She lived her life on fast forward. Everything about it was artificially shortened, yet she packed in a full life. Her childhood was cut short with the death of her mother when she was ten. At thirteen, the doctors decided they couldn’t wait any longer to correct her scoliosis, but in order for them to do that, she had to be done growing. They gave her hormone injections to compress puberty into a single weekend, freezing her height shorter than she would have been, and also depriving her of the normal ups and downs that go with adolescence. She pitied the poor nurses who had to deal with her that weekend, but there were other effects as well. A lot of the normal adolescent drama her friends experienced in high school was lost on her, because she hadn’t experienced what they were going through. It left her at a bit of a loss when her own daughters got to that stage, too. Teenagers always complain that their parents don’t understand them, but in her case, they may actually have been right.
Her father’s death when she was sixteen ended any vestiges of adolescence for her. She was legally declared an adult, but that was just a formal acknowledgement of the fact she had already been taking care of herself even before he died. When I met her at nineteen she was this amazing woman-child, wise far beyond her years but still full of joy and wonder at the possibilities of the world.
She was in a hurry, and not without reason. She knew from hard personal experience that life can be short, and it was a really good idea to get on with the things you cared about most. What she cared about most was raising a family. She remembered the good times before her mother got sick, and wanted to make sure she got to have a chance to raise her children and see her grandchildren. She was smart, grounded, focused, cute, and absolutely irresistible. I signed up for the ride.
What a ride it was. We were kids raising kids, but somehow to our friends we were always the old married couple. Even on our Engaged Encounter weekend, where we were the youngest couple, we spent our time with the oldest couples, because the people closer to our age seemed clueless about what they were getting into. By the time I was 29 we already had three kids, a house in the suburbs, and a dog. I look at the pictures of us back then, and I see why people were nervous about us. Marrying and having kids that young and that fast is normally a recipe for disaster. But the normal rules did not apply with her. Breaking the speed limit ensured she got to see her kids grow up, and she even got to play with her grandchildren.
Traveling at that kind of speed can get you whiplash, but it’s also kind of addictive. And now I may need that practice.
Here I am at 53, suddenly having to rearrange my life. Three months ago we were looking forward to an empty nest together. Now, I’m looking at it alone.
You can live a whole life in thirty years. I know that because we just did. Now I have to face the reality that ‘we’ only exist in past tense, and I might have another thirty years in front of me. That’s way too long to spend doing nothing but looking back, no matter how wonderful the past has been. At the same time, I’m also painfully aware that there is no guarantee I won’t be gone tomorrow. So now, I’ve inherited her sense of urgency, but without her focus.
Her mother’s absence was a constant reality that shaped her life, but it didn’t define her identity. It pushed her forward, making sure she got things done while there was still time. Now there is a huge hole in my life where she used to be. I don’t want to define the rest of my life by an absence any more than she did. That hole can’t be filled in, it’s the precious space where all the memories live, so instead I have to build out from where I am, create new spaces in my life to fill with meaning.
As the shock wears off, and the reality that she’s permanently gone truly starts to sink in I’m starting to recognize a need to pick up the pace in my life again. We just spent a decade watching and encouraging our kids as they started lives of their own. The nest is about to finally empty, leaving me here alone.
It’s time to start working on my own wings.