I was trying to remember if I had added an egg to my cookie batter when my daughter, Hannah, sat next to me at the kitchen table with that freshman Psych 101 look in her inquisitive brown eyes.
“We’re studying empty nest syndrome. Have you heard of it?”
I wrinkled my nose. “Yes, I’ve heard of it.”
She patted my right hand with hers, which gave me the impression I was being consoled for some reason. “So Mom, Mark is already out of the house.”
“Yes, I noticed that.”
She grew even more serious. “And Jeff is practically gone. He’s hardly ever home.”
“He has been spending a lot of time at the library,” I admitted.
“This girl he likes. She works in the reference center.”
“Jeff likes a girl, does he? I wondered why he was suddenly fascinated with expanding his mind beyond the sports page.”
“You promised I could live in the dorm next year when I’m a sophomore.”
I nodded. “That’s the plan. I haven’t been clipping coupons and inventing creative casseroles for nothing.”
“What is it going to feel like when you have no life?”
I gave her a blank look.
“What I mean, Mom, is, what are your plans? For when all of us kids are gone.”
The blank look remained. “Goodness, Hannah. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll take up skydiving or some other low-impact sport.”
She rolled her eyes and continued grilling me. “Who are you, Mom? Besides being a mother, a people pleaser, and a domestic goddess. If you were on an island, who would you be?”
That didn’t take much thought. “Stephy Daniels, age forty-three. Blue eyed, wiry-haired brunette. Five foot five, one twenty five . . . uh, a hundred thirty pounds. Making lots of coconut casserole dishes, I guess.”
She focused in on me like a camera. “Not the outer you. The inner you.”
Apparently, she and her professor had me pegged for a self-identity crisis.
“Have you considered switching your major to animal husbandry?” I asked wryly.
“Does that have anything to do with scooping poop?”
“Yes,” I verified.
“Then absolutely not.” She stood up and showed me all those dazzling, straight teeth we paid for, before she made a hasty exit.
I heaved a big sigh, shook my head back and forth a few times, and returned to my duties as a domestic goddess. Checking on my chocolate-chip cookies, I found them to be a perfect golden brown.
Eighteen months later
I didn’t think it would really happen—at least not so fast. All three of our children were gone. It was just Brock and I all alone in our big, yellow house.
Still, there was no weeping or clinging to photo albums. My babies all lived within a forty-mile radius and were only a visit or phone call away. I’d been as busy as ever taking care of them the past six months.
After six rings Hannah picked up and breathed heavily in my ear.
“Good morning,” I chirped, and she managed a sleepy hello.
I was Hannah’s wake-up call. She slept through alarms and earthquakes. Every morning I called her before her first class. “Get a head start on the world! Come on! Get out of bed!”
I imagined her rubbing her eyes and yawning. I could hear her shuffling across the floor in her flip-flops and smiled as I thought of her in her Tweety Bird pajamas (the only kind she wore), brown hair in every direction, as unmanageable as mine.
Allowing her a moment of silence to get her bearings, I stared proudly at the pictures of my children. I heard the hum of the microwave in the background.
“Hannah, you shouldn’t do that.”
“Do what?” she asked.
“Reheat your coffee. It ruins the flavor.”
“How did you know I was reheating my coffee?”
“I’m your mother. I know everything.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Everything I didn’t know she ended up telling me—eventually. I went on to the daily weather report. “How does it look there?”
After a minute she replied, “It’s yucky here. Foggy.”
Hannah lived in the dorm at Biola University in La Mirada, where I frequently visited and made her bed, cleaned out her fridge, collected dust bunnies, and left goodies.
“The sun is out here,” I boasted. “It’s another beautiful fall day in Santa Monica.”
I heard her turn on the bathroom faucet. When she was home, sometimes I’d sit on the toilet lid talking to her as she performed her morning routine. We were close.
“Hold on, Mom.”
I took a sip of orange juice and waited.
“OK, I’m back,” she said, whishing her toothbrush back and forth.
“Brush your tongue, Hannah. It’s a known fact that people who brush their tongues not only have good breath and less plaque, but also enjoy better health,” I claimed.
She answered with her mouth full. “Well, it’s been harder to brush my tongue since I pierced it.”
I almost knocked over my glass of orange juice. “You pierced your tongue?”
She whished and spat. “No.” She laughed.
“Shock value. How cute.” I laughed too.
“But I can if I want. I am twenty, you know.”
“May I remind you that we are your primary source of income and have the say on your expenditures?”
“My only source of income,” she clarified. “I haven’t been able to find a job.”
Honestly, I didn’t mind. I’d rather she concentrate on her studies. “Do you have a swim meet this weekend?”
“No, last week was the last one. Why?”
“It’s something to do,” I said absent-mindedly, then wished I hadn’t said it.
“I warned you, Mom. This empty nest syndrome can be a traumatic transition. You need to get a life,” she said predictably.
“Animal husbandry, Hannah,” I reminded her and laughed.
“I’m not joking. You need a life.”
“I have a very fulfilling life.”
“What? Picking up Dad’s socks?”
