I had a window seat, so I took in the view as we flew north from Phoenix. Suddenly the all-beige, all-the-time Arizona landscape began ripping itself into accordion pleats: red, gold, ivory, green, with a sugar dusting of snow. I didn’t know what it was. Then I did: the Grand Canyon, right there below my wingside window, sashaying across the desert like a Flamenco dancer.
I’ve only visited once. We were on a summer road trip with our kids, seven and ten at the time, which put us smack in the middle of those years when, as a parent, you feel the same sort of immortality young people feel about life in general: This will never end. Being parents like this, with our children always with us, in the car, in the tent, on the Bright Angel trail? This is our life. Forever.
On this flight, on my way home from visiting my dad and stepmom in Phoenix, I am realizing that they in their seventies and we in our fifties now have a huge life experience in common: the empty nest.
You know I try hard not to use the words “empty” and “nest” together too often—but sometimes it can’t be helped. Empty. Nest.
My dad and stepmom love their desert life, their tennis, golf, bridge, friends. They’ve never felt the need to over-meddle in our lives or in the lives of their grandchildren. But that visceral charge you get from being physically near your own offspring? That doesn’t go away. It’s still there at 54 and it’s still there at 77.
Here’s what it looks like, Night One at Dad’s house in Phoenix: Dad’s excited about seeing me. He can’t stop talking. He asks me about my life, but can’t resist jumping in when I’m in mid-sentence. He feels celebratory and keeps the wine flowing, later and more plentifully than is really a good idea for any of us. He keeps the conversation zigging and zagging from football to car insurance to politics. He’s conservative, I’m liberal, and we’re used to sparring, but I bristle when he starts a sentence with the words, “YOU probably think…” He pulls back and apologizes. The next day he jokes about it, which is his way of apologizing some more.
Note to my children: anything sound familiar here? The talking too much, the asking of the wrong questions and forgetting the right ones, the flowing wine, the seminars on subjects you love, like insurance?
I had a rueful but satisfying private laugh when I thought about it later. It’s good to have those mortifying, humbling realizations now and then; those moments when you must acknowledge: yes, I am becoming my parent. It actually makes me feel closer to my dad. Sympathetic. We share something: that visceral, parental something.
Here I am 54, and my Dad still feels that something about me, the way I feel it about my kids. The way I savor their presence just as completely as I took it for granted and thought it would last forever, back in the tent on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. You never do see the big picture when you’re in the middle of it.
This Thanksgiving, pretend you’re in a plane, looking down on the dining table, crowded with people you love. It’s startling, isn’t it? How strikingly unique and beautiful it is: like your own Grand Canyon, rippling through your life.
There will be storms; there will be turbulence. But you wouldn’t ever want to miss it. Or expect anyone around the table, in their joy at being together, to do it all just right.