It’s October 10, 2010, exactly four years after the day that Katie was admitted to the hospital for the first time, and diagnosed with cancer. The doctors didn't know what kind of cancer it was (it was over four months before they were sure), but they knew that it was advanced. She had a huge tumor, which had grown throughout her abdomen without symptoms, and which was considered life-threatening from the day it was discovered. Four years ago, our lives changed completely: we left our quiet family life and entered the world of "special needs," of hospital and Ronald McDonald House living, chemo, "momcology," surgery, intensive care, and then, hospice and grief. It all began on this day, four years ago.
Fast forward to the present: our son has been away from home (at university) for six weeks. This has been a time of refreshment for me and my husband, as well as a time of adjustment. The “empty nest” is not feeling empty, so far. For sure, we miss our son, and the house is not as full of activity as it used to be, but we receive regular text messages and telephone calls from him, and he is doing well. I had anticipated that the quietness in the house would exacerbate our grief for Katie (she would have been starting 10th grade this year), yet Gregg and I are finding new rhythms in our life together, and so far, they are good. I thought I’d highlight a few of them, in case you are facing a similar adjustment to a new season in life.
Sleep issues & medical check-up – my husband was snoring horribly loudly at night during the past six months. The lack of unbroken sleep was wearing me down (oddly, his snoring didn’t awaken him). We know there are times when broken sleep is unavoidable (such as when we were in the hospital with Katie for weeks at a time) but this isn’t one of those times. I was able to persuade Gregg to see his doctor, and found that he hadn’t had a regular check-up in five years! That’s way too long, especially under the circumstances – he just turned 55. His doctor didn’t even know that our daughter had passed away. So when the question arose, Has there been any stress or depression in your life?, Gregg had some things to tell the doctor, and he did tell him. I’m very grateful for this.
The doctor sent Gregg to a sleep specialist, and we learned about some easy things to do to improve the situation. He is now sleeping on a wedge-shaped pillow, and has stopped snoring. It was also suggested that he try to nap during the weekends (good for both of us) and lose some weight (also good for both of us).
Lose weight – the weight-loss suggestion turned me again to the South Beach Diet concept. I am not recommending this diet; I personally love the simplicity of the recipes, and the way the foods are put together, but being me, I didn’t follow the directions to the letter (we skipped the first phase altogether). We have both lost a bit of weight, and we feel better. We are preparing our dinners together (it doesn’t take long, and is a good time to chat), and discussing what we’d like to make before going grocery shopping. An unexpected benefit is the fact that we are enjoying our meals more, and noticing the color, texture and flavor of our food more intensely. The simple pleasure of enjoying food together has been enhanced.
Time together – we have been “dating” as we used to do before we had children. It feels odd, because I keep thinking, “Don’t we have to be back at home for something?” when it gets toward late afternoon, but we are free. Most of what we do is free-of-charge, as we are big walkers. We’ve taken spur-of-the-moment excursions to places we haven’t visited in years, and it’s been fun. We have also taken time to discuss some difficulties that need attention. That isn’t fun, but it’s helpful and necessary to maintaining a healthy relationship. Spending time together facilitates that.
On-line “retreat” – a group of bereaved moms who I met through blogging have decided to share an online retreat. We all purchased the same book (“Open the Door” by Joyce Rupp), and agreed to work through it together as a spiritual study. We opened a private blog where all four of us can journal in response to each day’s reading, and share comments. It has a flexible format, so if one of us is away or too busy to write, it’s not a problem. I don’t have to dress up or get in a car in order to “attend.” This is a gift, as I have missed my Lectionary class, where I used to share this kind of study in our church community, before Katie got sick. New insight and encouragement have arisen.
The next step – I have been listening for the next step: what am I to do now?A part-time job has appeared – one which I can do from home, with flexible hours. And my next writing project has appeared. I am thankful for both of these opportunities to use what I’ve been given, and to contribute to the family income, in a gentle transition from full-time mom and homemaker to “empty-nester.”
Maybe we should call it an “open-nest” instead of “empty-nest.” The nest is still open, still welcoming – it’s just not full of kids and their activities. It’s a new season.
Karen Gerstenberger blogs at www.karengberger.blogspot.com , and is the president of Katie's Comforters Guild at Seattle Children's Hospital, a blanket-making guild that brings comfort to patients (in memory of her daughter, Katie).