Poems & Essays

13 Sep

Empty Rooms

In Mother Words Blog 4 Responses


I’m sitting on the floor of my closet on a Tuesday afternoon, crying into the darkness. My back is against the door in case anyone comes searching for me, although I doubt they will—a thought that only brings more tears. As I stretch one hand into the velvety nothing, my fingers brush against my husband’s dress shirts, the ones he launders himself because I once dyed some of his underwear pink. He’s not taking any more chances.

I’m crying in the closet because parts of our house are slowly emptying. Books I once read to our children are disappearing into boxes. Narnia and Goosebumps characters alike are destined to share their cardboard confinement till further notice, quietly suffering the indignity of their proximity to volumes of Captain Underpants. Shelves once filled with cherished collectibles are now bare, carrying only the ghostly imprints of what they once displayed until those too will be wiped clean with a quick swipe of a dust rag. 

Mindlessly carrying an armful of clean clothes into our son’s room, I had stood rooted to the floor, staring at the space where his dresser was supposed to be. In the ritual of daily tasks, the kind you do on autopilot once you’ve been a parent for twenty odd years, the kind that brought order and purpose to my daily life, I’d briefly forgotten that this piece of furniture had been loaded into the car for yet another drive to the studio he will be occupying for the next two years while attending UC Santa Cruz. Gone was the collection of crystals to which we had faithfully added beautifully gleaming bits. Packed away were the tattered tiger paw slippers to which I’d once apologized when I’d tripped over them, certain I’d stepped on our cat. There is a story behind every item in this room, a space carefully crafted and filled with the very essence of its occupant, beginning shortly after he declared that he no longer wished to share a room with his twin sister when they were four years old.      

Disassembling a room is like watching a movie backwards, the plot rewinding and returning us to when it all began—bare walls and naked floor, a blank canvas on which to unfold a life. It takes years to create just the right space in which to dream and grow, as it does to shape the person one eventually becomes. Enveloped in the closet’s darkness I recall the room’s once light blue walls covered in paintings of spaceships and planets, a photo of our then eight year old son’s grinning face in the window of a soaring rocket heading toward the bedroom’s popcorn ceiling. Those blue walls were eventually repainted a deep purple, a perfect backdrop for the black bass guitar he says he’ll learn to play one day. Nerf guns gave way to a collection of burnished swords; Pokemon characters lost their place to anime figurines. Mario the Italian plumber was abandoned in favor of games filled with hulking monsters in need of slaying, disturbing sound effects emanating from a massive computer our son assembled on his own.  Each transition caused a temporary melancholy to wash over me as I watched one scene give way to the next, like a theater curtain coming down before it rises to reveal the next act.

But I was front row center for each of these amazing acts, cheering on and filled with anticipation for the next plot development. And now the one-man cast is relocating, and I must demote myself to the wings, still cheering, still anticipating, but no longer in full view of the stage. Instead, I’m poring over an academic calendar trying to figure out when the show will once again come to town. Because when they’re four and ten and even twenty and living at home, you don’t question whether your children will be sitting at the holiday table with you. You don’t worry whether the university’s quarter system will coincide with the Jewish lunar calendar, whether Hanukkah will fall so ridiculously early that all eight nights of candle lighting will take place during final exams. You don’t entertain the possibility that the kind of life to which you have become accustomed, the production and the role you’ve finally gotten the hang of, will so drastically change.

And I am struck by the magnitude of such a production, the effort and love invested in getting things just right only to face their inevitable loss. Since somewhere in the recesses of my mind I must have known the script would change one day. That it was irrational to expect otherwise. Foolish to believe that the sound of giggling children will forever fill your home, that the laundry basket will always overflow with teenagers’ sweaty socks, that the scent of plum berry nail polish will continue to permeate the halls after your daughter moved out. 

When they began attending preschool, I had three hours, twice a week, to be alone and do as I pleased. An eternity, I thought. Then time away from them stretched even longer as they moved to kindergarten then elementary school, our time apart expanding yet still finite; still filled with tasks revolving around their needs, bringing with them a satisfying predictability no other task afforded. At the end of the day I knew where everyone was, whether they were fed, healthy, and hopefully happy. At the end of the day they all came back to me. 

