The miles flew by in virtual silence as Mom and Dad drove home after dropping my baby sister at college. Of course she was no baby at 18, but as the youngest in the family she will always be the baby-even now at 43 with two children of her own.

They pulled into the driveway of their Westerville home and a gloomy cloud hung over them. Mom got as far as the doorway before she turned around and said to my father,

"It's too quiet. I can't go in there." They went to the Ohio State Fair that night and stayed until it closed. My mom, who didn't even like restaurants without linen tablecloths, went to the dusty fair and walked for hours to avoid her empty nest.

I know how she felt. I have four children and one by one they are leaving. Only one of my daughters remains at home. She is my last chance to be entirely essential. I try to accommodate her. Each morning as I wake her for another day of her sophomore year in high school I am aware that I come closer to my own empty nest.

Emily sleeps in a wad of covers. She never wants the bed made and tucked in. She swears she prefers to wallow around in it all until she has made a snuggery of blankets and sheets.

"Emmy Lou, wakey-uppy," I singsong. I know she's 16, driving and well on her way to being a full-fledged woman, but she's still my baby and darn it, she's hard to wake up. "What'll you have for breakfast? Toast? Cereal? Eggs? Oatmeal?" I ask.

"Mmmm, Idontknow," comes the mumble from her face still buried in a pillow. I know she'll never jump right up, so I detour into my office and login to my Facebook account. Maybe Becca put up some new photos last night.

Becca. The third daughter that left our nest-I miss her so much. She is in downtown Chicago at a college with dorm rooms the size of closets. When I saw the ancient mattresses with cracked plastic coverings, I wanted to herd her right back out the door, into the van and home to her own room. But, of course, no such thing happened. She didn't care about her sleeping quarters. Or fancy food, or safety. She was there to begin her journey to save the world. And I'm pretty sure she will someday-save the world, that is.
There are no new photos uploaded so I click open the blog my daughters and I share in an effort to stay better connected. Each week one of us chooses a topic based on our favorite things and then we all write based on that theme. Last week I wrote about a night I remember when they were all in one room on vacation and I sang them to sleep with Christmas carols. It is a moment forever etched in my mind. Powerful and sweet. Becca made the following comment to my post:

September 4, 2008 11:19 PM
from your experience, is life full of a lot of those "will that ever happen again" moments? -b

My response:

September 5, 2008 6:40 AM
My life is full of very little else these days. It is all passing so quickly.

"Hey! Did you hear me?" I yell, this time from the bottom of the stairs. "Your toast is now getting cold!" As soon as I hear her feet thumping down, I lift the now lukewarm toast from its roost on top of the toaster and set it on the table. I sigh and wonder how many other American families have a similar routine. And I think how much I must treasure this in my heart. Soon she will be gone as well.

The ride to school has become a time to anticipate. I discovered several years ago during construction on the road to school that car time was to be coveted. I have never taken for granted the time I can spend alone with my girls. We connect in those solitary, exclusive stretches.

The morning rush is over and all they can do is sit while we travel. I cherish it. The dashing about begins again soon enough. At the front of the school I watch as Emily gathers her school bag, sports bag, lacrosse stick and lunch. My heart sticks in my throat and I gulp it down in order to say, "I love you. See you at the game.

" She looks too small and sweet to go into such a large place alone, but she squares her shoulders and strides off with a confidence I never felt as a kid. I'm so proud and full of wonder. This empty nest syndrome must actually start during the high school years of the last kid to leave. I see Emily become more and more independent and I feel less and less vital. I find myself pushing back against the rising struggle in my heart to let her go and decide to celebrate the time we have left.

Arriving back at the house I sit again in the quiet of the car and finish my cup 'o joe-taking a few moments to shift from Mom to whatever else I will be today. I take care to ease into the shift so I can savor the time I just spent with Emily-I know it is fleeting.

I think when our oldest daughter Cynthia left for college I was so caught up in the excitement-and let's admit it, I still had three children at home-I missed seeing her, but I wasn't terribly sad. She's been gone for seven years, but she is the best at keeping in touch with me. This morning I got a text (at 5 a.m.!) that she had just delivered a baby! In her third year of medical school and doing her rotations, she still finds time to toss me a text or two a day. I love that girl. It's hard to imagine there were times in her life when I wondered how she would turn out.
Last summer, I cried for a week after Katherine got married-she was our second daughter to leave the house for good. Seriously sobbed. I'd be driving down familiar roads when a thick grief would descend and tears would drip from my cheeks and chin onto my "mom shirts"-plain and easily watermarked-evidence of my unexpected sadness.

The wedding had been especially joyful: a big party for everyone. Katherine is fun-plain and simple-not necessarily because she's funny (that's Emily), but because she enjoys everything with abandon and laughs so much. So why did I cry?

I cried because well, I'm not sure why. Was it because I would miss her? Yes, I would. But in truth, Katherine hadn't been "home" for years. She flew the coop in her own mind when she was 16 and by the time she left for college, I knew she was truly gone. Did I cry because I have a hard time letting go? Probably. Okay, definitely. Katie Anna was moving on without me.

A few weeks ago we were in Nashville to visit Katherine and her new husband. She showed us around her office at the Country Music Hall of Fame and then she and I headed toward her car--a sporty little thing with low tires and smallish seats into which I did not easily fit. I envied her ease as she slid in quickly with nary a grunt. I nearly envied her life, full and important in front of her with options on all sides, so unlike mine, which was growing shorter and full of physical discomforts. My knees are not quite what they used to be and my fingers have a sore twinge now and then. But it's my arms that are the worst. They ache to wrap around my girls.

My beautiful daughters have grown up sooner than I planned. I have gotten absorbed in their history, as if life happened to me without my awareness. But beneath the surface, I am undergoing and embracing this major life shift. In spite of my sadness at letting them go, being a mother is an adventure I will never regret. Although I have close ties with each of my daughters, I'm not the helicopter parent you hear about now and then: the one who hovers even after the kids have flown the coop. I would never wish to hold them back or make them small again-in any way.

I feel no pressure to dance into a new exciting romantic life with my husband and get going with my new free time. I think I will wait this out and see what emerges. I will watch expectantly as daughters flourish and thrive. I have a secret suspicion; I may bloom a bit as well.