Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest

As her son finishes high school and prepares to leave for college, Michelle Cruz Gonzales looks back on his early years as a pianist and anticipates a future without the sound of his playing filling the house.

Michelle Cruz Gonzales | Longreads | April 2019 | 9 minutes (2199 words)

I tap lightly on the computer on my lap, trying to go unnoticed. I’m on the couch in the living room, and my only child Luis Manuel, who is 17, is playing the piano in the dining room. I can see him from where I’m seated, his head down, engrossed in a solo, playing licks I’ve heard him play before and some that sound new. I try not to stare, to stay focused on my work, because I know he’ll see me from the corner of his eye, and I’ll have broken the spell.

I hate when he asks me to leave — “Can’t you go upstairs?”

He used to cry whenever I was out of sight, wouldn’t let anyone but his dad or me hold him, and cried incessantly when babysat. He did this until he was 4. When I’d take him to the park, he’d play for only a minute or two at a time before looking up to make sure I was still there. His difficult case of stranger anxiety made it so he wouldn’t walk on his own until he was 16 months, even though I knew he could. He held onto my index finger and walked confidently, but he wouldn’t let go. If I tried to get him to release my finger and walk unattached, he’d sit straight down on the floor. When I couldn’t stoop over to let him hold my finger any longer, he’d happily go back to being carried in a sling on my hip, one dimpled baby-hand resting on my chest.

Many suggested I was coddling him, that I was not letting my-small-for-his-age, shy, only 1-and-a-half-year-old child be independent.

I watch him play piano when I’m cooking, too. In the kitchen on the other side of the dining room, his back to me, it’s easier for him not to notice me there listening for a song I haven’t heard him play before, straining my eyes to make out the title at the top of the sheet music. Sometimes, I’ll pour a glass of wine and lean on the counter, and just listen while the food simmers on the stove. He is astoundingly good. It feels more like hanging in a jazz club than cooking dinner.

When he’s out at one of his many rehearsals or gigs, on nights when I’m preparing a meal and waiting for him to get home, I stand in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, and look at the piano, dark red-brown in a high gloss with gold hinges, no piano light, no head full of black hair hanging over the keyboard, no music. I try not to think about the long stretches of time the piano will sit unplayed. Like death, I force the thought out of my head and put on a record instead, because sooner than his dada and I can handle, the time with our son, as we have known it, is coming to an end. If all goes as planned, in a hand-full of months, he’ll be gone, playing piano at some college for teachers who will help him improve his technique, and teach him to compose, but nobody will ever appreciate the way he plays like we do, at all hours of the day and night.

***

My son began begging for lessons when he was 5, but he didn’t start playing until two years later, when he was 7. His dad and I had no idea how to handle that, find a teacher, pay for weekly lessons. And we certainly didn’t have the money for a piano. In our experience, only rich people played piano. It’s what we thought then, and it some ways it’s still true. My husband grew up in Mexico, in a house with dirt floors, and I grew up in a one-block town, with a “welfare queen” for a mother. Pianos and piano lessons were not for poor people like us. Couldn’t he just play one of the instruments we already had in the house — my old flute, one of the guitars, my drums? Couldn’t he just play one of the instruments that he could borrow from school — saxophone or trumpet? It’s what I did. I learned the flute at school for free, back when some amount of music education for everyone wasn’t constantly threatened by budget cuts. My mom, who had me when she was 18, later bought me a rent-to-own a flute of my own. She always found ways to help foster my interests, even when she had very little money. When I started listening to The Go Go’s and The Clash and decided to start a band of my own with my girlfriends, I wanted a guitar, and Mom bought me one of those too — a cheap one, but still. And when I sucked at guitar and decided to play drums, she bought a kit off a friend of hers who’d gotten a new one. It wasn’t money or an education that took me all over the world, it was playing drums in a feminist punk band. Me, the daughter of a “welfare queen.”

If all goes as planned, in a hand-full of months, he’ll be gone, playing piano at some college for teachers who will help him improve his technique, and teach him to compose, but nobody will ever appreciate the way he plays like we do.

As soon as Luis Manuel could sit up on his own I took him to music classes with other parents who sat their toddlers on their laps, clapping to rhythms and singing songs. His dad and I wanted him to play an instrument, any instrument, but preferably one we had on hand in the house, or that he could learn at school.

“Borrow our old keyboard,” said his madrina, who plays piano and has one in her house, when I told her that we were first thinking of signing him up for lessons. And so we did, for a few months. By this time, I was earning more money and had tenure at my job, and we had learned of a piano teacher who some families at our son’s elementary school were going to for lessons.“He can practice on that. If he sticks with it,” she said, understanding our concerns, “you’ll have to figure out what to do then.”