“And taking care of you kids. I think I do more for you now than when you were home.”
“You really don’t have to.”
I paused, not sure if she meant it. “Would you like to meet me this afternoon after your classes?” I asked hopefully.
“Sorry. Rachelle and I are going shopping.”
“Oh,” I said, disappointed. “Isn’t she the one with the pierced belly button and nose ring?”
“And tongue. Hey, maybe I can get her to pierce my tongue.”
I laughed, but I wasn’t sure I liked this Rachelle, 4.0 or no 4.0.
Jeff was next on my call list. At eighteen he was the baby of the family. I loved spoiling him, and he loved being spoiled. The poor child wouldn’t eat a peanut-butter sandwich unless the crust was cut off, and he had a dozen other idiosyncrasies that were probably my fault.
Was he driving safely? Was he taking his vitamins? Was he getting enough sleep?
I let the phone ring several times. He always picked up by the third ring, but there was no answer. The answering machine didn’t pick up, either.
The basement apartment he was renting was dangerous. It had ancient wiring, inadequate ventilation, and was basically in bad shape. In my opinion, he was too young to be on his own, but since Mark, his older brother, had moved out at this same age, we had agreed to support him in his decision (or try to, in my case).
I called again and let it ring at least eight times.
I called fifteen minutes later and let it ring twelve times.
Jeff was always home in the mornings.
I called one last time, and there was still no answer.
Something had to be wrong.
I grabbed my purse and jumped in my car, speeding down the road in a state of panic. I rang Mark on the way.
“Hello,” a deep voice replied.
“Meet me at Jeff’s apartment. I think something is wrong. He’s not answering, and I know he’s home.”
“Wrong? What could be wrong?”
“He’s not answering the phone.”
“He’s probably in the shower,” Mark guessed.
“For thirty minutes?”
“Without you yelling, ‘Get out of the shower,’ it’s possible.”
I pictured a big grin on his face. I’m sure he thought I was overreacting.
I nearly drove through a red light. “Well, I’m worried. Anything could have happened.”
“Someone could have broken into his place. Or he could be lying on the floor dying from carbon-monoxide poisoning. There’s no alarm in that apartment.”
Mark was quiet. Then he sighed. “Did you ever think that maybe he doesn’t want to answer? He has caller ID, you know.”
I was on to Mark. I knew he ignored my calls sometimes. But not Jeff. Never Jeff. I didn’t say it, however.
“Would you please just meet me there?” I pleaded.
“Sure.” Mark’s voice was resigned. “Whatever, Mom.”
When I reached Jeff’s place, his car was parked on the street. As I ran down the cement stairs to his apartment, I heard music blaring. I didn’t know if this was a good sign.
I banged a couple of times, then used my spare key to unlock the door. Barging in like a fireman, I heard a high-pitched scream.
Jeff was standing a few feet away with a stick in one hand, and the screamer, his blond, blue-eyed girlfriend, was holding on to him like her life depended on it.
“Mom!” Jeff yelled and dropped the stick.
Kelly held on to Jeff even tighter. “I was so scared. We thought someone was breaking in!”
I closed the door and took a deep breath. I was relieved Jeff was OK but surprised to see Kelly there so early.
Jeff broke away to turn the music down, and I followed him.
“When did she get here?” I whispered.
Her well-trained ears heard me from across the room, and she answered for Jeff. “About an hour ago. See, I made breakfast.” She smiled.
I noted the buffet on the table and gave a tight smile back.
“Where did you get a key to my apartment?” Jeff asked, baffled.
“I made it the day you moved in,” I said casually.
“Can I have it? I could use a spare key.”
I pulled it off the macramé key chain Hannah had made in Girl Scouts and reluctantly handed it over. I was sure I saw Kelly roll her eyes.
“Jeff, I thought something terrible had happened to you. Didn’t you hear your phone ring?” I snapped.
“Uh.” He looked to Kelly for assistance, which really bothered me.
“We heard it,” Kelly said.
I purposefully faced Jeff and away from Kelly so he would have to answer my question. “It rang twenty times—at least.”
“I had the ringer turned off, I guess.” He laughed guiltily.
I was sure that was Kelly’s doing.
“Anyway, I’m glad to see you’re OK, Jeff.” I hugged him. “I’ll come by later with some chicken and dumplings.”
“I won’t be here. I’ll be at work.”
“I’ll leave it on your doorstep, and you can have it when you get home tonight.”
He touched my shoulder. “Mom, maybe you should ease up on the meals.”
Since when did Jeff turn down my chicken and dumplings? “Why?”
“You shouldn’t go to all that trouble. You have better things to do.”
This was troubling.
“It would seem to me that leaving food on the doorstep would attract animals,” Kelly said, nosing in on our conversation again.
“Animals. What kind of animals?” I replied, perplexed.
He scrunched his forehead. “Dogs. Skunks. Raccoons.”
“Skunks and raccoons in LA?”
“Sure,” Kelly said, like she was some animal expert.
After a couple of eternal pauses, I said maybe I should go.
There was no objection.
I said good-bye.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall and hear what Kelly had to say.