Let’s establish one fact before we start: It’s not normal to encounter weeping at a book signing. It’s out of the ordinary for readers to wait until the line has dwindled away to whisper secrets in a trembling voice. Or to have Rob from Fort Worth call in to the very high-toned, NPR-affiliate radio interview to confess, “My marriage fell apart when the kids left,” and to ask if “your guest has any comments.” I’m a novelist. I’m not Dr. Phil dashing about the country orchestrating leaky emotions and ordering the Robs of the world to “get real.” But it seems I’d hit a nerve.
The Gap Year, my eighth novel, came out in early July. A week later, I set out on a seven-city tour. I’ve done book tours before. None like this one. I knew that The Gap Year occupied highly emotional terrain since it is set during that fraught and frenzied time right before the seismic separation of college. (You can witness it yourself right now: We are deep into the Bed, Bath, and Breakdown days when the aisles clog with anxious moms and their college-bound offspring procuring clip-on lamps and X-Long jersey sheets.) I was blindsided, though, not just by the tears, but that my reader-parents believed that I, that any novelist, might have useful advice.
A month before my own son left for college I realized, standing in the frozen-food aisle at the grocery store holding a package of pepperoni pizza Hot Pockets, that this, this package of Hot Pockets was the last I would ever buy. And, with cold mist from the open freezer door swirling around me, I promptly burst into heaving sobs.
How, I’d wondered then, could I be both counting the days until the surly stranger who occupied our sweet son’s bedroom vacated the premises and blubbering because I’d never again buy the vilest of snack foods? In response, I did what most writers do when the going gets tough—I got researching. I discovered memoirs by mothers mourning the empty nest so excessively that they seemed to have baked a bit too much of their identities into their Homeroom Mom cupcakes. On the other end of the scale were sites featuring empty nesters grinning in front of their new Winnebagos and rhapsodizing about being able to have sex anytime, anywhere, now that they’d booted the kids out. The message was that empty-nest syndrome is a myth, and you’re a big loser if you’re not stocking up on K-Y and counting the days until the freeloaders hit the road.
Nothing I found really helped me understand the tsunami of doubts, regrets, and ambivalence that crashed over me, so I bequeathed the whole knotted mess to my single mom heroine, Cam, and her daughter, Aubrey. Which is why I felt as useless as a Winnebago site when readers, eyes welling, voices trembling, began turning to me for actual solutions.
In a suburban bookstore on the furthest outskirts of Dallas, a mother told me some senior-year horror stories about how isolated and alone she’d felt in her circle of Tiger Mom-esque friends because her child was neither interested in nor equipped to go to college. I sympathized; I’d given that exact sense of failure to Cam who had a college-agnostic daughter in a world where your offspring’s college destination turned out to be a referendum on you as a parent. Were you a five-star Ivy League parent? Four-star selective liberal arts college parent? Three-and-a-half star giant state university parent? Fall too far below that and in certain neighborhoods you would be a pariah.
I wished I really were Dr. Phil with some tough love advice to offer when, in other stores, whisperers told me of college years that their kids—almost always boys—had squandered drinking, glued to an X-Box console, missing classes, taking the wrong classes, abandoning one major after another, developing drug habits, cratering after their hearts were broken, pining for a hometown sweetheart, or finding some other creative way to burn through the college fund. In retrospect, an actual gap year would have saved them money and liver damage.
Then came the previews of coming attractions: stories about the graduates who boomerang back home, take root on the couch, and can’t find even a minimum-wage job.
Gradually, it all started feeling as comfortingly familiar as one of the endless sessions I’d had with my mom-friends when our kids were little and we shared difficulties with teething and potty-training, bullying and braces. Then some of us moved beyond the community-property problems that used to bind us together and into territory that wasn’t covered in any of the What to Expect books. Our children’s struggles became the struggles of the unique, almost-adult humans they were turning into and sharing them felt like a breach of trust, a betrayal. But, Lord, we still yearned for that support. Even if it was just whispering to a visiting novelist who’d told a story that sounded a bit like our own, and even if she still had many more questions than answers.
With that awareness, all the secret sharers made sense to me. Even the ones whose children were marching happily through the college years, even the parents whose only secret was how sad they were. Moms teared up when I read how Cam, crushed by regrets, felt her daughter’s childhood slipping away like coins falling from a torn pocket, but the most devastated were the rare handful of dads I met. Especially the one I befriended after an event at the Houston Public Library who admitted that his daughter’s departure had left him bereft and bewildered.
Groping for an adequate response to the obvious depth of what could only be called sorrow, I repeated the truism that had been tossed my way one too many times, “They’re not gone. They always come back.”
Too late I realized that I’d put this “wisdom” into my book specifically to annoy my heroine with its trite oversimplification. Even as I was praying that he hadn’t already read the novel he held out for me to sign, he answered, “Yeah, but do they come back as sweet-smelling newborns?”
He quoted my book to me. I’d given my heroine the exact comeback that I myself had stifled a few times in the face of such cheap comfort. After that, all I could say was what every parent, finally accepts—no matter if your child left for Stanford or Iraq, or if you’re sweeping dishes off the kitchen table for some uninterrupted sex, or weeping in the frozen food aisle, or, even if you’re a dad in a novel who’s realized he missed his daughter’s entire childhood: “No, they don’t. That part is over.”