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Empty Nest Revisited: Running through the pain

Posted Jan 08 2012 8:26pm

The train wreck was imminent, a given. But I didn’t know how it would hit me.

Last Friday I got my first taste of empty-nest syndrome as a single mother. I thought I would be prepared for the magnitude of the impact. I was mistaken. My brokenness registered 11 on the Richter scale of riven hearts.

When I dropped my son Josh off at the airport that day so he could start his new college semester, he gave me a lingering hug. An “I love you, Mom” embrace that echoed in my brain for many miles on my return trip northward. On my drive to the new digs I now call home. Nothing could have been sweeter. Nothing could have been sadder.

As I gripped the steering wheel in utter anguish, my plans transformed before my eyes. Upon exiting the airport I had intended to head to a ritzy mall that would be quite a bit out of my way. We have no such galleria near where I live and I wanted to experience retail therapy at its ultimate. But my heart wasn’t in it. Nor was my pocketbook. No item I could buy at Nordstrom’s would compensate for the emptiness, the void in my heart.

Instead, on the way back home I dropped into a blue-collar shopping mall I had never visited. One with totally predictable, mundane stores. To take my mind off my troubles and not return to an empty apartment, one that had been filled for over a week with the comforting sounds of a young man typing on his laptop, texting or conversing with his girlfriend, I determined only to window shop.  I decided that purchasing items in a frenzy of retail madness would be counterproductive. After all, I’ve been decluttering ever since I moved to my apartment and don’t need yet another household convenience. My closets and storage unit are filled to the brim with items to benefit the American Cancer Society, Good Will, the Salvation Army and our local ARC group. Why fill up the shelves again with stuff that will end up in a similar heap–or, worse, a dumpster?

In the end I broke down and bought a single blouse on sale at an anchor store, a top to compliment my new post-traumatic-stress figure. After that, I passed the time walking and talking to a good friend on my cell until darkness crept in through the mall doors. It was time to venture home. I arrived at my destination in time to borrow some movies from our clubhouse and watch a thriller to distract my mind.

The next day, yesterday, I decided to run. The day promised to be picture perfect. I had taken a run a few days before, giving myself time to recover after my New Year’s fast of three days. That first run of the new year was a jog.  When my son asked me how long I run when I go out, I told him 35 minutes. That amount of time seemed decent, allowing me enough minutes to loop through a safe residential neighborhood, if not quite make it to a nearby park.

But his question challenged me. Having run a 5K back in May for a charity fundraiser, I wondered if I could still sustain prolonged running after the fast and all the stress I’d been through since that time.

There was only one way to find out.  I donned my running shoes and disappeared into the afternoon sun, planning to take 40 minutes or so to run to the park and then walk the rest of the way back. But my legs just kept churning. They kept moving in a forward direction. Upon reaching the park I sprinted along a creek until I located the first bridge across, probably two miles from where I had started. My intention was to stop at the bridge and walk the distance back. But my plans changed once again: I ran over the bridge and did the return, always knowing I could stop and walk whenever I wanted. Yet my legs just kept going forward. And I ran all the way home.

The total round-trip time? One hour.

Now one hour may not sound like much to seasoned runners, those half-marathoners and marathoners–or even 10K runners–who don’t blink an eye at running for at least two hours straight. But for me, a two-time breast cancer survivor with arm lymphedema who has sprained her ankles about four times and had chest pain from stress several months ago and a three-day fast a few days earlier, it bordered on a miracle.  And it took away all the empty-nest pain, with no accompanying chest pain.

During the whole time I ran I could feel Josh’s presence. I could hear his voice egging me on: “You can do it, Mom. I know you can.” And because he was there, I kept up the pace. My sadness departed like a bad dream from which I had just awoken.

This morning I opened my eyes refreshed, with no soreness from the day before. I embraced the day, ready to resume life again as a single woman, but not alone. Friends and relatives stand at the ready to infuse me with their kindnesses. I look forward to spending next weekend in Napa Valley with my cousins whom I haven’t seen for several years. Life is good. The wrecked train has been repaired and transformed into a lean, mean machine.

And that’s the way we breast cancer survivors often see it:  our ravaged bodies are slowly transformed into something different, and perhaps something more confident, more courageous, more daring.  As the “little Jan that could,” I know I might get derailed again, but I won’t get impaled. That’s the goal, anyway.

How about you? Have you experienced empty-nest syndrome? If so, has it subsided and does it come up again with each visit? Have you done anything to ease the pain? 

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