There are empty nests and there are empty nests. Your wife in Switzerland on a two-week business trip and your son in college 3,000 miles away? That’s a capital E capital N Empty Nest. Thus, it was a few weeks ago that I found myself wearing sweatpants and sporting an unruly beard because, hey, it’s just me and the dog and all that matters to the dog is that I give him food twice a day.
My wife travels to Europe at least four times a year, so this wasn’t my first rodeo. It was, however, my first time since the boy went east. I’d be flying completely solo, save for the dog.
I’d been waiting for this opportunity for years. “No way am I staying home,” I threatened as my wife packed warm clothes for the late-winter Switzerland chill. “No responsibilities? I’ll go on a road trip. I’ll go to Idaho. I’ll go to Oregon. I’ll drive the length of California and sleep in the car.”
I stayed home. The dog. He was counting on me, at least twice a day.
“It’ll be fine,” I told myself, just like before, except that now I won’t have to drive anyone to school or make anyone dinner. I also won’t have anyone to try new pizza places with, or anyone to brazenly eat Oreos with. No one to tell me about their day, no one to ask for advice, no one to suggest a movie to watch on Tuesday. No one but me.
And I work from home: no office, no co-workers, no one to care if I simply skip a shower after working out, no one to say, “Hey, haven’t I seen that T-shirt three times already this week?” No one but me.
It took a few days for reality to set in. I was too busy not making the bed and leaving the toilet seat up to notice how quickly and how far I’d slipped. I scheduled evening outings to force myself to shower and the days flew past. Then came the weekend.
There is the fantasy of “I’m going to binge-watch all of the TV shows I’ve always wanted to watch,” and there is the reality of spending all of Saturday and Sunday sitting in a rocking chair, bearded and wearing sweats, binge-watching TV shows. The fantasy is whimsical: I will finally — finally! — have this time for myself. The reality is not pretty. The second episode of the fourth season of “The Wire” comes to a close. You look outside and notice that it’s dark. The dog is staring at you because his dinner time came and went two hours ago, during episode 12 of season three. You sit almost catatonic, remote in hand, not hungry because you’ve been eating tortilla chips all day, staring at the dog. The next episode is already queued up. His dinner can wait.
Hard as it may be to believe, this wasn’t my nadir. That came two days later while FaceTiming with my wife (Switzerland) and child (college in Pennsylvania). My soul mate’s face appeared on my laptop screen wearing a quizzical expression. “Have you put on weight?” she said.
The next day, Wednesday, I declared myself sane. I went to the gym, took a shower, ironed a shirt and scraped off what I’d been calling my “Switzerland beard.” By the time my wife came back, I at least resembled me, though the me she came home to had two weeks of tough mileage on him along with a few new lessons learned:
First: Even though she works long hours and sometimes we see each other for only a couple of hours a day, that’s way different from being alone for two weeks.
Second: You can FaceTime your college freshman child even if he doesn’t need money. You can just hang out. Through the magic of FaceTime, you can do crossword puzzles together. You can even take walks.
Third: Talk to your dog. Don’t forget his dinner. Fourth: Listen to music and podcasts. And fifth, finally, the most important lesson I learned during two weeks as a castaway in my own home: Next time, don’t stay home. Go to Idaho. Take the dog. Better yet, stowaway to Switzerland. That’s my plan at least, for next time.