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Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest

Ronnie Kaufman / Getty

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.
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