I decide, last minute, to go home.
This decision always changes my life a little bit. Maybe you think I’m being a tad dramatic, which I can’t exactly deny. And yet, if I brought you home, you’d see that it’s true. It’s not necessarily that things are happening, though they almost always are, just down the street somewhere. It’s just what happens to me when I go home.
“You should write a book,” some of the people in my family insist. They are faithful consumers of my words, eagerly choosing to believe I was made to do this, just like I do. What they don’t know–or maybe they do–is that if I wrote a book, I would have to write about them. It’s not because they’re just so much more interesting than me, though they are; it’s because most things about me start with them. It’s because my life is paragraphs stacked atop one another describing them and what they’ve done, where they’ve gone, how we’ve been together, and how we haven’t. It’s punctuated, sure, with normal 22-year-old-kid endeavors. My book is full of commas named for old friends, apostrophes announcing smidges of me that belong to boys I’ve loved, and the great em dash I call “looking for a job.” But all of the words talk about them. And so, when I go home, it has a tendency to change things.
The drive takes exactly an hour and a half, down one road that seems to have been paved just to take me where I’m going. I’ve driven it, as you might guess, many, many times since I’ve been away at college. In fact, if you spun me around 17 times and then put me in my car, I bet that after a few deep breaths, I could point myself down it again. And I don’t even have a natural sense of direction.
As I go, I find myself losing things alongside the road, the things that I’ve layered on, mostly since college. I set them down with care: I drink hot tea before bed (my family doesn’t.) I know the roads of Tuscaloosa better than the ones of my hometown now (they don’t know them.) I worry about papers, books, magazines (they worry about other things.) When I arrive on my stoop, I am a different-but-the-same girl than the one who decided to come home. I stand before them, raw and unhidden, merely who I am on that day, which is always subject to change. But it’s me without anything else, without titles or diplomas or cups of coffee. (Well, I take that back. I usually stop for coffee on my way home.) I let myself in the house, and there is no ceremony or exultation; I am simply home, and they bring me back in.
It’s hard to be a part of my family. They won’t mind me saying that; in fact, they’ll probably nod their heads, reach out to me, say they understand, and truthfully, they are the only ones who do. These people love fiercely, and they taught me to do that. But some of us have the ability to break each other, and others of us have the know-how to paste broken shards back together, though cracks always remain, cracks that make it stronger and weaker, more beautiful and also ugly. These roles are traded, hats tossed across the street or the abyss, phone calls and sighs, not-agains and “I miss you”s murmured and yelled. It’s hard work, keeping your head above the water, loving and refusing to stop even when you’re loving things that break. It’s hard for me, too, even though, from their perspective, I get to leave. They think I get a choice in the matter, that I can choose whether or not I love as deeply as they do. But they’re wrong about that: They taught me to love fiercely, and I do, even if it’s from a distance, even if it breaks my heart.********************
When I’m home, all of this confronts me in ways that it doesn’t when I’m away. The responsibility of my other life lays alongside the highway, but I walk into the reality of my family, our differences brighter and clearer than ever. But then again, so are the bits of us that are the same. I’m broken and put back together all over again, around the people who share my sarcasm and fierceness and nose. I feel so present, as if no time has passed since I was last there, and so far away at the same time, my mind lingering back where I’ve been for the past four years. I remember the things about my family that make me angry, the things I desperately want to “fix.” They remind me fixing things is hard to do, maybe impossible. They remind me that they don’t need fixing. I take a deep breath. “This is where I come from,” I understand, but I catch sight of a bird that reminds me that I’ve gone other places, too, and without them. They’re proud of that; it’s a place where the things for which I’m lauded in my everyday life–writer, say, or college graduate–matter the most and the least at the same time. My resume has no bearing on who I am there, but it does make me shine in their eyes.
Crossing the threshold to go back home–each place gets that title–is the hardest part. I know there’s a whole life waiting for me, a life apart from them, or so it would seem. But what I realize time and again is this: I must go and gather the things I left on the highway, stacking them back on top of the person who goes home. But with all of that removed, the core of me–the part that arrives on their doorstep and remains under the ornaments–is not made of glass, but of something steadier, and truer, and fiercer. They made me like that, and so they are always with me. There’s no escaping, though, truth be told, I have wished before that there was; there is only us, intertwined as we are. They are already the loves of my life.
And so I pluck courage from the place where it dwells within me and I leave again. I get in my car and begin the drive back home, finding the things I dropped alongside the highway where I left them, blowing like wildflowers in the wind.
On the way home, I sing this, “I won’t run far, I can always be found. If you need me, I can always be found.”