You can never go home – or so the saying goes because many expect to recapture feelings, or regain their sense of youth from a particular moment in time. Standing on a particular piece of land, or in a building or a room may stir memories, but it cannot recapture what no longer exists. And that is not all bad.
You see, I never was one of those wanting to return home. Far from it. I found it difficult to believe stories of repressed memories from someone’s childhood because I wished I could forget mine. I couldn’t wait to leave home and swore I’d never go back. But I did. And it was the best decision I ever made.
After years of avoidance, fear, and refusal to go “home,” even purchasing life insurance before making trips anywhere near the old town where we grew up, I had now banded with my younger sister for our first journey back in time. To pave the way for our ultimate goal of attempting some sort of reconciliation with a childhood abuser – our mother – we did a psychological and emotional geo-caching from the surrounding area. Visits with a dear aunt and cousins were surprisingly fulfilling, providing clues to happy memories that had been deeply covered with years of negative mental writing, like a never washed blackboard. The bad memories of physical and mental abuse had been so poignant that for years it was too painful to discuss or call into remembrance our childhood at all. Now we’d finally opened a door that didn’t reveal pain. Our healing continued at the two-story white elementary school we’d attended long ago in the form of middle-aged sisters sliding down the once-forbidden fire-escape tunnel slide and sharing the scenes that gave us nightmares.
A different vignette awaited at the home where we’d spent our teen years. A sign advertising an upcoming estate sale allowed us unencumbered entrance to the big yard on the hill sloping to the railroad tracks, and a pleasant lady welcomed our perusing the sprawling blue home where we’d grown up. Marvel tested the lock of an upstairs bathroom that I’d forgotten existed, noting it still worked, and shared about the hours she’d spent hiding out in there crying in fear or anguish. Together we examined my refuge – the roof outside my bedroom window where I read poetry and dreamed of a normal life, and then we stood shell-shocked at the surprisingly tiny size of the “big bedroom” we had both coveted. Walking the outside perimeter after touring the house, I recalled part of a poem by T.S. Elliot, that said all our exploring for peace with our past would eventually bring us back to where we started, and we would see that place in a new perspective, as though for the first time. It was true. It wasn’t just that we’d grown physically and the rooms now appeared smaller, but the specters of our past had also shrunk and no longer wielded power over us. We knew it was because of the spiritual changes that had taken place in us, I in ’62 and Marvel a few years later (after stealing my Bible!) when we’d taken the first step of giving God not just our present and our future, but believing God could redeem our past as well.
The road to redemption is roughly paved, however, and we saw only the loose gravel underlayment that trip. Greeted with weapons, harsh words and denial of our birth, we shed more tears, and left praying like crazy that God would send someone . . . anyone . . . (except us) to “fix” our mother. That’s not exactly what happened.
Driving south the next day, we were well aware that our past was not done with us, but we determined to move on and live in the present until God saw fit for the next step. My sister tried to erase her memories by describing our mother as deceased when asked about her parents. I copped out by saying I’d wait for Mother to change, never believing she would make a move toward reconnection. When she did, 20 years later, it was eerie.
After dinner out celebrating my birthday, I’d preceded Ken into the house while he parked the car, and I heard the answering machine chirping that we had a message. Automatically I stepped into the dark room, pressed “play,” and then gasped when I heard the familiar but thready voice singing “Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday dear daughter, Happy Birthday to you.” That was all. The click and “end of messages” from the answering machine left me standing in numb shock.
Ken came in, and wrapped his arms around me. “What is it? Bad news?”
Mutely, I reached over and hit “play” letting the message repeat. As we listened, his whisper echoed my thoughts. “Why now after all these years? . . .What does she want?”
I knew I had to go. Perhaps her call meant there was hope. Ken’s prayer led me to the place of faith where I believed God would lead each step of the way. Whatever the outcome, I knew the commandment to “honor” my parents, and I was determined to be obedient, if reluctant.
Weeks later, my 18-year-old granddaughter and I drove past the familiar sign announcing my hometown. My chest hurt with the pain of remembrance and my face must have showed it as well.
“I didn’t expect it to hit me like this,” I responded truthfully, answering Aimee’s questions about my past, and detailing what subjects might be taboo and potentially spur a volatile episode. A nearby hotel provided rest for Aimee, but my mind – the fixer in me – was clamoring. I have a weakness. Like the Apostle Peter, I often spoke without thinking, filling quiet spaces with whatever words came to mind, and once again I grappled with what I should or shouldn’t do or say. Grabbing my Bible, I flopped onto the blue easy chair in the corner, and the book fell open to the marker left from a recent Bible study, the yellow highlighting on the page ironically announcing the little phrase without words. I knew instantly that was my answer. I did not have to say anything; I just had to be there. I quietly chuckled at God’s sense of humor. Now that would be a miracle. I was stunned at the simplicity, but filled with peace, because if God said it, He would enable it to happen. Once the choice was made, I slept and morning came quickly.
A gentle touch and meaningful glance from my granddaughter as we approached Mom’s little house silently softened in sympathy as the door opened and Aimee’s glance moved from me to my mother standing in the doorway of her trash-filled house. Together we helped an unexpectedly subdued little woman shuffle behind her walker which we folded into the trunk of the car, and began our journey.
I’d purposely planned more than a day would hold, hoping there would be no empty opportunity for an “episode.” We visited some new restaurants for meals between little drives across the countryside, ostensibly to show my granddaughter where I grew up and went to school. It was treacherous emotional territory, but Aimee kept up innocuous chatter sprinkled with innocent questions comparing cars, clothing, and school days “back then” with Aimee’s recent experiences. There were no life-changing conversations, but there was a constant opportunity to show honor and God’s love as Mom’s memories carried both of us to some good places from her past.
How, I wondered throughout the day, would my unusually silent behavior be interpreted? The day’s end told all.
“Before you go,” she asked, “would you help me change to my slippers? It’s hard to bend down anymore.” As I folded one knee down before her and reached to slip off a shoe, she rested her hand on my head like a benediction, noting with surprise that her little girl had silver in her hair. Kneeling there, barely restraining the tears, I swallowed and looked up. Our eyes met and held, and I could not speak for what I saw written there.
The tender look from her spoke volumes of response to words I hadn’t had to say. In that moment before they glazed over and wandered away again, her faded blue eyes looked directly into mine clearly displaying words she’d never said before: “I’m sorry, and I love you.” My bitterness slid away, replaced by gratefulness to God for filling the silence and going where I could not.
Are you a caregiver? Have you been a caregiver? My caregiving story had some rough moments, but many more God was there moments. I’d love to encourage you if you are on a caregiving journey too.