The Secret (hidden inside every episode of Doogie Howser, M.D.): image of Doogie at his computer.

The Secret (hidden inside every episode of Doogie Howser, M.D.) to Easing the Empty Nest Blues

Years ago, I loved the television series Doogie Howser, M.D..

On the show, a much younger Neil Patrick Harris played a precocious 14-year old boy who happened to be a licensed physician in a difficult residency program. 

Each episode examines the tension created when the ordinary (boy) collides with the extraordinary (boy).

With regards to screens–cell phones and computers–I’m a flip-flopper. 

Some days I thank God that my kids, for the most part, grew up without ubiquitous screens. Other days, I’m grateful for the speed and ease with which our family now communicates.  

Thanks to cell phones, in mere seconds, our loved ones can communicate with us. For instance, they can let us know with a single word—here—the moment they arrive safely at their destination, be it seven minutes away or four hours. Or even on another continent. 

A year ago our oldest child delivered difficult news. 

“I know we said our mission trip would only be for a year, but actually, we may stay two.”

A cheery smile froze on my face. Even as my insides experienced a “Wizard of Oz” moment: “I’m melting.”

As I struggled to continue conveying approval, my daughter handed me a book: Parents of Missionaries. I leafed through the pages as she explained why she and her husband might stay longer overseas. As it turned out, the rest of their mission team had signed up for two years, not one. 

I nodded, maybe even murmured, “I understand,” when really, all I wanted was for her to go downstair so I could bawl in to my pillow in solitude.

I’d already resigned myself to a year without my daughter and her husband. A year without their presence at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, plus their usual handful of weekend visits.

No matter how proud I was of them and their very strong faith, two years felt like forever. They would miss two Thanksgivings with all the foods we love. Two Christmases with all our favorite decorations, traditions, and a mountain of thoughtfully selected gifts. 

My mind galloped into the future. What if two years turned to three, turned to more?

At the end of every episode, Doogie Howser, M.D. always sat down at his desk.

There, on his computer–a novelty at the time–he would type in the events of his day, a record for all time of that particular season of his life. 

I didn’t journal back then, but his example was compelling.

Which came first? The computer or the cell phone?

Perhaps Doogie’s online diary provided the impetus for our family to get a computer.

Not long after the series ended, Tony bought a desktop computer for our family business, Ralph’s Beer Distributor. Then in 1999, I “won” a brand new Dell desk-top when I signed up 20 customers for long distance service with Excel Communications, a multi-level marketing company.

Because he needed to stay in touch with his office when he was out of town officiating college football games, Tony was the first person in our family with a cell phone. Initially he used a flip phone. In 2008, though, he procured a Crackberry Blackberry.

But I digress.


Soon after our oldest child and her husband flew halfway across the world, 

A new emotion, one that eclipsed sadness, settled into my bones. The new feeling was grief. 

In church one morning, as our fellowship sang the words, “I trust you. Oh, I trust you…” loss held my heart in a fist. Tears creeked through my carefully applied blush.

Gripping the shoulders of a nearby friend, I hissy-whispered, “Them leaving? It just hit me. Crap! This is so hard.”

I barely heard the message that day as I sent my brain on a mission: Find a way out of this discomfort maze–its paths edged with Sequoias wrapped in brambles. 

And then I found a path with potential. Maybe… Perhaps…

I climbed to the third floor, sat down at my desk, and emailed our firstborn child. “Your father and I used to watch this show, Doogie Howser, M.D.. At the end of every episode, the main character used to type a description of his day into a computer. Nothing lengthy, sometimes just a paragraph.”

“Could you do that? For me? Email a short description of everything you two do each day?”

Our daughter assured me she would. And she did. Often she typed more than a paragraph. Sometimes she included pictures. Oh, the things she and her husband saw. The places they visited, the food they ate. The ordinary. The extraordinary. 

Most nights, I returned the favor. I sent emails recounting the ordinary and extraordinary things we were doing stateside, here in Best Virginia, both the quotidian and the fantastic.

All these descriptions and stories now live inside our Gmail accounts. A record for all time of that particular season of their life and ours.

In one email, our daughter pointed out the most interesting thing: 

“These days, we feel closer to you all, in far better contact, than when we only lived four hours away in Virginia.”


Thank you, Doogie Howser, for providing the sutures to mend this mother’s heart.


Dear Empty-Nesters: In the event you can’t persuade your child–across town, the country, or the world–to email you when they are away from home, be sure to come back next week. I’ll be offering more parent-child communication strategies.


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