By Rachel Chen ’18

I’ve been crying a lot lately, but here’s the latest reason why: on November 26, I decorated the family Christmas tree for last time.

It was the latest of many lasts that weekend: my last Thanksgiving I’d welcome my sister home, my last squash tournament road trip with my parents, my last Thanksgiving dinner I’d sit at the “kids’” table instead of the “adults’.” I suppose they all compounded, unacknowledged, until they hit me like a double-decker bus at 12:09 AM as I stared into the glowing ornaments and shimmering tinsel I had hung. Who’s going to decorate the tree next year? Who’s going to make Mom and Dad excited for Christmas?

I could see it in my head so clearly—Christmas, always powered by my sister’s and my incessant Mariah Carey singalongs and burnt sugar cookies, fading from our household, evaporating like breath on a windowpane. My parents had only ever loved the holidays as much as Marcia and I did. Would my parents still give each other gifts when the two of us were gone? Would they even put up a tree?

My tear ducts, overworked as they are in the season of giving and college applications, started to flow. Marcia knew wordlessly why I was upset. “Did you know,” she started, pulling me in for a hug, “that 90% of the time you will ever spend with your parents is over by the time you leave for college?”

Now, I’ve searched for this statistic and can’t find it anywhere. But confirmed or not, it still packs a punch to the heart. Realistically, how many hours will I spend with my parents after I leave for college? A summer here, a holiday here. Blink twice and I only call once a week between my work commute and dropping my kid off at school. That not-so-distant future is a far cry from the Sunday morning pancakes and long car rides and Costco runs we share now.

And that explains why they’ve been so lenient lately. Classic symptoms of early onset empty nest syndrome—I just didn’t recognize them until I put the star on the top of the tree. In the past few weeks, my parents have bought my sister and I orchestra tickets to Anastasia on Broadway (amazing show, 12/10 would recommend!); gifted us a slew of lululemon clothing; even surprised us with entirely unnecessary, expensive Fastpasses for our winter break visit to Universal’s Harry Potter theme park. They’ve displayed an uncharacteristic indulgence with their eat this, do that attitude. Nothing is a waste of money anymore—not if it offers happiness to enjoy, an experience to share, another memory to cherish.

Their indulgence makes me ashamed of my behavior during the past few weeks. I’ve used stress, exhaustion, and anxiety as excuses to be snappy, self-centered, and rude. And worse, my parents have simply tolerated it with closed-lipped grimaces because they love me, wholly and unconditionally—the way they have for the past seventeen years, they way they will continue to forever.

Okay, maybe I’m being overdramatic. I’m sure there will be other holidays in the future for which I’ll return home early enough to untangle the lights and hang up stockings. But staring at the Christmas tree at 12:09AM, I took a breath during my race to move on—from high school, from Pingry, from family—and felt, for the first time, that I wanted everything to stay the same.

So here’s what Marcia told me, that I’m now telling you: it is your duty to make every minute of these last few years count. Be kind. Be patient. Be present, because here is something wonderful and exciting and terrifyingly sad, all at once: everything is going to change. Everything is changing already. Treasure these moments before 90% of your time with your parents is gone.

I’ve been counting down the days till I leave for college for years now. I just never realized that Mom and Dad have been, too.