The Year We Came Home
Vela / November 2011
The year I moved back home to California—the year I got sick and resigned, more or less, from life altogether—I had, for the first few months, traveling dreams, the kind that fill your nights when you’re sleeping in a strange bed in a foreign place. I dreamed, mostly, of the makeshift life I had left back in New York City: late winter nights in the ragged bar where I worked, endless mazes of Brooklyn warehouses, cold street lights casting an eerie glow over faces of people I had meant to leave behind. I always woke up feeling both nostalgic and haunted, half-stunned to find myself waking to what had suddenly become my entire world—a small bedroom in a small Bay Area town, winter rain pattering against the window, my mother standing with curlers in her hair, applying lipstick in a small mirror that hung above her dresser.
One morning in early March of that year, I woke from one of these dreams and looked over at the clock: 6:30 am. My mother was getting ready to leave for the local middle school, where she worked as a teaching aid for a blind girl. The teddy bear she clutched while she slept lay next to me. After being out on my own since I was 17, I was sharing not just a home with my mother, not just a room, but a bed. I had just turned 21.
“Good morning, sweet pea,” she said, eyeing me from the mirror, her blue eyes vibrant. Childhood had not always been easy with my mother, but she was at her best in the mornings. It had always been the most forgiving time in our chaotic household, the best time for forgetting what may have been said, screamed, or thrown the night before. Despite those wearing years, my mother, at 5 foot 8, 125 pounds, and 55 years old, was still toe-headed, still light on her feet like the dancer she had once been. She was, in a word, beautiful. It was one of those indisputable facts I had known from the earliest possible age—like the sky is blue, and the night is dark. As a child, I’d sit on the toilet seat in our cramped bathroom and watch, marveling at her reinvention as she carefully applied eyeliner and blush. Some nights she’d be a crying mess, and I’d tuck her into bed like she was my own child. I guess that’s what I liked about mornings—my mother seemed, for once, powerful, and I felt like I probably ought to have felt more often—like a child in awe of a grown-up.
“Good morning, mom,” I said, letting her kiss me on the cheek as I shuffled past her to the huge, ungainly desktop computer in the corner of her room. Those nights were gone now, our relationship closer and less fraught, but not much had changed at home in the years I’d been gone. Because here was another indisputable fact: my family had long ago unraveled, and not one of us—not me, my brother, my father, or my mother—had gotten their shit together. My mom shuffled between different precarious living situations—apartments with men, tiny studios, and now this bedroom in a family friend’s condo in an affluent suburb just north of San Francisco. And I had, in some unconscious way, modeled my life after hers. With few belongings, I had managed to live in eight apartments during my four and a half years in New York City. My math-whiz brother worked loading junk into trucks for $12 an hour, and my dad had fled the year before to Indonesia to travel and escape the husk of a life that he had left in those days. With his kids, wife, and subsequent girlfriends gone, he had been living alone in a tiny cottage far out in West Marin, perched at the top of a steep hill few people ever drove up.
“You should call Grandma Lilia today,” my mom said, dabbing concealer under her eyes. “You don’t know if you’ll have another chance.”
I nodded sleepily as I sat down at the computer, feeling uneasy about the call. Congestive heart failure had landed my father’s mother in hospice, and it wasn’t clear whether she had days or weeks to live. I had already called her room a few days before, and she had been unable to speak. The nurse had held the phone to her ear, and I could only hear her delicate breathing, the unsettling silence between each exhale. My mother was still close with her, but the last time I’d seen her I was 12.
I opened up Gmail, looking for the letter I’d been waiting for from my father. The scope of my life had suddenly narrowed to the size of a needlepoint, and I lived for email, wrote absurdly long letters hoping that someone would give me something of that length back. Besides my best friend, my father was the only one who succeeded at this task. My dad and I had always been, in some essential way, alike—more kin than father and daughter. But we had lived so much of our lives apart, and these letters deepened our relationship, closed the distance between us and yet made that distance feel painfully real and complete. And there it was—his response to the letter I had sent.
Dear Simone: Thanks for the news.
He hadn’t spoken to his mother in five years. I read quickly through the email, skipping whole paragraphs, to get to the line that mattered the most, the one I was hoping would be there. And it was.
My father was coming home.
I was a curious kid, always asking big questions that couldn’t be answered. But there was one I never asked aloud, one that caught in my throat even then as a full grown adult, one that I felt instinctively ashamed I didn’t know the answer to: What does home feel like?