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


He was in third grade by now, and it was also the first year he didn’t cry for the first few weeks of school, as he had in Kindergarten, first and second grades. About four months after he began taking piano lessons, learning through the Suzuki method, he asked to learn “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven. It was a genuine, perfectly-timed act of independence. A strict Suzuki teacher would have insisted Luis stay with the songs in the Suzuki Piano book, but Lydia, his teacher, recognized his desire to play less childish tunes, and she found an easy version of one movement of the Beethoven composition in her collection. She taught him the fingering, and he had a good ear to help him pick it up. About a month or two later, he performed it at the school variety show. Still small for his age, he could barely reach the pedals, finessing the sustain pedal with the toe of his heavy black shoe. His hair hung in his eyes and his tiny hands moved across the keyboard as he played the arpeggios, sliding his tiny butt down the piano bench to reach the last note at the end. In a video from that performance, the crowd can be heard erupting in cheers.

By the time Luis was 9 or 10, we realized he was serious about piano. He hadn’t given it up after two weeks like he had tot-soccer, so we got him an upright. Turns out, privileged folks in the Bay Area give them away. We paid $200 to move a free piano. The old, large, dark wood instrument, with its wobbly keys like yellowing chipped teeth, fit in just right with our scuffed, hand-me-down, deco style dining room table.

Two years later, Luis Manuel announced to us that he wanted to attend the local performing arts middle and high school that he’ll graduate from this June. He asked Teacher Lydia to help him prepare for the audition and got in on the first try. But a new school required a new teacher, and Luis wanted one who could introduce him to jazz. The new teacher did that, and also showed him new ways to practice, and made him fall in love with playing. What’s more, he recognized our son’s potential, especially if he practiced more. He told us Luis ought to have a better piano at home, not an old hand-me-down, but a real piano.

“People in Mexico just play whatever instrument they have,” my husband said when I broke the news.

(He cites Mexico whenever he doesn’t want to spend money.)

“But we’re not in Mexico,” I said, pretty certain that the $4000 we had painstakingly saved, and that I was about to spend all at once, would not go to waste. I hoped with all my might that our son wouldn’t decide to stop playing any time soon.

***

These days, I have to fuss at Luis to get off the piano in the mornings before school, in the evenings when he’s supposed to be feeding the dogs, and at night when he should be in bed, but he’s playing the keyboard in his room instead. I can’t hear the music when he plays that late because he wears headphones, but I can hear the clunk of the pedal on the wood floor.

And after so many years of being at our sides as much as he could, it surprises us how often our son goes in his room and shuts the door, whether it’s improvising at the keyboard, listening to jazz, working out a drum beat on pieces from my drum set, or texting his friends. It wasn’t that long ago that his room was just a place where he kept his stuff. He mostly slept in our bed, wedged in between the two us until he was nearly 10. As shy as he was, I think being so close to use helped him to make his way in the world during the day. He was able to learn in school and make friends, even as a sensitive, artistic introvert because we, at home, allowed him to be as close to us as he needed to be.

I knew I was doing the right thing holding him close all those years. But now that he’s 17, I have to let go. I have to accept that while my life is half over, Luis Manuel’s has just barely begun.

Being Mexican, staying close to our son comes naturally to us. To make him sleep in his own bed by himself, while us “independent” adults got to cuddle each other, felt wrong. Co-sleeping is a necessity for poor Mexican families, and even when it isn’t, many Mexican parents think it’s strange or cruel to make children sleep alone. I knew I was doing the right thing holding him close all those years. But now that he’s 17, I have to let go. I have to accept that while my life is half over, Luis Manuel’s has just barely begun.

***

I think often about when I left home, how I cringed when my sister told me that my mom cried off and on for some two months after I left. How pathetic, I thought. I chose to assume she was sad that I wasn’t there to do the dishes or take care of my siblings. I blamed her blubbering on the substances she may or may not have been doing at the time. At 17, I wanted so badly to be away from her and my dead-end home-own that when I left, I barely looked back. Now when I think of my mother — a woman who was always guarded with all her emotions other than anger, — sobbing on her bed, crying at dinner, or alone in the laundry room, I want to turn back, sit by her side, and assure her that I will be okay. I want to tell my younger mother that I will go to college, and even get married and buy a house, and a piano for my son, and more importantly, that she and I will become friends, friends who never call, but Facetime instead, who visit regularly, and giggle with excitement about our up-coming sewing marathons, or sewnados. Now we are two aging women, mothers, a mother and her oldest daughter, who relish every moment we have left to spend together.

***

Luis Manuel and I have just sent in the last college application, and I turn back to my work. He stays sitting next to me on the couch, listening to piano music on his phone. I lean toward him ever so slightly and inhale deep, as if to breathe him back inside me. It’s hard to concentrate when he’s so close. I want to wrap him in my arms, tussle his hair, but instead I tap quietly at the computer on my lap, hoping he won’t ever get up and leave, or lean across me and read these words on the screen. I know it’s best not to burden him with the darkness of my grief, or tell him how often I think about all the free time I’ll have for writing when he’s away. I especially never want him to know that it might be the only thing that saves me when he’s gone.

* * *

Michelle Cruz Gonzales is the author of The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band, a drummer, and a perimenopunk.

Editor: Sari Botton

* * *

Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
Gone Gray
An Introduction to Death
Age Appropriate
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Barely There