“You didn’t expect them to live with us forever, did you?” Asked my sweet husband, for whom the changes in our lives seem to come more naturally.

An old friend while sympathetic, said, “You’ve got to let go.”

“Maybe you should foster a dog,” suggested my sister-in-law, her solution to my impending heartbreak. 

“You mean raise it, invest in it, fall in love with it then give it away? Are you nuts?” I practically shrieked.

According to my husband, I’m a control freak.

And if that’s indeed the case, no wonder I’m sitting in a dark closet, wallowing in self-pity, not recognizing what the rational side of my brain is trying to shout over the emotional one. The rational side that is attempting to remind me that just a few years back, I had hoped against all hope that this very thing happening in our family would actually happen. I had sat in the same closet feeling helpless before when our son, newly diagnosed with a chronic illness, fell into a depression so deep I was afraid to look over its edge. A darkness so complete took over my once joyous child that I could see it hovering behind him, hear it whispering in his ear.                                                                                              

There had been no talk then of grand plans and new adventures. No sounds of giggling or victorious monster slaying. Whatever demons he was battling rendered him silent, and all I could do was remind him how much he was loved and what an amazing world waited out there for him to explore. Then I realized that I had been rendered silent as well—too frightened to give voice to what it was he may have been thinking, as though speaking would summon whatever we were all trying to keep at bay. And then I realized that being afraid was not a luxury I could afford. Being afraid was not going to save my son.

My tears subside as I recall this nightmarish period in our lives, the one our son conquered so well that he was now on his way to a fine university, talking about double majors and graduate school and planning his future. And I was missing the opening of this new production by sitting in a closet, worried because my future was changing as well and I didn’t know what kind of role I’d be playing in it. Once again this was not the time for fear, and it was certainly not the time for sadness. In fact, in light of all we had faced and overcome, this new chapter was cause for celebration despite the bitter-sweet note such leave-taking is bound to have. 

Behind me in the house I can hear the phone ring and my son answer.

“Yo dad!” I’d never heard him use that expression, hadn’t heard quite that bright note in his voice for some time. He was excited. On the other end of the line was an employee from the mattress store, confirming the date of a delivery to his new studio. In a few days I’d be watching him marvel over having his own doorbell, unpack those crystals and those slippers, the books and that enormous computer, carefully building the new scenery, setting the stage for his next act. Despite the emptiness he will leave behind and the uncertainty of a future over which I never did really have control, perhaps it’s also time to rewrite the script for mine.

Somewhere under that dark purple paint will forever be my son’s grinning eight-year-old face as he soars skyward. But how wonderful that he found his way beyond that popcorn ceiling. 

Karen Levy is an Israeli-American writer and author of My Father’s Gardens (published 2013, 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee), a memoir about belonging everywhere and nowhere. “Empty Rooms” is about the bitter-sweet experience of watching nearly adult children leave home, a moment we both hope for and dread in equal measure and thus a blessing in disguise. 

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  1. Rachel

    September 13, 2019 at 3:18 pm

    Really beautiful piece.

    • Karen

      September 13, 2019 at 3:30 pm

      Thank you Rachel.

  2. Lisa

    September 17, 2019 at 3:08 pm

    Wow. This piece went straight to the heart of everything for me. I remember the moment I realized–I mean, really understood–that my children would not be with me forever. I had to pull the car over and sob. I still cannot get over the inherent cruelty of motherhood–that we pour our hearts and souls into these lovely beings who are destined to leave us. And that it is our job to make sure they leave us well.
    And yet, it is so worth it.
    Thanks for giving voice to this sentiment. Absolutely beautiful piece.

  3. Karen

    September 18, 2019 at 2:29 pm

    Thank you Lisa. I am so pleased that the piece spoke to you. Yes – “cruelty of motherhood” as well as “so worth it.”




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