I never had the strong sense of being from somewhere, of something. The closest to it I think I had ever gotten as a child was in books, diving into worlds so completely I forgot myself and that drafty, vacant feeling that I woke with in the morning. For once, the world felt small and close around me. I supposed that’s what people meant when they said that word, home.
If I had had the energy, I probably would have left New York kicking and screaming. As it was, I managed silent tears. It was hard to leave the life I had made in those formative years, even one, that in retrospect, was pretty desperate. But it wasn’t home—oh, I willed it to be, I wanted it to be—just a life that was mine and mine alone.
When I came back to California, though, I felt displaced and isolated, leading a quiet existence I didn’t know how to explain to anyone. Because my year back at home wasn’t exactly what one would expect—I wasn’t living in my childhood bedroom in my parents house, and I wasn’t just getting my bearings after college. I was learning how to live with pain.
When I was diagnosed with a chronic pain condition that winter, it became clear that I could no longer scrape by in New York on barista and catering tips. Looking back, those months after college are some of the darkest I can remember—adrift on the margins of society, I felt lost, that typical, terrified feeling that seizes most people after they finish school. But my loneliness, I think, was sharper, more pronounced. While friends were moving onto 9-5s, starting new relationships, or doing what I had hoped to do—traveling and teaching overseas—I was recovering.
That may be why, six years later, I still avoid the topic of that time. There are stories we can’t wait to tell, stories we collect, purposefully, on our travels like shells washed up on shore. There are whole years we compress into 20-minute cocktail conversation, stories we’re asked to tell again and again. But there are certain spans of time in our lives—empty, endless highways inside of us—that no one knows asks about. These are the times we’ve learned to compress not into stories but single, evasive sentences. That winter I went back to California is one of those times.
My brother and I drove his old, run-down Geo to the airport the day my dad came in, the fog thickening as we reached the Golden Gate Bridge, encroaching on us like a quiet threat. I felt strangely numb. I had not seen my father in over a year and a half, had not even heard his voice since he’d called me during a February storm in New York to tell me he was leaving. Outside my apartment, the Westside Highway had been hushed with snow, and I felt, in that moment, further from him than I’d ever felt from anything.
My brother and I arrived at the gate just a few minutes early, but the waiting felt like an eternity. We hadn’t seen much of each other in years, and we didn’t yet know how to talk to each other as adults. Not far from those arrival gates, my father had seen me off on the backpacking trip to Europe that I had taken before moving to New York, and later, one Christmas, he had dropped me off at the curbside, my duffel bag in hand. I had always been the one to leave, the one waving goodbye, slamming the car door, turning my back. It was an odd role reversal, standing here, waiting. I had never had to do the waiting.
People trickled out slowly, and it seemed to me that every six foot tall man with dark hair was my father. When I finally did see him, something instantly unclenched in me. My brother and I waved, yelling “Dad!” as he looked around, dragging his suitcase behind him and wiping off his sweaty forehead with his ever-present handkerchief. As he got closer, I could see that he had shaved off his wild, graying beard, and lost some of his extra weight. He looked older without it, his face drawn. My father—a big, lumbering man—looked, for the first time I could remember, fragile. We both walked briskly up to him.
“Hey kids!” my dad said, and I laughed, straining, as I did as a child, to wrap my arms around his hefty middle. His linen clothes felt thin, much too light for winter in the Bay Area. He smelled of Clove cigarettes and travel, the strange scent of a country I’d never been to. For years, we had passed each other, ships at night, on holidays and in voicemail. And now here he was, suitcase in hand, just as displaced as I was. He said nothing about his mother, but the old sadness in his eyes—the sadness, I think, that had driven him so far from this place—had not gone away.
I was on the phone with my friend Julia in New York, laughing, when I ran into my mother sitting on the condo stairs, a wireless phone hanging in her hand. She turned to me with tears in her eyes.
Past her, the living room was virtually silent. Susie, the owner of the condo and our old family friend, sat nervously sipping a glass of wine on the couch where my father had slept the night before. He stood with his back to all of us, staring out at the twilight through the sliding glass doors. He had been back for just one night, had planned to rent a car to get up to Seattle the next day. He had called hospice the day before, but his sister had intercepted the phone, and wouldn’t let him speak with her. You will only upset her, she said.
When my dad moved out of his cottage and packed most of his belongings into storage, there were certain people he aimed to put himself oceans away from, and I’m pretty sure one of them was his mother. She’d spent most of his childhood depressed in bed on a dangerous cocktail of prescriptive drugs, and they’d had a complicated relationship. But now that she was dying, he had been racing against time to, at the very least, say goodbye.
