My children are just entering adolescence, so it surprised me that I had such a visceral reaction to this article about “the empty nest.” It made me realize that these days – right here, right now – with my children are absolutely precious and fleeting.
Whatever you think of Dr. James Dobson, I think you will agree that this piece he wrote many years ago is a beautiful picture of a parent’s loving relationship with his child. Enjoy.
“I’d like to revisit a letter that I wrote some time ago when my own son, Ryan, left home for college. His older sister had taken the same journey several years earlier, which meant that Ryan’s departure officially qualified Shirley and me as ‘empty nesters.’ As you will see, that experience made a profound impact on me.
James Ryan was my boy–the only son I would ever be privileged to raise. What a joy it was to watch him grow and develop and learn. How proud I was to be his father–to be trusted with the well-being of his soul. I put him to bed every night when he was small, and we laughed and we played and we talked to Jesus. I would hide his sister’s stuffed animals around the house, and then we turned out the lights and hunted them with flashlights and a toy rifle. He never tired of that simple game. But the day for games has passed.
This morning, you see, marked the official beginning of the “empty nest” for Shirley and me…Though I knew this moment was coming for many years, and I had helped others cope with similar experiences, I admit freely that Ryan’s departure hit me hard. For the past two weeks, we have worked our way through a massive accumulation of junk in his room. Ryan is a collector of things no one else would want–old street signs, broken models and favorite fishing rods. The entire family took tetanus shots and we plunged into the debris. Finally last night, Shirley and Ryan packed the remaining boxes and emptied the last drawer. The job was finished. His suitcases were packed. Our son was ready to go.
Ryan came into my study about midnight, and we sat down for another of the late-night chats that I have cherished. He always liked to talk at the end of the day. I won’t tell you what we said in that final conversation. It is too personal to share with anyone. I can only say that the morning came too quickly, and we drove as a family to the airport.
There I was, driving down the freeway when an unexpected wave of grief swept over me. I thought I couldn’t stand to see him go. It was not that I dreaded or didn’t look forward to what the future held. No, I mourned the end of an era–a precious time of my life when our children were young and their voices rang in the halls of our house.
I couldn’t hide the tears as we hugged good-bye at Gate 18. Then Shirley and I drove along to our home, where a beloved son and daughter had grown from babies to young adults. There I lost it again!
The house that we had left three hours earlier in a whirlwind of activity had been transformed in our absence. It had become a monastery–a morgue–a museum. The silence was deafening to us both. Every corner of it held a memory that wafted through the air. I meandered to Ryan’s room and sat on the floor by his bed. His crib had once stood on that spot. Though many years had passed, I could almost see him as a toddler–running and jumping to my open arms. What a happy time that was in my life. The ghost of a kindergartner was there, too, with his brand-new cowboy clothes and his Snoopy lunch pail. Those images are vivid in my mind today. Then a 7-year-old boy appeared before me. He was smiling, and I noticed that his front teeth were missing. His room was filled with bugs and toads and a tarantula named Pebber. As I reached out to hug him, he quietly disappeared. Then a gangly teenager strolled through the door and threw his books on his desk. He looked at me as if to say, “Come on, Dad. Pull yourself together!”
If you’re thinking that I am hopelessly sentimental about my kids, you’re right. The greatest thrill of my life has been the privilege of raising them day-by-day in the service of the Lord. Still, I did not expect such intense pain at the time of Ryan’s departure. I thought I was prepared to handle the moment, but I quickly realized just how vulnerable I am to the people I love.
In a larger sense, however, it is not merely the end of formal parenting that has shaken my world today. I grieve for the human condition itself. When Ryan boarded that plane in Los Angeles, I comprehended anew the brevity of life and the temporary nature of all things. As I sat on the floor in his room, I heard not only Ryan’s voice but the voices of my mother and father who laughed and loved in that place. Now they are gone. One day Shirley and I will join them. First one and then the other. We are just “passing through,” as the gospel songwriters used to say.
All of life boils down to a series of happy “hellos” and sad “good-byes.” Nothing is really permanent, not even the relationships that blossom in a healthy home. In time, we must release our grip on everything we hold dear. King David said it best, “As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone;” (Psalm 103:15-16). Yes. I felt the chilly breeze of change blowing through my home this morning, and I understood its meaning.
Addressing myself now to the mothers and fathers of young children, I urge you to keep this eternal perspective in view as you race through the days of your lives. Don’t permit yourselves to become discouraged with the responsibilities of parenting. Yes, it is an exhausting and difficult assignment, and there are times when you will feel like throwing in the towel. But I beg you to stay the course! Get on your knees before the Lord and ask for His strength and wisdom. Finish the job to which He has called you! There is no more important task in living, and you will understand that assignment more clearly when you stand where Shirley and I are today. In the blink of an eye, you will be hugging your children good-bye and returning to an empty house.”