My children have spent the past week with their grandparents. Untethered from their needs, I spent the week living in my head.
Daydreams, interior monologues, thoughts, prayers, and wishes: the inner world is my favorite landscape.
It is quiet there, and I am all alone.
I set several overly-ambitious writing goals for the week. I also determined to catch up on every gardening chore and organize the house from top to bottom. In 90-degree heat.
It was a plan guaranteed to ensure that by the time my children returned, I would feel like a miserable failure who had squandered the most precious days that ever were.
The gardening chores have at least forced me to temporarily abandon my inner world. Daydreams evaporate very quickly when one is sweating, swatting mosquitoes, and cursing one’s inability to properly stake a sprawling cherry tomato plant.
Also, there are flowers. I am finding this summer that I do not think very much in the flower garden. There is something about the overpowering scent of oriental lilies that empties my head of everything else. Only a few days in to my full immersion in the life of the mind, I decided that it is a good thing to take a break from oneself. My inner world, as much as I love it, can be exhausting.
I do not think I would like to live there full-time.
Something else happened while the children were away: I turned on the car radio. I am not sure why I so rarely do that. Perhaps it is the demands from my little companions in travel for this music but not that. Perhaps it is my own need to control the tunes that tickle their ears.
I hopped in the car for the first time in days only because a few library books were due and our first bag of peaches was ready at the orchard where we participate in a fruit-share CSA. I do not think that anything less than library books and peaches could have convinced me to leave the quiet oasis of my child-free house.
Left to my own devices like that, I found myself punching the AM/FM knob. I had to take my eyes off the road for quite a dangerous stretch before my fingers found a tiny button labeled “seek.”
I don’t know what I was seeking, but a familiar voice filled the car. It was a childlike voice and instantly recognizable to me. I was a little girl in the early 80s, and the voice of Cyndi Lauper will always recall that one memorable sleepover when my best friend Michelle and I decided to find out how many times in a row it was possible to view that classic 80s film Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. I think we watched it two-and-a-half times through before Michelle fell asleep.
In April, in Texas, the very first person who greeted me when we arrived at the cemetery for Shawn’s burial was Michelle’s mom.
I was holding two children by the hands and feeling a bit dazed by the heat and the crowd and the terrible finality of a flag-draped coffin. I was searching for a path through the people who had gathered around a small tent and a few rows of folding chairs, when she suddenly appeared beside me and put her hand on my arm. I had not seen her in years, but I had no trouble recognizing the woman who placed our after-school snacks with such care on those tv trays, the same woman who never complained when Michelle and I brought home sticky gumballs we had spit out and saved from the gumball ice-cream cones we purchased at the mall.
I sort of love Cyndi Lauper’s strange voice. She always sounds a bit like a little girl, and my best friend Michelle will always be, for me, the little girl I loved best. I wish I could call her up and tell her that, but Michelle died in a car accident not long after I graduated from high school.
There’s a kind of epiphany that only comes when the music is turned up loud and you are all alone in the car. It’s a strange mix of sadness, joy, and gratitude.
Half my mind was singing Time After Time and the other half was recognizing what a privilege it is to sweat in my garden and run dirty, weed-stained fingers through hair that is beginning to gray. What a privilege it is to feel overwhelmed by four children, to bicker and then make up with the same man for twenty years. How glad I am for this life of interruption and inconvenience and heartache.
It’s a good thing to stop on a too-hot summer day and remember and cry for those who left us too soon.
We are following fast on their heels, but meanwhile, there are flowers to grow and meals to prepare and stories to tell. And there are songs to sing.
Loudly and with the windows rolled down.
A few years ago, soon after our move to Maplehurst, I wrote this prayer on a three by five index card:
Lord, please make a way for my extended family to gather more often.
I added it to the small stack I keep in my Bible, and I regularly remembered it in prayer. The paper is softer now, the ink a little bit smeared.