Though it had been so long, my grandmother had left a kind of dream-like impression on me—tall, thin, beautiful, and intimidating, she seemed to float more than walk, hovering at her window as she gazed out at the snow-capped bushes. But more than anything, my grandmother represented to me who my father had once been, the world he had come from. Her husband, my dad’s stepfather, ran a resort in Lake Tahoe, and it was in the winters we visited her that I think a kind of seed of travel was planted in me. I’d never been east of Nevada, but those mountains were a different world—one covered in snow, one populated with people who were just passing through. I loved the anonymous, empty rooms of the resort, the beds tidily made, the skinny dirt paths that led down from them to the freezing lake. She left for Seattle when I was 11, and I only saw her once after that.
I hung up the phone and sat down on the stair above my mom, feeling unable to move. I don’t remember seeing my father’s face that night, just the slump of his back, the posture of resignation. “Well, she’d already been dying for a long time,” he said, shrugging. He opened the sliding door, sat down on Susie’s back patio, and lit a cigarette, it’s tip like a firefly in the night.
I reached out and squeezed my mother’s hand, which was dry and cracked from winter. She squeezed mine back. And it was as if there were a current of feeling moving through us like electricity, all the pain and grief my father couldn’t let himself feel.
It all but crushed me when my father left, though I never admitted that to him. I remember him saying that “now that you and your brother are on your feet I can go.” But how could I tell him that nothing was further from the truth? How could I tell him that I was drowning and he was the closest thing I had to an anchor? I had never held onto the illusion that my family would get back together—as far as I could recall, we’d never been whole. But I guess I clung to a more selfish notion—that my family would remain where I left them. That if I needed them, they’d be there, whiling away their days while I pursued the adventure of my life. I wondered, then, if he felt that too, that sudden realization that when you return, things are never as you left them.
Later that night, I woke next to my mother, and found she’d accidentally kicked off the sheets. I pulled them over her before I stumbled down the stairs to the kitchen to get a glass of water. That firefly of my father’s cigarette was still there. I felt the urge to go to him, put my arms around his broad shoulders as I had done as a child, but I had learned since then what it meant for a person to need to be alone. I stood and drank my water and thought of the unlikely scene from earlier that night. My parents’ marriage and divorce had both been brutal and drawn out, and I had not been looking forward to being in the same room with them. But something had been different that night than ever before—I felt not the urge to run, to escape, but to stay, to hold my mother’s hand as we watched my father smoke on the other side of the glass. There was nowhere else I wanted to be.
’d like to say we took Highway 1 up to Seattle, curving north along the winding edge of the pacific, driving through the most beautiful memories of my youth. But it was Highway 5, of course, a straight, quick shot through flat terrain—farmland, cattle, horses, and more cattle. Low-roofed houses. A blur of browns and greens in the rain.
My dad and my brother sat up front, my mom and me in the back—like old times, very old times, when the four of us would pack into whatever wheezing car my parents were driving that year, and we’d head north to Tahoe, steeling ourselves against the approaching cold of the mountains with warm music like Bob Marley. This time it was early Beatles recordings, and my brother sang along in his clear falsetto, my mother humming and half-singing the words she knew. And my dad and I just listened. We always just listened. We had eased back into an old rhythm, one I had long forgotten existed. But there was something about this time that was singularly different from those old times—we were happy, quietly happy just to be together. It was the first time I saw my dad laugh since he’d been home, the first time, actually, since long before that. Without knowing it, something in all of us had been aching for this for a long time, longer than we knew, as long as forever. At one point, we drove into a long, gorgeous series of rainbows, more vibrant that anything I’d ever seen. Like children’s paintings, the color was so rich.
At the funeral, everyone cracked during the slideshow, even my tough-shelled brother. We sat in a line watching the pictures move by, the ones that told a story only we knew—me, at 4, laughing and making snow angels outside of my grandmother’s resort; my parents, weary-looking, posing one summer at the lake; me and my mother in thick jackets, me looking up at her from behind shaggy bangs, a curious look of concern on my face; and later, one by the resort’s front sign, my parents older and heavier, my mother’s brow furrowed, and me, smiling hard, as if trying to hold it all together, to keep the fissures from showing. As time moved forward in the slideshow, our faces appeared less frequently, and then, disappeared from the reel altogether. The unspoken journey of these photos was like a secret we shared, and I realized that’s what I had felt in the car on the way up—shared history, shared origins. Even if it was fractured and fucked up, our history belonged to each other. The grief that had filled me the night my grandmother died suddenly tipped over into a kind of a peace, a feeling of being right where I belonged.