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"I'm doing better this time," my wife Lori said as I answered the phone, "I'm not crying ... at least not much."
She was leaving our youngest daughter's apartment. No, they hadn't had a mother daughter spat; nothing negative had prompted Lori's emotions. She was saying "bye" to Madison ... for the second time. We had moved her to Lexington, Ky., where she will soon start school.
Lori informed me it was necessary for her to return the next day, "to help get Madi settled." That was true, but I knew more: finally letting go is difficult for parents, especially when you are the mother and the child is the youngest daughter.
We have had all four of our children, in this blended family of ours, fly to different places: we felt a lump in our throats when Mary-Elizabeth flew to New York City; we longed for laughter after Dave moved to Danville, Ky., and we carried a heavy heart when Harrison left for Campbellsville, Ky.
But when that last one leaves the nest, it makes all the children's absences seem even more permanent. Now, when we returned home, only Baylor and Max, our two miniature Schnauzers, awaited us.
The next day, as I walked through the house in the early morning hour, an eerie silence reverberated through the walls, echoing the children's giggles, booming their music, resounding with the clamor for help with homework, resonating with the cry for answers to life's ultimate questions, like "When will supper be ready, finally?" and "Why can't I stay out later?"
But I've noticed several positives to this empty nest situation: I have more room in my driveway, making it easier to buzz in and out of the garage; I can rattle around the upstairs of our two story house in the wee hours of the morning and wake no one; I have acquired, in the past four years - three empty bedrooms, giving me a morning, afternoon, and evening study - whichever I so desire; instead of planning weekly meals, Lori can ask me at 6 p.m., "What do you want for supper?" and I can respond, "I dunno," and that's OK; I no longer walk through the house at curfew, making sure the kids are in, checking the locks on the doors, and turning off lights; and I don't have to rush to get in the shower before the kids deplete the hot water supply.
The most rewarding and satisfying benefit of letting them go is the influence those young ones can have in the world. Children, after all, are meant to grow up, leave and make a difference.
As painful as it is to let them go, it's more hurtful to keep them home when it's time for them to fly to freedom. Granted, circumstances sometimes necessitate a longer stay with mom and dad, yet even within those situations, parents can release children to new expressions of freedoms and the gradual acceptance of more adult responsibilities.
Even when the children do leave, whether it's sooner or later, until they are completely independent, they most often return - some more than others - if not for a home cooked meal, at least to do their laundry.
Yet, when it's time, it's time. Good-byes may not be forever, but they are steps along the road to maturity. And ultimately, a child leaving the security of home for a dream, risky though it may be, is better than one who stays for fear of failure.
As I glanced in my review mirror at Madi waving bye, I was reminded of that episode from Andy Griffith, "Opie, the Birdman," where Opie Taylor has accidentally killed a mother bird with his new slingshot. Opie then raises the baby birds to maturity. But then, when it's time to let them go, Opie has trouble.
Andy Taylor convinces his son, "to let'em go; let'em be on their own; let'em be free like they was intended." And Opie does. Each bird flies to freedom. Then, Opie looks at the bird cage. To him it looks "awful empty."
And Andy, the wise, sage of comedy, agrees but then adds, "But don't the trees seem nice and full?"
Having raised them as best we can, we let them go. And instead of looking at the empty nest, we do well to look at the trees - the possibilities that lie ahead for them, the fullness they can bring to others' lives - and with a sigh of satisfaction, say with the good Sheriff of Mayberry, "My, but don't the trees seem nice and full?"