Soon, my husband and I and our four children will fly to Texas for Shawn’s burial. Since the accident in January, my daughter and I have traveled to Hawaii, my husband has made two trips to be with my sister and her kids in Kansas City, we sent our older daughter and son on their own to visit grandparents and cousins. And now we fly to Texas.
My prayer has been answered, but the answer to my prayer is loss.
I have not visited my hometown in a decade. My children have either never been or have no memory of the place, but because Jonathan and I and my sister and Shawn share the same Texas roots, we will gather there. We will gather with my parents and siblings, my nieces and nephews, my in-laws, and with Shawn’s family. We will be joined by my father’s west Texas family, by my mother’s California family, by high school friends and college friends and childhood church friends.
In Roots and Sky, I write:
“I have long wondered if home is the place from which we come or the place we are headed. The estrangement I felt from my surroundings as a child growing up in Texas has always meant that I tend to see home as my end and not my beginning.”
This is a return to our beginnings. I suspect that whatever I find there, I must bring it back with me, a little something extra tucked into my carry-on.
Home is our present and our past. Perhaps, it is time to make my own past welcome at Maplehurst.
That index card is still tucked into the back page of my Bible. I wanted to feel angry when I read it again, but I felt, instead, some mix of fear, awe, and resignation. I believe the prayer came from God as much as the answer, so I cannot muster up any anger, just as I never, truly, mustered up that prayer.
I only received it. Repeated it. Submitted to it.
Instead of anger, I feel compassion for that other me who prayed without seeing, without understanding, but with hope. I believe the prayer was good, and so I believe that the answer is good.
It is also terrible.
Twelve men died in those helicopters, but there will be only 9 coffins. We are all dust, and we all return to dust, but some are buried in earth and others are dust in the sea.
Some part of Shawn has been returned to us, and so we are lucky. We are blessed.
And what are blessings but those gifts that are hardest to receive?
Like this opportunity to gather. This opportunity to go home again. This chance to say hello to so many.
For this gift, this chance to plant our last goodbye in familiar dirt, we say thank you.
And we say, have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us.
That’s the name lettered over the door of the small shop. Home At Last. It makes me laugh. Somewhat bitterly, I’m afraid.
On this day, we are fifteen-years married, and, to celebrate, we wander the streets of this Texas hill-country town, the fruit of our union miles away at Grammie and Granddad’s house.
Sitting down to eat lunch amidst a babbling brook of soft, Texas accents, we talk about home. We may have grown up in this place, but each return only emphasizes how far we’ve fled. We’ve lived away nearly as long as we lived within, and even the memory of Texas as home is fading.
Our waiter asks where we’re from, and I suddenly realize how often we’ve heard this question today. Why? How do they know? Jonathan wrinkles his forehead and says, “Well, we don’t have accents?” Maybe, I say. Then my husband, the one I often imagine to be the less observant in our partnership, states what should have been obvious: “I don’t think we look like Texans. At least not small-town, hill-country Texans.”
My husband sits across from me in skinny cords and a sweater vest, looking unsure, and I laugh because the truth is suddenly so obvious. The men who pass by our window are all dressed as if they’ve just left either a football stadium or a deer blind. They are window shopping with their wives, they are nowhere near a stadium or a deer blind, but they look utterly at home.
Where are we from? We can no longer answer that question. It did take years, but at one time I could say “Chicago” with ease. Now, each time we’re asked, Jonathan says, “We live in Florida,” but we both know that this is not the answer to “where are you from?” or even “where is your home?”
We have a house in Florida, but we only dream about home.
I like to imagine that home is somewhere with snow. The kids tell me it’s a place with room for a dog.
Others tell me that the ache for home is all there is. At least for now. At least on earth.
I don’t believe them.
Home is too good. Too necessary.
We may be souls walking the shadowlands, but these shadows are God-made and God-breathed. The place that feels like home may only be a taste of what’s in store, but it is still good.
And the best part? To find a home is to reach, not an end, but a beginning.