Visiting My Hometown: Can you ever really go home again?
A few weeks ago I got a wonderful letter in the mail. It was from a friend of my Mom's and Dad's who had written to say that there was an article in the local newspaper about Dad. It was written by the former mayor of my hometown, about the Farmer's Market that my Dad helped promote and was so proud of. Here's the article. Dad loved working on this project and continued checking emails about it, and telling his friends he would make "the next meeting" up until probably the month before he died. The mayor and Dad were friends. He came to visit Dad in the hospital once, and Dad was so embarrassed when I told the MAYOR to wash his hands upon arrival: "Pat- that's the MAYOR." he sharply whistled under his breath. "Dad, you have no IMMUNE SYSTEM." I whispered back in the same tone.
Last month I also went back to my hometown. I can't lie, it really threw me off. For so many years I would travel back "home" to Connecticut from Philadelphia. Driving on 95 north, headed to 91 North or occasionally the Merritt Parkway, through the traffic of New York city only to be greeted by the traffic of Connecticut. The drive took anywhere from four hours to eight hours and was always filled with rest stops, car snacks and in the last few years, potty breaks for my little guy (or diaper changes). It was tradition though- I know the drive so well. I drove it monthly when Dad was sick, sometimes just traveling back to Philadelphia for the week of work, and then heading back north the following weekend. I will never forget the time my sister and I drove it together after getting a dreaded phone call from my brother saying "Dad looks like shit. You need to come." That was 5 years before he died, but the beginning of his illness. It was also an accurate statement, he did look like shit. Sorry Dad.
But after Dad died the trips were for a different reason. We all stayed with Mom for a few weeks afterwards, but then had to return to our lives. So we traveled back and forth to see Mom, to straighten the house and to panic about her living alone. It was only 8 months after we lost Dad that the moving truck pulled away from "our house" and we turned the keys over to a new family. Now what did Connecticut hold for me? There is no place for me to go now. At the end of that drive, I always, always felt confident that the lights would be on, there would be food in the fridge, and good wine to drink. Now I travel only to visit a few wonderful friends I have that still live there. This town, that used to hold so much joy for me, is a painful reminder of all that is lost.
I thought that maybe in returning to my hometown, it would feel somewhat like "home". I thought that maybe the huge void of losing one parent and slowly losing the other would be temporarily put on hold as I wrapped myself in memories and drove the familiar drive North. I will always feel a connection to this place. But it is in no way "home" anymore. That title goes to my home only now, with my family. I think some warped part of me thought that if we traveled back, I could somehow travel back in time and Dad would be there and Mom would be healthy and they could sit down on the terrible floral couch and ask me how work is going. Or make me rake leaves or do the dishes. Or Dad would grill my husband about politics and ask us "how our social life was going". Instead we stayed in a hotel off Rt. 68, ate dinner at a restaurant and I swam and swam in the hotel pool, hoping to exhaust myself.
At some point I needed to run out to the grocery store during our recent visit, and I found myself lingering in the aisles near the "dietary supplement" section- looking at all of the bottles of Ensure and remembering how I once filled a basket with them, so sure that I could come up with some recipe that Dad would eat. A milkshake would taste good, right? This stupid grocery store was making me cry! After someone dies, all of the trips to the store, all of the medications and the second opinions and new treatments fall away. They are no longer relevant, or important. The notebook where your Dad tracked his illness, researched new treatments and documented signs and symptoms reads now like a tragedy with a predictable ending. I thought that being back "in town" would make me feel connected but it just reminded me that the connection I want is impossible now. I brought my son past the house where I used to live, past the place that I grew up, past the place where we celebrated lives, and birthdays and holidays and engagements and births. And he had no memory of it. And there was nothing there to show him really. Just a house. This place that had meant so much now felt so empty.
I think this is why I try so hard at holidays, and birthdays for our family. I want my son to know home. I want him to be filled with joy and love when he opens the front door. I want him to rest his head easy here, the same way I did in "my house". My joy after this weekend away was heading south with my family in the car, knowing that I have a place to go home to. My son stayed up late on the trip home, and when we brought him up to his room he ran in and said "MY BED!" with such excitement.