problem. "I don't know what I'm going to do after graduation," I confessed. He cocked his head sideways. "Most people don't come to me with this until senior year." I've always liked to get a head start on fretting.

In just eight months, Ben will be leaving for college. It's a milestone for him, but it's also a transformative life event for me. For the first time in 23 years, I won't be organizing my time with children in mind. I won't be thinking about buying (and buying and buying) groceries that include sandwich ingredients for school lunches and the quantities of food teenaged boys consume, or consulting the school calendar to double-check on things Ben must attend to (though, admittedly, he's nearly always on top of things). Nor will I be emailing teachers about this or that. It won't just be a different schedule; it will feel like a different world.

Why did they have to become such engaging and winsome people? It wouldn't be so hard to see them go if they were dullards.

Jonathan, whom many readers have been kind enough to ask about over the years since he suffered a serious head injury at age 10, is now working at a job he loves. He's living semi-independently and has totally mastered the public transportation system. So committed is he to his work that he volunteered to go in on the Friday after Thanksgiving, though he'd been offered the day off. He loves to cook and bake, and we've agreed not to object to any hair color he chooses so long as he does nothing permanent to change his body. (No piercings!) He still takes some things in life hard -- the recent death of his girlfriend's dog was tough -- but he is achieving a reliable equilibrium that is hard-won and gratifying.

David, the child I ferried to lessons and rehearsals so many afternoons, is studying trumpet performance at college. We played our first duet at Thanksgiving (mom on cello). He was tactful in letting me know that my timing was off the first time through. "Let's try it again more slowly." It was profoundly touching when he phoned home in his first year to tell me that our game of "Guess the Composer" -- played dozens of times as we listened to the car radio -- had been good preparation for one of his conservatory listening classes.

He's launched. Our talks are snatched now when he's home for all-too-brief vacations or very occasionally by phone. His bedroom, which we must de-clutter sometime soon, is like a memorial to childhood. Beanie Babies, so beloved a decade or more ago, stand sentry on a top shelf. The books he devoured -- the "Redwall" series by Brian Jacques, Terry Pratchett's works, the "Flashman" series by George MacDonald Fraser -- are faded reminders of a bygone era, alongside more recent additions like discarded trumpet mouthpieces, stacks of dog-eared sheet music and the letters of Giuseppi Verdi.

Ben still lives here, but I already see him in fast-forward. No longer do I listen for his cheerful whistle as he reaches the front door after school. He's busy nearly every day with some club, rehearsal or activity. He's often gone on weekends, too -- traveling with the Model U.N. (He assures me it's far superior to its namesake.)

He was born with a sunny disposition and enhanced it with an insatiable curiosity, warm sympathy and quick wit. It's been such deep pleasure to share with him my enthusiasms, from the trivial to the profound -- and to observe and relish his -- from music to Russian to politics. He loves the world, and the world reciprocates.

Women are so often exhorted these days to seek "empowerment" of one kind or another. Power is fine, I suppose, but is it as deeply satisfying as giving love and support?

I don't need to consult an adviser about what comes next. I'll keep busier with work and spend more time with colleagues after Ben goes off to college. There will even be upsides -- my husband and I can eat mushrooms as often as we like. But the bittersweet truth cannot be denied: Such fine young men as we've raised leave a huge chasm when they depart.