Empty Nest Redux

Susie crossed the threshold from childhood to adulthood (except, of course, that she can’t legally celebrate this rite of passage with a drink)a week ago today.  She turned 18, and I fêted her with plenty of Italian food at The Florentine.  She was ecstatic when I presented her with her gifts: A DVD of the first season of Gravity Falls and a stuffed Waddles the Pig toy.  The owner (who knew us from when we lived in Franklinton) surprised both of us with complimentary birthday cake.

And yet it was a bittersweet birthday.  Yesterday, Susie returned to Florida.  She is going to be there indefinitely.  The reasons are many.  Her job search has been less than successful here in Ohio.  She wants to learn to drive, which is not impossible here, but much more of a nuisance and a hindrance when living with a parent who doesn’t have a license.  A local theater group took her on as a stage manager for an upcoming play–an unpaid position which would require committing to many nights and weekends–and then dropped out, 100% out of the blue.  Also, Steph has had some health issues that will probably continue for the foreseeable future.  All of this combined to make Susie decide that she should be in Brevard County and not here in Columbus.

It speaks for itself.  Snoopy is entirely correct here.

It speaks for itself. Snoopy is entirely correct here.

I sank into a depression that I was afraid would get dangerous once Susie let me know of her decision.  I was able to keep it at bay by giving myself a Susie-related project–planning my trip to Florida for the Christmas holiday.  I spent most of the morning juggling Megabus’ and Greyhound’s Websites, trying to figure out how I could cheaply get to Merritt Island for Christmas.  My pride at managing to buy bus tickets for a total of about $25 ($1 from Columbus to Atlanta by Megabus, and about $16.50 and tax from Atlanta to Titusville via Orlando) improved my spirits.

An old friend of mine recently blogged about the experience of becoming a father-in-law for the first time, a lengthy meditation that came from his recent road trip from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania and back for his oldest child’s wedding.  It is indeed a milestone, although I suspect it’s far in the future for me.  Until the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling this June (granting same-sex couples the right to marry), there had even been the distinct possibility that father-in-lawhood would be something I would never experience.

I am brutally self-analytical enough to realize that my initial reaction whenever Susie has elected to spend an extended period of time in Florida instead of with me is selfish.  The father in me kicks in and that point and I realize that it’s not about me, or about Steph.

One time at work, I overheard two co-workers gossiping, and I was thrilled and proud to hear one of them say, “And you know Paul.  It’s all Susie with him!”  When Susie decided to finish high school in Merritt Island, and let me know of this decision when she returned from Romania, I realized just how much my identity was wrapped up in being a single parent to a teenaged girl.

The thought of raising a child alone terrified me, and I did learn on the job, and I did make mistakes.  Even friends of Steph’s who could not stand me were able to spot me the mistakes, and complimented me on the job I was doing–as did Steph, in emails and Facebook posts both to me and to our mutual circle of acquaintances.

And the compliments on my fathering skills came from unexpected quarters.  I was at a party one night while Susie was in Romania, and my attempts to chat up a woman there did not work too well.  I went on and socialized with other people there for the remainder of the evening.  When this woman left, she came up to me and she said, “I heard that you’re raising a teenage daughter by yourself, and that’s you’re a really good father.  That’s fantastic!”, followed by a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

When Susie said she wanted to come back to Ohio after she graduated last May, I told her she could stay as long as she wanted.  It was my way of repaying the generosity that had always been second nature to her.  She did not learn it from either her mother or me.  It was hard-wired from the start.

I immortalized one in a poem I sold to The Saint Anthony Messenger.  When she was three, I took Susie to an Easter egg hunt at a church in Merion Village.  I was watching from the sidelines, along with the other parents, and soon I noticed something.  Susie was going to town with collecting eggs.  She had a sixth sense about where they were hidden, and her basket runneth over.  And yet… I would turn around and then see that she was finding eggs and then giving them to the other children, often when the kids had their backs turned and couldn’t see it.  I had to tell Susie that it was okay to keep some of the eggs for herself.  (A side note: I have had two poems published in the Messenger, which is quite an achievement for a Unitarian!)

Another time Susie’s generosity proved to be greater than mine was at that (or any!) age was one day when payday was still over a week away, and we were broke.  Very proudly, Susie came home from school and showed us the $20 she had won in a spelling bee.  When we asked her if we could use it so we could buy food to last until payday, she very cheerfully handed it over to us.  We paid her back as soon as we could, but she did not ask us to, and was happily surprised when we did.  If my parents had asked me to hand over my prize money, I would have balked at the idea.  No, this was my money.  I won it, I’m going to spend it the way want to.

Susie spent Saturday night at a friend’s house, engaged in a DVD-watching marathon of several horror comedy films.  I was a little hurt, but not surprised, that she didn’t want to come with me to the Gateway Film Center on campus for Dr. Bob Tesla’s triple-feature.  That included The Call of Cthulhu (2005), an excellent silent film scored in-house by the Ishmael Ali Orchestra.  (I never read a line of Lovecraft’s until PulpFest this year!)  I would have had to drag Susie by her hair to this triple feature, but she would have laughed–in spite of herself–all the way through the short films Italian Spiderman (2007) and Kung Fury (2015).

Now that Susie has turned 18, I am hoping her job prospects improve, either in Florida or–if she is not happy there–back here in Ohio.  In the meantime, I am counting down the days (70 as of today) until I am on a southbound Megabus headed for Florida.

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