Laureate Pens Back-to-School Poem

Empty Nest
(Still Not Ready to Say Goodbye)

The morning after her son left home 
for college far away
she noticed a crying baby had taken up residence
in her heart.
Everywhere she went in the house
she found remnants of him:
the sprouted-wheat bagels he’d introduced her to
the carton of eggs he scrambled for breakfast
the lonely hook where his egg-frying pan had hung
the heavy whipping cream he put in his coffee
the green-leaf houseplant from his room 
now seated by her picture window.
Not to mention his disheveled but vacant room.

She already missed his deep bass voice, ordinarily so logical, so rational,
so full of facts and theories and techie tidbits,
but surprisingly soft and teasing when he would come up the stairs 
in that certain mood, saying,
“Where’s that boy-o? Where’s that kitty? 
Where’s that boy-o?”
He would find Raffi, scoop him up,
cradle him upside down like a baby,
start rubbing his tummy 
and bring him to her, 
holding Raffi so she could
stroke his head, ears, neck — all his favorite spots.
Her son would become the voice 
of Raffi feigning resistance. 
“No. Stop. Don’t,” the voice 
protested in mock indignance,
even as the cat closed his eyes dreamily and purred.
Continuing to stroke Raffi’s tummy 
her son would assume Raffi’s voice:
 “I’ll give you an hour to stop that and put me down.”
Trying to hold back giggles, 
they would stand cuddling their kitty in the kitchen.

The morning after her son left home for college
she slipped into her bedroom to begin 
her morning ritual,
straightening the covers and pillows,
opening the curtains to let the light in.
Every day, she gathered up from her 
husband’s nightstand
the stuffed animals she placed 
together on the bed:
her son’s long-ago toy, a tall cloth doll Pinocchio 
and, on either side of him, a mama 
and papa teddy bear
to watch over him.
But this day, as she looked toward the nightstand, 
there, for the first time in Raffi’s three-year life —
the first time ever —
she saw their kitty lying on top of the nightstand 
snuggled up with Pinocchio and the teddy bears.
She stood there looking, shaking her head, 
leaving the stuffed animals where they were.
Then she leaned in close.
“Make sure he’s safe,” she whispered to Raffi.
“Make sure he’s okay. He’s our boy-o.”

Cathy Dana is one of Alameda’s two poets laureate.