By Annie Finnigan; Photography by Brooks Freehill
As Elizabeth and Stuart drove off, they noticed one of the Target bags in the backseat. "We cracked up -- all this orchestration and it was still imperfect!" Hoping not to bump into Ella, Stuart hustled to the dorm and left the bag on her doorknob. And then there were two.
Instead of flying back to their "empty nest," they headed to Whidbey Island in Washington's Puget Sound. "We wanted to reconnect, to take a deep breath and focus on this special time for us." On the return flight home, screaming babies served as noisy reminders that parenting isn't all paradise. "If they had been sleeping peacefully, I might've burst into tears," Elizabeth says. "Instead I thought, 'Not us! We're done.'"
When they finally got home the house seemed "echo-y," and Ella's empty chair at the dinner table made her absence palpable. But starting a new way of life wasn't as hard as Elizabeth feared. In fact, it was fun. She and Stuart would grab lunch or stroll through the farmers' market. They rediscovered spontaneity: One "school night" they decided at the last minute to catch a film and raced home to feed the dog before making it to the theater just in time. "We hadn't done that in years," says Elizabeth.
Yet she still found herself wandering into Ella's room. "I thought it would be comforting," she says, laughing. But with the stripped bed and the empty hangers, it just made her feel sad. "So I stopped going in there."