86: Richie

86: Richie

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers


Never be afraid to sit awhile and think.

~Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

Empty nesters—the baby boomers, alone at last. Somehow, empty and alone did not happen for my wife and myself. And in many ways, though there is sadness attached to this alternate reality, something good has emerged.

I recently read about what it means to be back under the watchful eye of your parents from the point of view of several recent college graduates. Let me tell you the story from my perspective.

My son is now 30, and he is brilliant. There is no other way of describing his intellectual capabilities. At two, he could pick up a record, find the cut on the album that he enjoyed, and put the needle to the appropriate sound. At six, he was teaching 10-year-olds in his elementary school about the latest on the computer. He wrote music and words for a song for his fifth-grade play. He graduated near the top of his class, had an outstanding academic career at Dartmouth, and was a star in his graduate program in public policy at Berkeley.

And he has spent the past five years, from the moment he called to say he was too sick to finish the last term of his studies and took a plane home, in the bedroom down the hall from myself and my wife.

This is not easy to write about, and it makes me feel a bit irritated with those young graduates who good-naturedly grouse about the difficulties they have in finding a world not ready, willing or able to accept them. But this is not about responding to them, nor about pitying myself or my son. This is rather about the benefit that has come from his unexpected return.

You see, empty and alone connotes that there is something missing. And what my son, in his mid-twenties and in his diminished physical state, brought back into our lives was an intellectual curiosity and questioning. Events of the world that seemed to swirl around my life without focus suddenly started to have meaning. Here was a young man, with all his passion for those who have been trampled in the rush of the few and the privileged to reach the top of the food pyramid. Here was my son, making me turn my attention to all that was wrong in so many arenas. Here was this young mind, challenging me to take issue with a world that had lost its compass. For you see, my son brought to me the gift of compelling me to think.

As my intellectual horizons broadened upon my son’s insistence, I found that I took a real interest in exploring parts of our universe—and my own mind, which had long been ignored. The sports pages no longer were the only focus. Soon, the news and opinion pages took center stage. My discussions with my son, while often still about the Yankees, more and more centered on matters that mattered in more fundamental ways. And I began to write about my reactions to the world around me.

Now I write almost every day. It is a role that I could never have fathomed and never would have taken on had illness not forced the return of my son to a nest he wanted nothing more than to abandon. And while he acts as my in-house editor, and responds with the most gentle of criticism to my less stellar efforts, my son’s “this one is good, this is very good” is for me the sweetest of all sounds.

There is much more bad than good in watching a son turn 30 under your watchful eye, in a bedroom intended for many things other than his permanent residence. He can and should be spending the incredible gifts he was given on a world that could sorely use his skills and his passion. I know that each day he hopes and waits to feel the pain disappear, the strength to return to his muscles, and the weight that so mysteriously and dramatically dropped to as mysteriously and dramatically return. And maybe tomorrow will be that day. And there will be no happier moment for his mom and me than waving goodbye as he begins a life that has been placed on hold.

But if and when he does leave, it will be a sad time, too. For I have grown to be a more complete and mature person because of his presence. I have discovered things about myself that make each day of my life more full and interesting. So while I curse the fates that have been unkind to my son, I also thank them. I wish nothing more for my son than good health and a productive life, but I will be forever grateful for his unexpected return that made an empty nest much fuller.

~Robert Nussbaum

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