Going Home

“You can’t go home again.”

People have told me this my whole life. I hear it all over the place. I suspect pretty much everyone has said this to someone else or to themselves at some point or another. I’ve said it to myself many times, over the years. It’s one of those sayings that seems to fit a lot of different circumstances. It sounds like wisdom. It has the ring of truth to it. And so, it’s easy for people to trot it out when they don’t have anything better to say. Or when they don’t know what to say.

But I don’t think the enormity of this saying — the heavy and real truth behind it — ever hit me until this summer’s trip to Texas. This summer, though, I have found myself thinking about this more than ever. And I have felt the weight of the truth behind what seems to be such a simple statement. You can’t go home again. Because “home” — that place that lives in your childhood memories — isn’t there any longer. Things change. People change. People die. You change. If I’m not the person I was when I was 9 or 10 or 16, how can I expect “home” to be static and unchanging? Funny how I never thought about it that way until this year. Actually, I guess I never thought much about it at all.

We went to visit my Aunt Pat and Uncle Ray’s house in Victoria. This was my first time visiting their house since my Aunt Pat’s death. I knew it was important to my mom for us to go. And it was important to my Uncle Ray, too. And to my sweet cousin, who was so excited for us to come. But … I really didn’t want to go. It’s probably selfish of me, but I didn’t want to face that house without my aunt in it.  I didn’t want to face my feelings and my grief. I didn’t want to feel the reality of her being gone from our lives — from my life. My Aunt Pat was creative and talented, and she poured so much love and energy into her house. Everything in that house is a reflection of her. Everything is just the same as it was when I was a kid and we would visit. Everything … except my sweet and beautiful aunt isn’t there. Her presence is everywhere, but she is not. And so, the house is completely the same but completely different, all at the same time.

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I have many happy memories from her house. My parents moved away from my childhood home when I was in college, so, in a way, my aunt and uncle’s house stands in that place in my mind. Because it’s still there. Because it’s still the same home. Because every stick of furniture and every painting on the walls is the same, even if it feels a little bit empty and hollow now.

I found myself standing in the back room of the house, which had been my Aunt Pat’s sewing room. I have so many memories of just that room. She used to sew all my clothes, and I remember looking over patterns and materials and endless sessions of trying things on and being told not to wiggle so I didn’t get stuck with a pin. Well, they seemed endless back then. I would give almost anything now to have Aunt Pat fuss at me for being too wiggly. I spent hours in that room as a child and teenager when we visited. She had shelves and shelves and shelves of books, including a whole shelf that had books I could read. My favorite was Beautiful Joe. I must have read that book a hundred times over the years. I read it pretty much every time we visited them. It lives with me now, a sweet and incredibly sentimental gift from my cousin. My Aunt Pat had a beautiful wooden cabinet, which she had painted with different types of mushrooms. Inside this cabinet were many treasures, including a set of 6 miniature ceramic horses. I was fascinated with those little horses. I loved them, and I spent hours as a child sitting in front of that cabinet, dreaming up different stories in my head — always with a herd of white horses thundering through the plot line. The cabinet lives with my cousin now, but the little white horses live with me: one of the last gifts my Aunt Pat sent to me, the year before she died. On my daughter’s first Christmas, I fed her in that back room, sitting in the comfortable chair she had covered with sunny yellow fabric.

My Uncle Ray found me standing in the room, looking around at all the things that were the same and the things that had changed. I was lost in my memories. “It’s a bit different, isn’t it?” he asked me. I nodded, because I couldn’t trust my voice. How can it be that a room is the same, the memories are the same, but none of it seems alive any longer? I don’t know, but my Aunt Pat was the life and spirit of that room. It doesn’t feel the same any longer.

It was a hard visit. But it was also good, in a way. It was good to hug my Uncle Ray and my cousin. It was good to visit and tell stories and laugh. Above all, my Aunt Pat and Uncle Ray’s house always seemed to me like a house full of joy, love, laughter, and good memories. And that part is the same. Maybe, in a small way, you can go home again. Even when everything has changed.

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Sadness

I lost my beloved aunt last week. “Lost” is a weird way of talking about death, isn’t it? It makes it sound like I’ve temporarily misplaced her, but I can find her if I just look hard enough. Perhaps she is hiding out in one of my cluttered closets or behind the TV stand. Or maybe I simply lost track of where she went, so that I might see her in the cereal aisle at the grocery store or standing in line to pay a bill. Oh, how I wish that was true. I wish it with all my heart.

My Aunt Sue was the last of my beloved aunts. She was my mom’s younger sister. We lost my Aunt Pat, my mom’s older sister, last Christmas. And so now, in the span of just ten short months, it seems that everything in the universe has changed. I no longer have any aunts. They still live in my heart and my memories. They are still very much loved by me and always will be. But they are no longer here, where I can hear their voices or listen to their advice or give them a hug. Ten months ago, my mom was a sister. And now, she is not. My mom is the last person left from her family. She still has my dad, my brother, and me. She still has nieces and nephews. But, really, it’s not the same. I can’t even begin to fathom how it must feel to outlive everyone you grew up with, everyone who shares your history and your memories and stories. I can hardly bear to think about it.

