At Random: Summer offers neat peek at empty nest

As the parents of two children who aren’t quite grown, my wife and I sometimes wonder what it will be like to have an empty nest. This summer, we’re getting a brief preview.

Our 12-year-old son is away at a boarding camp for several weeks, and our 17-year-old daughter spends much of her time working or visiting friends. Our nest, if not technically empty, doesn’t seem quite as full as it used to be.

We’re learning to adjust. A few days ago, with no kids around, my wife and I had our first extended conversation since 1996. I’m aware, from watching movies, that many couples use dialogue to delve into their emotional lives, their hopes for the future, their deepest secrets. Instead, over breakfast, my wife and I passed 20 minutes talking about toast. It wasn’t the most scintillating discourse I’ve experienced, but give us time. We are, after all, out of practice.

With kids in scarce supply, I’m also talking to the dog more. He mostly responds by staring at me vacantly, grunting, then ignoring my directions. It’s very much like talking to my children.

I can now understand why so many empty-nesters start to use their pets as surrogate children after their sons and daughters leave home. I’ve noticed this summer that instead of talking about grade point averages or the PTO, we’re focused on how much the terrier ate for breakfast or where he relieved himself in the flower bed.

We have not, I’m happy to report, resorted to dressing the dog in sweaters or miniature hats, nor is he mentioned in our voice mail greeting. The other day, though, I did catch myself confiding to our canine about the College World Series. His insights on the subject were limited, although not as limited, I’m afraid, as mine were.

Pets differ from children in at least one critical regard — namely, that except in rare instances, they won’t fight with you for control of the TV clicker. With our kids gone a lot, my wife and I can watch television in the den in relative peace, our evenings unbroken by demands that the channel be turned to “Keeping up with the Kardashians” or “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”

In our newfound liberation from the prime-time preferences of teens, we’ve been watching Netflix episodes of “Breaking Bad” instead. The popular drama about an unassuming father who resorts to the drug trade to pay his medical bills has been our guilty pleasure this summer.

Sometimes, though, an evening phone call interrupts our viewing sessions. Our son, on the line from camp, is calling to request items for his next care package or fill us in on his new friends.

For the most part, though, he sounds settled and happy and self-contained — as if in emptying our nest, he’s done fairly well in making his own.

I know that our kids aren’t yet ready to leave the nest for good. Placing the phone back on the receiver and suppressing a small lump in my throat, I feel relieved that the big goodbye isn’t here just yet.

Danny Heitman’s “At Random” column appears in The Advocate each Sunday. He can be reached at