99 Problems

Published on April 13th, 2020 | by Rachel Penn Hannah


When the Kid Left During the Coronavirus: Becoming an Empty Nester During the Pandemic

The kid moved out seven days before the shelter and place order blared on my phone. It blared twice. One for the county and one from our small city. Like so many things lately, the move happened 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 high functioning 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 nevertheless made tremendous progress. 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 its half-way point, I was told that the kid and their friends needed to find a place by March because the friends had a deadline. The place needed to allow them to house their critters including birds and a large service dog. Finding an affordable rental in the Bay Area is hard enough without having multiple pets, so I listened with a distant curiosity and offered support but didn’t 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 coronavirus 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 only outdoors 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 out loud and I’m not proud of harboring doubts, but I did.

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 were home, the kid turned around and took an Uber back to their new place. Just like that, the kid was gone. And despite that at the time, the President was still saying the coronavirus was “just like the flu,” a global pandemic was coming.

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 coronavirus. 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 our place on the way home from work that day to pick up things we threw together like pasta, beans, paper towels, medicine, and toilet paper 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 and expected demarcation. My daughter left at 18 to go to college out of state, 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. 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 independence. After all, since the time my daughter was a toddler, she had taught me how to persevere despite sadness and fear. 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 university, 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 image 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 flooded with grief, though 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, then son moved out. Every time they visited and then left again, as they drove away or got out of the car at the airport, I felt the pain. It was also true that I was happy that they were engaged in their lives and wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The kid’s departure has been different and the same. 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. Not only did the kid leave during the chaos of the coronavirus, but they moved twenty minutes away, 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 children 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 coronavirus, 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 doesn’t feel real.

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. 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, art books 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. I’m reminded of a note that I found years ago on the couch. “I am all here,” was written in the kid’s handwriting like an affirmation. Yes, I thought yesterday, you are. The kid has always been all there. Neurotypical? No. But just right.

I didn’t expect this so soon with my youngest. I’ve been distracted by our current global crisis and the isolation that goes with that. I FaceTime daily with my son and daughter, which helps, but have no contact with the kid. My husband reports that they are doing well. Not only has the kid moved out before I thought they would, but now, despite being one city away, we can’t even visit due to social distancing. No check-ins. No offers to do their laundry. No hugs. And, as the ache of the kid’s departure takes up more and more space, I know not to fight the grief, but to let it play out. It’s all here. And more.

Feature photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

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About the Author

Rachel Penn Hannah is a child psychologist and the mother of three children who have dared to become young adults. She is deeply interested in the complexities of the family as well as the paths children travel, sometimes alone.

Rachel has been selected six times to participate in the prestigious juried NorCal Writers’ Retreat. She is in the process of finding a literary agent for her first novel, SIDE ANGLE, an intimate story of mothering a troubled child in 1947 Western Oklahoma. Rachel worships babies, comes alive in the rain, and finds joy in spontaneous dance parties in the kitchen.

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