Our normally chaotic household of five has been reduced to a family of three this week. It has been so very odd, and so unusually quiet, with Eli in Florida with his grandparents and Zach away at camp. Poor little Jonah keeps toddling around, asking for his "Zzzat" and "E-la-la" and I know he must be wondering where the heck they vanished to. Of course, not even two yet, he doesn't understand their absence.
The experts tell us that toddlers can understand 20 times the number of words they can say. Since Jonah says around 80 different things, I suppose he can understand thousands of words and maybe on some level, he does comprehend that he'll see his beloved brothers again in a few days?
Regardless, I know I'll be glad to get back to our usual craziness. I miss feeling the energetic presence of my older boys. Even when they're holed up in their room, playing video games, I can still feel that they're here. And the house feels so empty without them.
My husband has had a particularly rough time of it, as this is the first time we've ever had both older boys away from home at once. Several times since we dropped Zachary at camp Sunday, Donnie has commented, "I don't know if I'm going to let this happen again."
He said it again last night as he did the dishes, although then there was a practical reason for missing his sons. He and I never do the dishes anymore, having delegated that chore to the boys ages ago.
I've had to pick up their chores as well, feeling their absence when I have to feed the pets morning and night, when the dog needs letting out, and when I'm trying to work and there's no one here to entertain Jonah for half an hour.
I don't just miss the work they do.
Right now I'd love to hear a silly knock-knock joke or get a fierce, skinny-armed hug from my 9-year-old. I might even welcome a sigh and eye-rolling from my teenager, which is bound to come if he ever reads this.
On the long drive home from camp, as Jonah dozed, Donnie and I talked about the reality of having an empty nest someday, and how fast our kids are growing up. In just a few years, it won't be a matter of Donnie deciding if our older sons can be away from home at the same time - they just will be. And realizing how much we love them and how much we dread that day, well - it was really all quite depressing.
This week has been a sample taste of what we're raising them for. After all, we don't raise kids to have kids forever - we bring them up in the hope that someday, they will leave home. It's our goal that we end up with confident, strong adults who can stand on their own two feet, independent of their parents.
So we have to encourage times like this, even if these separations make our tender mama-and-daddy hearts ache a little - or a lot.
I couldn't decide if I wanted to smile or cry when Zach wanted to hurriedly usher us out the door of his cabin. All last week, he couldn't talk about anything else but getting to camp. When we arrived, a group of his friends called out of the window, "Zach is here! Zach's here!" and he eagerly joined them as they ran off into the woods like a pack of gangly-legged, pimpled puppies.
And I realized how much my boy has matured since his timid little preschool days, when he cried each morning as I dropped him off. Sunday was one of those moments where I figured we must've done something right as his parents, for him to feel so confident this first time away from home without family nearby.
This morning I cuddled my little Jonah, thankful that my youngest son pushes back the time that we'll face a truly empty nest. Raising them up, then letting them go - it's what parents are supposed to do. But oh, how precious and very fleeting are these childhood years.