A Plague and a Blessing in My Empty Nest

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A week before I took my only daughter to college in another state this fall, our house became infested with fleas. Combined with the impending sense of child loss, it felt like a biblical plague. Bites accumulated around our ankles and feet, and on me at least, seemed to work their way up further every night toward my neck. By the time I dropped her off, we were both riddled with the raised itchy bumps that we have a shared penchant for scratching raw.

Truth: I was dreading coming home. I didn’t know what it would be like to return to my nest, sans child, and I ended up staying on for five nights in her new town. Day after day, I sat in a cafe near her dorm. “Just in case you need anything,” I told her. It was an arrangement that suited us both. She would stop by and we would go out and shop for additional items for her dorm room or just have coffee and talk. She was building up her fortitude for her new independent life. I was building up the fortitude to bear her absence.

Plus, I knew the fleas awaited. Bombing didn’t seem to help. Spraying either. I’d felt like a one-person Monsanto, soaking the house in noxious poisons to rid a natural cycle. Further, someone told me the fleas were onto that stuff, had evolved to a resistance.

When I finally returned home, I found I had acquired a secret weapon. Her name is Reem. She is an Egyptian student at the college where I teach who decided she would rather live in our house than her dorm for her final semester and had moved in, “for the peacefulness.” She told me about her freshman roomie who brought in random guys for sex, played loud music and cut herself. I had a feeling it had gone downhill from there.

Reem soon revealed a talent for the extermination of fleas. Online, she found the “lightbulb-over-dish-of-soapy-water” trick, which produced a gray film of flea corpses each morning that lessened by the day. She also had the patience to remove fleas with a teensy comb from the fur of our cats, dropping their corpses (“another live one!”) into more soapy dishwater. She helped me vacuum and clean, and we bagged up all our blankets and loose clothing for sterilization. It was a pretty monumental undertaking.

At the same time, I was going through the stages of Kubler-Rossian grief. I was sad; I was proud; I was accepting. It wasn’t really happening. Some mornings, when I woke to wake my girl and realized she was gone, her absence was soul-bludgeoning.

I texted her too often that first week (“Stop it!” was her first reply). Then, one afternoon, she wrote me back a longer dispatch: “I. AM. FINE,” she wrote. And then, three minutes later: “I am a college student now.”

I felt the oddest thing reading this — a combination of hurt and happiness in her newly boundaried independence, mixed with a deep pit of loneliness. For 18 years I had lived around our meals and activities, helping her with this and that, driving her here and there. Sewing final snaps on her ballet outfits. Sideline-sitting at the soccer games. Front row at the plays. Now what was I supposed to do?

The answer: Kill fleas with Reem! We schemed away and celebrated small victories. “I think we are getting somewhere,” she would report. I would cheer. Then wake up bejeweled in bites. We weren’t.

One afternoon she texted me: “Tomorrow is Eid al-Adha and I wondered if I could invite over a few Egyptian students for a BBQ.”

“Sure,” I texted back. All of a sudden my full-on latent maternal instincts kicked in. I could buy some cute autumn-themed paper plates and napkins for them, bake cookies. Eid! The celebratory feasting that concludes the holy days of Ramadan, right in my own little Jewish house. It made the giant emptiness feel suddenly, importantly, full.

In the days that followed, I began to self-diagnose myself as clinically depressed. I was on sabbatical. I hardly wanted to get out of bed. What was the point of even getting up? Small tasks like doing dishes seemed monumentally hard. I realized one day I was in my pajamas at 6 p.m. But there was Reem, combing out the fleas from the cats again. Checking the soapy water dishes under the light bulbs. She was so dogged. We became co-conspirators in their demise.

We watched Netflix shows together, and she told me about her family, including a cousin who was “married off to a Saudi” and had to wear a burqa and stay inside. Reem likes wearing jeans and riding her bike all around our little college town. I couldn’t imagine this fate for her.

The days ticked by and the fleas began noticeably receding. One morning I realized I had not gotten a single new bite in several days. The next afternoon my daughter called me from college for the first time. “Hi,” she said, and my lonely heart inflated.

“Hi!” I tried to sound casual. “How is it going?” I had been worried she might not be ready for college or might not like it.

“Good!” she said. She liked her classes but they were challenging. She liked her roommate but she was rarely there. She liked her town and had gone to see a play. She was exploring with new friends. She thought it might be good to make a time to call once a week, and talk.

She was transitioning to her life beyond high school, and yes, beyond me. This was a good, good thing.

Someone had once told me parenting was the only job which, done successfully, eventually fires you. At least from the day-to-day tasks. My sadness began to lift, gently, like a dissipating fog, as I vacuumed, after dusting the rooms with flea powder a final time. I had begun thinking about going to stay with an old friend in California, to do some writing. And maybe Costa Rica, to a small lodge near the Arenal volcano.

“I think we did it!” Reem said, seeing the bagless vacuum cleaner parked in a corner one afternoon.

It was as if a strange storm had passed. I got dressed and went out for a long walk through the autumn light, which was already painting a few southern-exposed maple leaves yellow, and dappling the ground with their shadows.