"Home" for the holiday
The past few weeks, I was in a strange state. This time of year is, of course, complicated for people like me; by “people like me,” I mean those of us who have a foot in each “life”- the one where you’re sad about what “isn’t,” and yet, genuinely enjoying what “is.” I was doing generally well through the early fall, making moves and pressing onward, but when the calendar hit late October, I started to nosedive. The holidays were closing in, and so was our wedding anniversary (the second without him). I guess it was silly to assume it’d be easier because he’s been gone longer (it wasn’t). The week leading up was a total tailspin, inclusive of self imposed exile and ugly crying in the car.
This past weekend was “the day.” I may as well have been a potato, because thats about how useful I was, but I eventually made myself up and went out with friends (thank goodness). I arrived home at one thirty in the morning, though, on a new day, with the rebounding resolve that only arrives when another one of these hurdles has been jumped. I slept four hours, had my coffee, packed our bags, and drove eleven hours with my kids to NJ, running on the adrenaline of being out of my fog.
Ninety minutes from my mother’s house, Benny had to use the bathroom, just two miles shy of our alma mater. I haven’t set foot (or wheels) on campus in more than two years. Not since Kenny and I took the kids there on our way back from a road trip to Charlotte. Not since we still had all the hope for a brighter future as a family of five, and even then, we only walked the green. There were parts of campus I hadn’t seen since we left in the summer of 2003.
I avoided going in at first. I took them to a convenience store I knew of right outside of campus. As I saw the little store fill up with college kids grabbing snacks and smokes, that rush of adrenaline (and maybe some French vanilla cappuccino) kicked in. I made a command decision - I was making myself go on campus. I knew it would be fraught with memories, and more emotional upheaval. I’d just come off of a week with so many tears that my face still stung; but my gumption didn’t budge.
As we neared the university, familiar places started jumping out at me. A lot had changed, and yet a lot remained the same. The first “slow down” (because we didn’t stop), was in front of Kenny’s freshman dorm. I had no plan, of course, I was just driving, but with every place I passed, I wanted to see more. I drove past the student union where we spent hours playing and noshing on snacks, past the row of houses off Main Street known for wild back yard parties, past the school buildings we took our classes in. Flashes of memory filling my head with warmth and nostalgia. A vision of me in my pink camisole at nineteen years old, in sub zero temperatures, wandering around with Kenny and our friends looking for a party we’d never find. A hill where I remember a friend slipping, and laughing hysterically after mug night. Groups of faces I’d long forgotten that resurfaced with every corner I turned.
Finally, I decided to drive up to Kenny’s apartment building, where he lived the last two years of college. This time I stopped. I stopped and I stared, and I marveled at how it was remotely possible that it’d been fifteen years since we’d set foot in this parking lot. How was it possible it still looked just the same? Weirder still, how was it possible, knowing all the things that have happened since, knowing I had our three children in the car, that I still expected to see Kenny waltz out the door of that building? Like he was just in there waiting for me to pick him up. I could have sat there all night, staring and waiting for a moment that wasn’t going to come. I had to force myself to start driving away, not wanting to leave…tears misting up my eyes. As I drove off campus, I told my kids to enjoy their lives, appreciate the good times they get to have. They were confused, as they loved the tour and were feeling jovial and excited. I know it probably wasn’t the most age appropriate conversation, but seeing the ghosts of a life past (and passed), it was the only thing I could think to say.
For the next ninety minutes, as the kids wound down and dozed off, and I flipped radio stations, some things started to become clear to me. I’ve been avoiding Kenny for years, now. I’m sure that sounds super puzzling to the non grievers out there. I don’t mean I avoid remembering him, he is a constant topic of conversation in our world; photos all over my house, and memories shared. I mean I avoid the concrete places we lived real life together; and have since before he passed away. The trauma of losing him before he died, the seething anger I felt even when his body was still living, the pain of a life we worked so hard for, taken away from us; it was all too much.
With that in mind, two days later, I made myself go see our old house, almost two years from the week we sold it (and I’ve never gone to see it once, despite my dozens of trips up). Pulling into the neighborhood felt like it may as well have been an hour since I’d left. Not one thing had changed, aside from a few less trees. As I rounded the corner to the last real home I ever shared with “my” Kenny, I felt myself stop breathing for a moment. I drove slowly but didn’t stop. The urge to pull into the driveway remained, just as I knew it would; but continuing up the street didn’t hurt as badly as I’d anticipated. I rounded the next corner, and drove away feeling oddly accomplished.
It was never the house that felt like home to me, and it wasn’t just “college fun” that made our university so special to me. It was always Kenny. He was my home. At college. After college. Any house we ever lived in, it didn’t matter. If I was with Kenny, I was home. The summer after he passed I remember feeling so lost, so…homeless. Avoiding those places helped me cope; but coping isn’t healing, it’s placating yourself. Coping methods stop working after a while; and while healing is ongoing, it allows you to move further forward, instead of swimming in place to survive. This was big for me. It was even bigger than I realized when I did it.
I was proud of myself afterwards, for reclaiming a part of my past that I’ve been shoving away for so long. While I've had no choice but to change and to move forward, I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to eradicate my history to do it. I can never go back to being who I was then. I can never be the carefree girl I was in college, I can’t be the housewife and caregiver I was at my old house, but I can visit them, now. I can see them, and I can even feel them, again, and even though I can’t live there, I can “visit” the feeling of home, if only for a moment.
It also made me realize that I’ve come a really long way these nineteen months. I’ve grown comfortable in the notion that I am my own home, now. I’ve grown comfortable with the idea that it may always be that way (that’s not the hope, but if it ends up that way, I’ll be okay). I’ve had to learn how to take care of myself, to fight for myself, and to stand up for myself. All in all, I’ve had to grow up. I’ll never be grateful for why that had to happen, but I am grateful that I managed to do it.
So this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for my past, and I’m grateful for my present. I’m thankful for the girl who was, and I’m grateful for the woman who is. I’m thankful for the life I had, and I’m grateful for the life I’m building. I’m thankful for the “home,” and the love that I had, and I’m grateful for the possibilities of the future. I’m thankful for my kids who push me forward, my friends who reel me in, and family who only want to see us thrive.
I hope that all of you have as many things in your world to be thankful and grateful for today as I do. Happy Thanksgiving, dear friends.