I wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of the baby crying. My beautiful dream of floating on a yacht in the French Riviera fades out as the wailing becomes louder and louder, like an incoming emergency vehicle. My wife pushes me toward the edge of the bed. “It’s your turn,” she insists. “Get up and see what he wants.” I am wide awake before it suddenly dawns on me: We don’t have a baby anymore! I realize the windows are open in the warm fall night and the crying is coming from the next-door neighbor’s baby. We haven’t had a baby in our house for 18 years; our third and last just went off to college. We are empty nesters. We are free!
But although my logical mind knows that the children are all gone, I keep having unsettling incidents. I am about to go down to the TV room in the basement when I catch a whiff that makes me suddenly afraid. Is that the smell of teenage boys? Are my son’s friends sleeping over on the basement couches again? I go down the stairs dreading finding them sacked out in sleeping bags in all corners of the room, some killing each other with video controllers, others spilling drinks and spreading a layer of tortilla chip crumbs all over the furniture and floor. Who’s gonna clean up this mess?! But when I flick on the light, the room is spotless and still smells like the disinfectant cleaner that we’ve used to try to bury the odors of mildewed towels, discarded sweaty socks, and overripe pieces of uneaten fruit. The TV remote is on the coffee table, right where I left it, not buried under a random seat cushion or flung into a corner with a pile of game cartridges. The chair is in its desired place and not part of some total rearrangement of furniture necessary for a multiplayer computer game. The TV turns on with the push of a button, and doesn’t require me to try to decipher several new pieces of electronic gear that have been configured in order to steal movies from some Russian website, or plug in synthesizers so that the kids can jam with a band from Sweden.
I can’t get used to this feeling of calm. I’m sure some sort of hell is going to break loose at any second. The front door is going to swing open and ten teenagers are going to come stomping in, covered with mud from a soccer game, ready to raid my refrigerator, track dirt all over my carpet, take over the dining room for an all-night game of Magic: The Gathering, and pump up the volume on my stereo so loud with old Santana albums that my speakers blow out again, followed shortly by my eardrums.
But when I go back upstairs for a snack, the kitchen is spotless, the food I bought at the store today is still pristine in their containers, the sink isn’t filled with dirty dishes, the garbage isn’t overflowing with empty pizza boxes and takeout Chinese containers.
Still I can’t shake this feeling. I hear phantom voices yelling, “He hit me!” “She started it!” “Dad, make him give it back!” “Did not!” “Did, too!” “Did not!” “Did, too …” I’ve been a parent for nearly the last 30 years, more than half my life. I can’t remember what it’s like not to be constantly on-call, on patrol, ready for anything to happen in my house. There might be toys to trip over on the stairs, sporting equipment thrown in my path at random angles to break my toes on, escaped turtles to step on, or squawking parrots flying at me from a bedroom. There might be sneak attacks from any angle or younger brothers tied to a tree in the backyard, screaming for help and vengeance when they hear my car door slam in the driveway.
I have always been the judge of last appeal, like Solomon the Wise, and the whole family awaits me to decide the fate of the kid who glued his sister’s science project to the wall, or stole his brother’s Halloween candy. They wait to beg me to allow them to sleep over at Jack’s house, or urgently rush to buy treats for tonight’s Little League game. They run screaming to show me the blood from their latest fall, or to have me repair their irreparable kite or toy car that’s chewed to bits by the dog.
I have always been the one on guard to make sure they didn’t run in front of a car, or fall out a window, or cut their sister’s hair off while she was napping. I’ve been the one to put childproof locks on all the cabinets to make sure they don’t stick poison in their mouths or eat the cat food. I’ve been on guard and on duty for 30 years — how can I stop now? The war is over, the battle has been won and victory is ours, but I can’t shake this feeling that something is about to happen and I have to be ready to fix it, or coach it, or direct it, or clean it before it’s too late.
It’s just too damn quiet around here. Quiet just gets my hackles up. Whenever it’s this quiet, I know those kids are up to something. I begin prowling around the house, looking for them. Where are they hiding? Are they out behind the garage with a stolen pack of cigarettes? Have the teenagers gotten into my wine cellar and are chugging a bottle of expensive Bordeaux?
I see that it’s already 8 a.m. and I jump up from the breakfast table and run over to the stairs and start yelling up to my youngest son to wake up or he’ll be late for school. My wife has to come over to shake me out of it and remind me he’s gone off to college. I wonder if he even misses me. I suppose I could call his cell phone and wake him up to find out.