NOTIONS: An empty nest fills with memories

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Last Sunday morning, I awoke before dawn. Dreading what was to come, I lingered in bed, watching the gray light of a cloudy morning illuminate the houses across the way.

Around 7:30, I worked up the energy to get out of bed. I took a shower, popped my morning meds, and headed downstairs.

As is their teen-age wont, both my boys were still asleep. So I retrieved The Star and The New York Times from the driveway and glanced through the headlines while I made and ate breakfast.

The Times carried a front-page piece about the difficulties of being a patient in today’s health care system. The Star reported on the Colts’ loss to the Buffalo Bills in a preseason football game. I chuckled at the comic strip “Opus,” which poked fun at the public’s lack of sympathy for my fellow scribes.

Just before 10, I was finishing The Times crossword puzzle when I heard Austin wake up and start the shower.

“Here we go,” I thought. And, indeed, when he emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, his hair still damp, it began.

Load after load, we carried the boys’ belongings to the car. We wedged Austin’s stereo speakers behind the driver’s and passenger’s seats of the little Saturn sedan, then packed duffle bags full of clothing all around.

The stereo receiver, CD player and Zach’s camera equipment fit neatly in the trunk. Then we filled the back-seat gaps with assorted bundles of playing cards, board games, Frisbees, Sports Illustrated and other trifles of teendom.

We’d just finished loading the car when Zach appeared. He quickly downed a couple of Krispy Kremes, and asked if everything was packed. We told him it was, and razzed him for missing all the fun.

Standing in the brightly lit kitchen, we shared a few awkward, not-sure-what-tosay moments. Finally, I thanked Austin and Zach for spending the summer with me. I told them it meant a lot to me at a difficult time. They thanked me for having them, and we exchanged our hugs.

Then we walked outside, and they climbed into their car, and I waved and waved as they drove north up Senate Avenue toward the highway.

For most parents, having the kids around during the summer is the normal course of affairs.

But for a long-distance, non-custodial parent, it’s an anomaly.

And for a long-distance, non-custodial parent who’s also a 47-year-old widowerof-five-months, it’s an eight-week blessing of sounds in the house, and someone to worry about, and someone to care where you are, and how you’re doing and when you’re coming home for dinner.

A few weeks before she died, my wife Pam said, “I don’t want to ruin the house for you.” She imagined herself riddled with cancer, laced with painkillers, lying in some hospital rent-a-bed in Austin’s first-floor room. And she figured we’d never want to live in this place with such memories.

By dying suddenly and painlessly, Pam spared herself, and all of us, that dreaded vision. Yet by merely living here, in everyday mundaneness, she and my sons have filled this house (this home) with memories that could, depending on the choices I make, elicit madness, or solace or joy.

Having been an every-other-weekend daddy for 15 years; having experienced the bliss of Friday-evening reunions and the agony of Sunday-night separations; I watch “normal,” full-time families-in the mall, at the park, walking downtown-with hopes that they never take for granted the blessing of everyday togetherness.

Having been passionately in love, and having lost it all, I watch young and old couples-dining at restaurants, driving down the road, strolling along the Central Canal-with prayers that they gaze into one another’s eyes, each and every day, and thank God for the gift of one another.

After my sons left last weekend, I spent the day doing what widower dads do-washing sheets and towels, socks and underwear; straightening up the kids’ rooms; restocking the groceries ravaged by ravenous teens.

My house was silent again, as it was in the loneliest days and months after Pam’s death.

But through waves of summer memory, I could hear Coldplay blasting on Austin’s stereo. And see Zach shooting enemy troops on a computer game in the basement. And walk with my boys across the IUPUI campus for lunch at Qdoba.

That night, in the dark and quiet living room, I could still see us playing board games with my parents. Monday morning at breakfast, we were still playing euchre ’round the dining room table. And as I closed the door on our empty abode and walked through the courtyard toward work, I could still see Zach and Austin tossing the Frisbee to and fro.

No, Baby, you didn’t ruin the house for us. We’re still making memories here. And your boys did you proud this summer, taking care of their lonely dad.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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