A House in the Woods

It was October of 2011 and I was coming home from college for the first time since losing Mom. Going back to campus that August had been one of the scariest transitions, more daunting than it had felt as a freshman the year before. But it turned out to be the best antidote for my grief. It was a warm little bubble that enveloped me completely, that recharged me with its pulsing energy and refocused my mind on tangible things over which I, more-or-less, had control. It felt good to feel good again, and to feel free to express myself when I didn’t feel good without fear of hurting the people around me. And because we humans do not like to feel bad and are known for taking the easy way out, I quickly decided that I would find every excuse and jump at any opportunity to never go home that year. Home did not feel like home anymore and I was not ready to accept this fact.

In spite of this pledge, I found myself headed home for fall break. We pulled into the driveway of the house I had spent my entire life in and in my eyes, it still looked as dead as it had that summer. The structure and landscape were the same but I could not get passed the dying flowerbeds or the empty space that my mom’s Honda civic used to fill. ¬†After dropping my bag in my bare room, I cautiously ventured into the rest of the house. Through the kitchen, dining room, living room, hallway, and guest room. I opened closet doors for no reason and turned on all the lights in every room. Finally, I made it to my mom’s room. The bed was stripped and it was eerily quiet. I stood there for a long time as reality sunk in. It was only as I stood there that I realized I’d been looking for her as I went through the house, knowing I wouldn’t find her but hoping that maybe the past few months had been a really bad dream. I gently closed the french doors of her room and locked myself in my own for the rest of the weekend.¬†Life, it seemed, had been sucked out of this house. And I still wanted nothing to do with reviving it.

This past Saturday, my dad met me at the train station in Durham, North Carolina. It’s been almost a year since I left for Europe and the anticipation of seeing him was almost unbearable during the last couple of stops. As I maneuvered my enormous suitcase down the train’s steps, I spotted his signature hat almost instantly in the small group of people gathered on the platform. A cup of tea in his hand, he came towards me and I into his outstretched arms. There were no balloons, no crowd of friends and family waiting with posters welcoming me home. This was my crowd and it was all I needed.

Later that night, we cooked dinner together and sat down at the kitchen table, a post-mom addition that has turned into the saving grace of family meals ever since (we used to eat in the dining room with Mom). A Post-It note that I wrote last summer, imploring my family to “please don’t make too much noise, I am sleeping, thxs” is still attached to the kitchen cabinet. More photos of my brother and me have been hung on the walls, filling the space that our actual presence has left as we have become adults. And those gardens, the same ones whose state of disarray used to cast a spell of gloom over the house, have been restored. As I settled into bed in my childhood bedroom, a full set of Nancy Drews above my head to remind me of just that, I found myself thinking of that first “homecoming.” And it felt good to know that I did not have to look for Mom this time; I know she can be found in many places.