Suddenly he’s a grown-up


Suddenly he’s a grown-up

DEE KRÜGER swallows the bitter pill that is the empty nest.


IT is early spring here, the English countryside at its most enchanting. The softest, almost transparent new leaves have just appeared on what were bare winter trees and hedges, an undulating show of hills and meadows in all the colours of green as far as you drive.

In the passenger seat next to me, airpods dangling either side of his head, is my son, gangly 18-year-old Rafe. We are on the long road to the next seat of learning on his shortlist, a university way up north. You could hardly go any further north and still be in England. Next stop Scotland.

To southerners, the north of England feels like another country, so different is the culture up there. Many of the hard-core unreconstructed Liverpool football fans, mostly of Irish descent, drown out the national anthem with their loud boooos as soon as the first notes of God Save the King strike up. This shocks us southerners. It’s not cricket, after all.

The regional accents up north seem to act as a further cultural wedge. Northerners produce a harsher, tougher assault of sound on the ear than the southern speech with our softer cadences. It is one of the reasons northerners are convinced southerners are so limp and effete. They see themselves as the true warriors of yore, the fighters, ever-ready to do battle or deal with hardships — unlike us vain, wishy-washy milksops.

I’m joking. Well, perhaps just a bit.

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It’s important, I say to Rafe, that you feel at home wherever you’re going to be for the next three or four years.  You don’t want to find yourself a stranger in your own country. 

The more I try to explain to him that which has taken me a lifetime to grasp, the more my hypothesis sinks into the ether. He looks at me askance, giving me an eyeroll. My ramblings about accents are clearly of no concern to him. Maybe because he’s had to endure mine?

And I can see my son, who has depended on my opinions and world view  throughout these 18 years, is starting to drift away. He regards me somewhat condescendingly, our roles reversed.

We teach our children to talk and they teach us to shut up.

The long road between London and Lancaster affords me the moment to try to come to terms with the transition between the baby I brought into the world and the 1.88-metre young man he’s become.

I side-eye him surreptitiously while keeping my attention on the road. His smooth, light complexion, although showing a beardy shadow, is not that different from the baby-faced little guy I used to be able to pick up in one quick scoop and press close to my breast.

How freshly, poignantly memories lurk of the eight-year-old stickman playing excitedly with the toys Daddy used to bring home from difficult places under heavy siege — Baghdad, Mosul, Palmyra, Kandahar; the house was littered with unusual mementoes for which Rafe seemed to have a special affinity. While every mother is convinced her child is perfect, I must concur. Maybe it’s because he is an only child — or “tragically, I was an only twin", as the great British comedian Peter Cook joked — and therefore more attuned to us, but he’s been a really cool kid, seldom moody or demanding, happy to fit in.

The only time he acted out was when he was a baby. On a flight from Gatwick to Sharm El-Sheikh, he projectile-vomited all over a fellow passenger. My mother and I were a couple of dizzy cocktails in, our eyes off the ball so to speak, and I’d assumed  Rafe would be his normal steady-Eddy self and sleep for most of the five-hour flight.  

Luckily, the chap covered in baby sick next to us, while not happy with the state of his summer holiday linen outfit, was most understanding.

Apart from that one “oversight", Rafe grew up virtually without my interference. You’d hardly know there was a baby around and we took him everywhere with us. He slept through from month four. As for the dreaded terrible twos, they never happened.

I remember holding his hot little hand going to school on his first day, his uniform stiff and new, awkwardly engulfing his small frame. He was clearly nervous but walked with a quiet compliance to his designated seat in the classroom, shyly eyeing the boy next to him — Juan Pablo from Mexico, or “One Pubbaloh” as Rafe called him, eager to pally up and get on.  

It's a shock you can’t prepare yourself for, the loss of your offspring through the process of growing up. A friend recently confessed how she sat alone, crying on her oldest son's bed, in the first weeks after he finished school and left home.

Jay felt deeply despondent, a prisoner of a unique sort of bereavement, like suffering a death in the household even though it was supposed to be the opposite, supposed to be a reason for celebration, the moment to pat yourself on the back.

There are so many benefits to our new hard-won freedom, people tell me. No longer do we have to be on call permanently, our time is at last ours and ours alone again: now we can be ourselves again.

Now I must look forward to doing Pilates, the Camino, treating myself to a two-seat supercar,  date nights or last-minute dirty weekends with my spouse. No curfews. Oh, the spontaneity of it all — just imagine!

I bite my lower lip, my forehead knotted in a frown. What I actually want to snap at those well-meaning friends is, stuff it! I don’t want to do yoga or conform to dinners à deux with my husband, great dinner companions as we indisputably are.

The highlight of many of our family dinners out was precisely the company of the teenager at the table. Through Rafe’s keen young eyes, our jaded vision was rejuvenated. Vicariously we could be kids again and experience things, as if for the first time, on a long loop.

Instead, here I am, teetering on the edge of this looming fork in the road, this fresh hell. I find myself an unwilling participant in this supposedly new chapter, this holiday from responsibility. He hasn’t left yet but already the shock of the impending empty nest is not something I know how to steel myself against, except that it’s every bit as crap as I assumed it would be.

I want the household to continue teeming with youngsters coming and going, the sawing noise of the double-bass and guitar practice, the pounding on the radio to the rhythms of Big Shaq pouring down the stairwell late at night through his bedroom wall. 

I’ve become an eager football aficionado, yelling or wailing with him as Chelsea (his team) win or, these days, more likely lose. I’m already missing the chatter and laughter at breakfast, the moans and challenges of school, his mates, their unreasonable teachers.

The seemingly endless plot of raising children which ends so suddenly, before you can even try to make sense of it, turns out to be a somewhat bitter milestone. Life comes at you fast, goes the cliché, but it’s deeply unsettling when you’ve become the cliché.

There are still so many things I wanted to do with the kid. For his 15th birthday I wanted to take him to Akihabara Electric Town in Tokyo, what a surefire hit that would have been.

Another firm plan was to take him on vacation in a convertible Mustang on Highway 1 in California, to drive along the coast with him from San Francisco through those lovely seaside towns Sausalito and Carmel, Monterey and Big Sur to Los Angeles, Johnny Rivers playing on the stereo.

Then the SARS-CoV-2 bomb dropped, thwarting all of our mice-and-men plans.

Next thing we know, here we stand on the wide open plains of the future where the boy has become a man who is far less interested in me than his girlfriend.

The university we’re driving to now will swallow him up and change him without any input from me or his father. We’ll always be close, I’m sure, but not like we’ve been for the past 18 years. It’ll be a huge change for him, but just as huge for me.

Suffice it to say, no amount of stretching exercises or open-eye meditation, long walks with the dog or wine could serve as enough of a distraction.

There is simply no way to rip off this Band-Aid painlessly.

♦ VWB ♦

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1 Dee and Rafe (10) in Sydney, Australia.

2 Dee and her “klong” on holiday in Juan-les-Pins in the south of France.

3 Dee and Rafe recently in Berlin, Germany.

4 Rafe on his first day of school in Chelsea, London.

5 At a restaurant close to our apartment in Paris in the 7th arrondissement.

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