An empty nest

And just like that, he's gone
kid fly fishing pike
Photo: Chris Hunt

And just like that, he’s gone.

I remember when Cameron sprung himself onto the world on a brutally windy Idaho day in 2002 — he was sliced from his mom’s belly during a planned C-section delivery, and emerged with a surly attitude and full bladder. As the doctor held him up and showed him around, he peed on the scrubs of every surgical attendant at the operating table amid a round of laughter.

He’s always been a tempest, a lot like the day that welcomed him to the world. But his attitude improved from Day One. He grew into his dimples, which he uses to his advantage to this day. That smile is viral. Here’s hoping his intentions are good when he puts it to use from here on out.

He spent the next 18 years steadily lowering the property values of both my house and his mom’s — the boy has a knack of simply exploding once he enters a clean room. I kept up the fight for some semblance of cleanliness, but I never really succeeded. Even as he packed his belongings last week for the last time and prepared to leave for a job in a remote corner of northwest Wyoming, I was scraping up some hideous, food-based science experiment he’d let age nicely under his bed.

A few weeks ago, I replaced all the screens on my windows. Two kids with ground-level windows meant two kids with simple access to the yard without having to walk down the hall to the front door. I also replaced a sprinkler head under Cameron’s bedroom window — a climb in or out likely resulted in a teenager stepping on it and crushing it.

He thinks I don’t know. But I know. And, honestly, I know everything. But, as a parent, you pick your battles. And you may win some battles. But the war isn’t over until they choose. Until they garner the courage to try something new that doesn’t involve us.

We’ve been fortunate on that end. Neither of our kids had the mindset that they’d live at home much past high school, and we encouraged that. Both their mom and I were largely on our own after we matriculated through academia — returning home would have felt like defeat. We tried to instill that mindset in our kids, and encourage them to go and do, even if it meant that they chose work instead of school. At least to start.

And now, they’ve both gone and done.

For the last few days, I’ve been saying things in jest, like, “Good riddance,” and “Don’t the let door hit ya,” as my son prepped for a new stage in his life. While I might sometimes feel like a blackjack dealer leaving the table with a clap of the hands, I’ve been honestly wondering how I’d feel when the four-bedroom house was empty, save for me and my old mutt, Phoebe, who lies at my feet as I work each day.

Turns out, I’m OK.

I’m OK with being alone. Now, when “lonely” (because “alone” and “lonely” are two separate things) sets in, it might be a different story. But for now, I relish the fact that his former bedroom now sits gloriously free of makeshift petri dishes and dirty laundry that, at times, appeared to stand in the corners of his room of its own volition. The windows are screened and locked. The closet is empty.

I do, though, wonder what he’s doing at the oddest of times. In his new job at Grand Teton National Park, I wonder how the internet connection is holding up to his Xbox habit. I wonder if he’s worked his way through the two cases of ramen noodles yet, or if the rice maker his mom left him is still working after nearly a week of use. I wonder if he’s taken a look at the fly rod standing up in the corner of his room and considered putting it to use.

And I wonder, honestly, if he’s lonely. If he might just need me. Just a little bit.

And then I think of the world in which he’s venturing out. What might have seemed like something of a cavalier decision a few short months ago to go and work in a remote national park now seems like a pretty safe bet. He and his sister are both working, productively, in the shadow the Tetons, largely away from urban crowds, viral outbreaks and the protests over police brutality that continue in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As a parent, I can only express relief that, one, they’re both safe, and two, they’re both actually employed. Having shared conversations with both of them, I know that they are both, however, keenly plugged into the pulse of the times, and that, despite being somewhat removed from the troubles of the day, they understand what’s going on in “the real world.”

I’m also glad that, while he’s venturing out, Cameron’s not too far away — if a crisis were to occur, I could be in the park and at the door to his dorm room in less than two hours, assuming the weather and Teton Pass cooperate. As parents, this may be the most trying time, when children are no longer dependent on us for every bite of sustenance or for the roofs over their heads.

And I tell myself that I’ll be able to see him as much as I like — I tend to wander to that corner of the world, fly rod in hand, more often than I realize. Just this past weekend, I drove through, dropped off his bike and fed him lunch on my way to fish the Firehole in nearby Yellowstone National Park.

For clarity, Cameron has never really shared my passions, either for the outdoors or for the trout that swim in the rivers of his childhood. We took a trip a couple of years back to the wilds of northern Manitoba where we spent a week chasing pike and walleye together. Even there, he limited his fishing time, choosing instead to learn cribbage from a fellow lodge guest or converse with the girls who worked at the lodge.

But he did fish, and we did share some great time together — it was the adventure I really wanted, and kind of foisted upon him as he turned 16. And, to my delight, he brings it up often, saying he’d love to do it again. I’ll take it.

playing cards at the fishing lodge
Photo: Chris Hunt

When I sat down for lunch with him the other day in Jackson, he surprised me.

“They have a climbing program at the lodge,” he said. “And at the end, I can climb Mt. Moran. I’m going to do it.”

I did a double-take.

“Really?” I asked, trying not to sound overly pleased. My son, the video game junkie wants to learn to climb? In the Tetons? I could barely conceal my own excitement “I think that sounds like an amazing opportunity.”

And, later that afternoon, as I dropped him off at the lodge, I couldn’t help but laugh as he had to climb in through his dorm window because he’d locked his keys inside. We can make sure they make it to adulthood, but how they adult … well, that’s on them.

And later that day, as I cast over wild browns and rainbows on the Firehole during an epic Blue-winged Olive hatch, I couldn’t help but wonder what my son was doing in his lonely dorm room on a blustery day while I chased trout. Was he looking up at Mt. Moran and daydreaming, like I do, when I comb over gazetteer maps and search out new blue lines to explore when the time is right?

And when I got home just after dark, after a day with a lot of reflective windshield time, I walked past Cameron’s room. It’s clean. It’s tidy. It’s empty. The house itself has lost some soul.

I miss him. All the time. Maybe I’m not OK. Not yet.


Beautifully written as always. You will never stop missing them but each day you will become more proud of the adults they have become. There will times they will need you and I know you will be there for them. I love you son, and miss you too. MOM

I understand keenly that tug of nostalgia combined with the satisfaction of having launched them well into an uncertain future. Best of luck to you both.

I've got a few more good years of going to the woods of Maine with my son and daughter before it's their turn to fly. My Dad and Mom started bringing me and my sister back in the late 60's before it was "trendy" and more just a place for East Coasters to go fishing. Fly fishing that is. Your story hit me right in the heart as I think of where they might be in 5 and 6 years and the time comes to head on up to camp with our fly rods.