I’m a bit of a planner. In fact, I’m such a planner I began sketching out an imaginary empty nest life before my first newborn son had ever slept through the night. Before our firstborn had begun eating solid foods, I looked forward to holding his child. Maybe it was the lack of sleep on my part—or looking forward to a season with less responsibility that caused my silliness—but while my husband and I still sported trim physiques, smooth skin, and ears that could hear voices speak from across the room, we talked about our later years. I filled in every line with vivid details, forming a complete picture of the season: about adult sons living nearby with beautiful wives and kids, frequent visits and dinners, good health, and the freedom to work fewer hours so we could enjoy life.
I imagined being dressed in warm sweaters, sitting by the fire reading to a grandchild on my lap. I skipped right over our own kids’ soccer games, proms, teenage angst, and foibles. Likely, I believed empty nest to be as distant from our younger selves as a faraway solar system. So what was the harm in imagining?
Then magically one day our lives sped up and fast forwarded through the years of raising four rambunctious but delightful sons. Our bodies slowly grew soft like an infant’s pudgy cheeks, our skin more lined like that of my beloved grandparents. One by one, our sons graduated from high school, then college. And one by one, they erased the details of my plan, replacing it with their own. Those imagined days had arrived, but the details were all wrong.
As life has a way of doing, empty nest arrived looking nothing like my artistic sketch. Three of my sons unexpectedly moved out-of-state. One moved overseas. Remaining behind, I stomped an imaginary foot in a silent temper tantrum during the unfolding of their choices. This was not how I wanted things to go. For the next four years, I forgot who I was, often feeling like a stranger inside my own skin. Despite full-time work, a return to graduate school for an MFA, and writing opportunities, my mind and heart always felt the reality of my sons’ absences. A whole section of my life had evaporated. When the overseas son finally returned to the area after four years, my temper tantrum subsided.
One truth came thundering down upon me during that season: we can make all the plans we want, but often the future arrives looking nothing like we envisioned. My plan for this season never included developing debilitating Lyme disease. Who sketches out their future and includes neurological problems and pain from a tick bite, or a husband’s hearing loss resulting from an accident that occurred during his college years? Who imagines several of their husband’s employers restructuring their business or selling it? One more detail not included in my plan arrived when my married sons and their wives mumbled about the possibility of not having children.
Thankfully, one day we received a surprised and distraught call from our oldest son saying his wife was unexpectedly pregnant. We secretly rejoiced that their plans had been overturned, too, while commiserating with them over their new season of adjustment. A couple months after the birth of our beautiful first grandchild, another son with no plans to have kids soon announced his wife’s surprise pregnancy.
So much for sketching out the future with pre-determined accuracy.
While we rejoice at the arrival of these adorable babies who share generations of our family’s DNA, mixing together a hodge-podge group of people, they live far away from us. We envisioned these children coming over often to cook paleo-inspired recipes with me and go for walks with us both. We’d take them to the zoo, into downtown Chicago, to outdoor concerts and plays. But life barely resembles that long-ago fantasy of abundant time spent in fun activities while we etched ourselves into the hearts and minds of our grandchildren.
Thankfully, in walks Facetime. Who could have imagined the ability to video chat with your grandchild, singing songs and reading books over a cell phone all those years ago, making us “the grandparents in the box?” Still, we have concerns about only visiting our grandkids a couple of times a year, wondering if they’ll get to know us with infrequent visits. My own grandparents were the center of my childhood, living on the water of Cape Cod, offering the luxurious gift of time like some feast on a platter to small children hungry for a patient adult. Each one of them lived to attend my wedding.
Lest I sound like the empty nest years are all unimagined disappointments, let me emphasize the unexpected surprises and riches introduced into our lives. We live in a college town, allowing us to take part in readings, audit classes, purchase seasons tickets for the college theatre, and attend concerts. Without the hectic demands of raising a family, we have time to feed our own curiosity and continue to learn, keeping our minds engaged. We also pursue a late-in-life passion for helping the marginalized find a footing in life. We teach in a jail, teach English as a Second Language to a refugee, partner with a ministry in the inner city, mentor others—all while having the luxury to escape back to our quiet house for rest in between sessions.
And despite the long-distance of our own family members, who would’ve thought a surfeit of young people not related to us by blood and marriage would grace us with their friendships? These young people enrich our lives with their invitations to participate in their journeys as they date, marry, and have their own children. We cherish their perspectives on life, often challenged by their thinking and privileged at their invitation to be adopted grandparents to kids who have no local grandparents. Family isn’t always connected by blood.
Even the onset of Lyme disease, a great debilitator of energy and productivity, can be viewed in the light of an unexpected gift. I’ve been forced into a quieter lifestyle, but the quiet has been healing for this introvert, offering reading and writing time I had put on the back burner for so many years as I cared for others. I never would have isolated myself in such a reclusive manner if I hadn’t been forced to do so, but the isolation has re-introduced me to myself.
So, I’m learning the images I paint in my head often form an incomplete and false reality of my coming days, leaving me disappointed when something arrives differently than I had imagined. Now I no longer plan the future but instead allow it to unravel in brilliant surprise. I can wish, but I cannot predict. When my husband and I teach in jail, we always share Jeremiah 29:11 with the men: “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans to give you a future and a hope.” The men have a profound reaction to this passage, offering profuse thanks for offering them hope; most of the men constantly worry about empty futures. The promise in that Jeremiah passage soothes the inmates—and they soothe us all.
Many years ago I experienced a very difficult move from Massachusetts to Virginia. My despair lasted for several years, leaving me stuck and unable to see any hope for the future. Saying goodbye to close friends and a place called home in Massachusetts left me believing I had lost a large part of me. In my despair, I couldn’t see tomorrow’s potential promise. Speaking to that young woman now, I would list all the surprises that showed up on her doorstep: new soulmates for friends, a different career path, more education, the fulfillment of dreams for our sons, and rich and diverse friendships. Insisting on a prescribed future would’ve kept me from unimaginable gifts.
Some may see empty nest as a season filled with emptiness, but let me reassure you adventure awaits—often in unexpected forms. Like an intriguing novel filled with surprise plot twists around the corner, life continues to be vibrant and fresh as we move forward with our desires to stay meaningfully busy until our last breath. This is a new season rather than an empty season. Maybe we should change the name. And during this new season, let’s remember we are the folks with a more flexible schedule and a little margin to offer help and encouragement to others—especially a younger generation. May our empty nest years be filled with opportunities to give back to a shattered world and love well. May we continue discovering the mysteries of life, refusing to predict the future and mute all potential unexpected arrivals.