And for me, selfishly, I feel angry with the universe. Angry and cheated. Wasn’t losing Aunt Pat enough? Wasn’t it enough that our family should be expected to carry on without her in our lives? I think we were all just beginning to feel our way through this new territory. My Aunt Pat had been very ill. For such a long time, she hadn’t been able to do the things she loved. She hadn’t been able to visit with the people she loved so much. She had lost so much of her normal life. Selfishly, I wish she was still here with us, but, realistically, I know she was suffering terribly. Still, I wish I could talk to her again or sit quietly with her or watch her sew or paint. My Aunt Pat did the most beautiful crewel embroidery. And she painted beautifully, all self-taught, as far as I know. Watching her work was like watching magic happen right before my eyes. It always amazed me how she could bring a sketch to life with needle and thread or simple paints. She was a strong, confident, and sometimes bossy woman. I say that with a smile on my face; I don’t mean it in a negative or mean way at all. She was full of joy and so much love. She was beautiful. I will always remember her beautiful smile.  She taught me how to sew and embroider. I can still remember how she was so patient and, yet, always insisted I do things perfectly. I will always be grateful for those lessons: if you’re going to do something … if you’re going to put your time and  your effort into it … be sure to get it right so that you can look at what you’ve created with pride. She loved roses and cacti and gardening. She and my uncle always had the most amazing yard. Really, it was more like a park than a yard.

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My Aunt Sue’s death was very sudden and unexpected. She hadn’t been sick. As far as anyone knows, she hadn’t been feeling poorly at all. She and my uncle had gone to town for a shopping trip on the morning of the day she passed away. Everything seemed normal and fine. Honestly, even now, it doesn’t feel real to me. I keep thinking I will wake up tomorrow and realize that it was all a dream. And then, I will call or text Aunt Sue to tell her about it, and she will laugh about how silly I was. It just doesn’t seem possible that there can be a world without her in it. And a world without both of my aunts seems beyond impossible. They were both such important parts of my life. And they have left spaces in my heart that will never be filled. Overall, I don’t feel I have been handling this well. I will be going along with my normal day (or trying to, anyhow), and I will think that I’m okay. Suddenly, a wave of sadness and memory will hit me, as if my mind is reminding me that nothing is the same and everything has changed. It’s nearly unbearable at times. Perhaps grief is like that. I don’t know.

My Aunt Sue was an amazing woman. She was a bit of a free spirit and a bit of a flirt. She was beautiful, just like my Aunt Pat. When I was a little kid, I loved for Aunt Sue to come and visit. She was like a breath of fresh air in a life that felt small and kind of boring. Her visits meant ice cream for breakfast, games until way past bedtime, watching her put on make-up (I always thought she was so glamorous and chic), and hearing crazy stories about her job. For many years, she was a flight attendant. And, let me tell you, she had some wild and wonderful stories and experiences with that job. But, over the years, she did many things. She ran for (and held) public office. She decided to go back to school to become a teacher. She taught school for many years. She ranched alongside my uncle. And she had crazy, fun stories from each and every one of these endeavors. She had a zest for life that is nearly indescribable, but, if you were in a room with her, you would feel it. It was like the air got a bit lighter, the sun a bit brighter, and life became a bit more of an adventure. I loved going to visit her when I was young, because she lived in an apartment in a big city. It seemed like such a glamorous and exciting way to live. She was always laughing, always smiling. Basically, I grew up wanting to be just like my Aunt Sue. My Aunt Sue married a kind, soft-spoken, gentle man who has a sly and rather wicked sense of humor. Their love story was beautiful and strong. And she leaves behind two amazing, beautiful daughters. My cousins truly are two of the most incredible women I’ve ever met.

The thing is, my Aunt Pat and my Aunt Sue, in many ways, had very different lives. And yet, as I sit here and think about them both with an aching heart full of grief, the one thing I can say about them is that they LIVED. Both of them knew what they wanted from life. They were both daring enough to go after those things with all their hearts, until they molded out the lives they wanted. They lived to the fullest and left behind so many people who loved and cherished them: husbands, children, nieces, nephews, brothers-in-law, a sister. When I think about the hardships they faced and the sheer strength and courage they both had … Well, it amazes me. I can’t think of another way to describe it. It amazes me and makes me proud that I come from two such incredible women.

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And now, I realize that, when I grow up, I want to be like both of my beloved aunts. I want to be strong and full of courage. I want to be bold and daring enough to go after the things I want — to chase them down with a free spirit and with my whole heart. I want to learn how to LIVE.