I was collecting sap from our maple trees this morning, cutting through the woods between trees, aiming for trunks with the white milk gallon jugs hanging by a piece of twine. We’re boiling down sap to make maple syrup and collecting it twice a day has become a source of simple joy in my life.
I have to work a little harder to create joy in my life now that my two children are grown and gone. Their absence left a hole for my husband and I. There’s less joy in our home life because of their absence.
There are no more dance parties in the kitchen when my son and I grew fatigued of sitting at a computer doing our work. He’d slip in a hip -hop CD of the Black Eyed Peas and we’d hop and bop all over the tile floor (my husband is more reserved and too is busy using his body carving trees into sculptures). There are no more ping pong tournaments in the back yard, for my son and I were so equally matched that neither won by more than a point or two. (my husband spins and slams and then obnoxiously expresses his greatness out loud when he wins a point, which is so uncharacteristic and unappealing that I cannot play with him). There is no one to share a cup of coffee with in the morning (my husband only drinks hot fluids when he is hypothermic). There is no one to go for daily walks or bike rides with (once again, my husband is busy carving during the day or tired at the end of the day from using his body physically).
These are only a few “whines” about what is no longer present in my life. There are more. It’s my fault, I know it. I could MAKE more joy, create it. I was kicking and screaming about my loss and sadness for the better part of the last few years and I have not done well with this empty-nest bullshit. Our family is sooooo close and we enjoy one another’s company so much, I truly miss my children’s presence in my daily life. Sierra is usually in some far-flung country like India and Bryce is outside of Philly. I pest him when I need a kid-fix, but there is nothing like the daily joy of children.
Todd and I have finally settled into a nice routine in the last year and we have made much progress (Todd actually misses the kids almost as much as me). Todd loves, loves, loves carving and wants to do it all the time. I have immersed myself in my books that I am creating, The World is Our Classroom, which I am presently promoting, and WARPATH Seeking Peace on America’s Trails, which I am currently gathering content for. Life is different now- certainly not bad, just different. I have also been gathering stories for the following book, Stories from the Empty Nest. So, I have been adjusting and becoming more accepting but it is taking years.
Lately, I have been pre-occupied with the mass shootings of our school children in Florida, and think about our country and the deep sadness that has blanketed so many of our psyches these days. Talk about dissolving the joy. I was jogged alert this morning while I was gathering sap, jogged right out of my thoughts. I cut across the woods on an angle I don’t normally travel as I aimed for the next tree with a milk container. While I was watching where I was stepping, I noticed a conch shell lying amongst the soggy brown oak leaves. It looked strangely out of place. I took the toe of my rubber muck boot and flipped it over to see its beautiful design. I looked beyond the shell and saw other shells half buried in the duff and also clay bricks. Then I remembered where I was- “Forest Park.” My kids pet cemetery that they tended all through their childhood. Here’s what Sierra wrote about it that will be printed in The World is Our Classroom:
When my brother Bryce and I were growing up, whenever the ever our cats killed a creature, we would bury it in “Forest Park.” Forest Park was a little patch of woods where we dug a small “pond” into forest loam, lined with a piece of plastic. We dug a grave for every animal that died and wrapped the poor bedraggled creature in a blanket of leaves. Then we said a prayer and covered the leaves with dirt. We used old bricks as headstones and scratched their names with a blunt stone. We would wander through the orchard and llama pasture gathering a small fistful of flowers to lay on the fresh grave.
Sometimes the animals were not fully dead when my brother and I rescued them traumatized, hearts pounding from our cats’ jowls. Cupping them in our hands, tears streaming down our cheeks, one of us would cradle the bird or vole while the other locked the cats in the sunroom and got a cardboard box from storage. We would fill the box with cotton balls and leaves and fill a bottle cap from the recycling bin with water. Out in the chicken shed, we would steal a small handful of grain or corn and sprinkle it in the box. Sometimes we did more extensive research into the animal’s diet using field guides to North American mammals to find a list of foodstuff the particular animal sustained itself on.
It didn’t cross our minds that the animal was in its death throes and probably not concerned with matters of food. But we had hope and we would try everything we could. Bryce and I would make up songs to sing to them. Usually they were dead by morning and we quietly got the shovel and headed reverently to Forest Park for the burial.
The graveyard became quite extensive over the years. Our cats had free reign of the great outdoors and they deposited the crumpled bodies on the doormat as presents. Anytime one of us opened the sunroom door and stepped onto the mat with a soft crunch of a rodent beneath our feet, we would scurry for the shovel and head to Forest Park. This became our ritual.
Soon there were several dozen bricks forming a semicircle around the puddle in Forest Park. There were birds, chipmunks, voles, mice, frogs, moles, and baby bunnies buried there. My brother and I tended the graves as well. Periodically we would clear the falling leaves and forest debris out of respect for the animals, re-etch the names onto the bricks with a stone from the driveway, and pick fresh wild flowers.
When I come across remnants of my children’s lives like the remains of Forest Park, I suffer a pang of loss. But I have a new reference system for measuring child loss after all these horrific mass shootings. My children are still here. I can still call them and talk to them, even as far away as India. And I can go see them when I miss them terribly, even as far away as India. The parents whom have lost their children no longer have that joy. I will never allow a feeling of whininess ever pass through my mind again, never utter a word of feeling sorry for myself. Empty nest syndrome is not truly loss. It is life rearranging. Those devastated parents will never get beyond their loss. I have realized that any amount of time in our children’s presence, whether we have them all through their childhood and late into adulthood, or they are snatched prematurely from this planet- every minute in their presence is a gift.
My cup will forever be half full instead of half empty when it comes to my children. I will forever operate from a place of gratitude that we had our children at all.