I’ve been interested in the concept of “home” for most of my life. Is it the house I grew up in? The state? The country? Is it where I live now? Is it my body? Or is it an idea rather than something physical?
I still say phrases like, “I’m going home for Christmas,” or, “Going home is good and difficult at the same time.” Yet I strongly identify with New York as my home and Kentucky as the place I am from. KY the homeland, NY the homehome. Which means they are both simultaneously my home. Yet my childhood house was taken by the bank, a tragedy that still finds its way into my nightmares, and my dad moved from the place he shared with my mom into his own apartment after she died, so when I go home, there’s no physical house to go to. But he still lives in the town I grew up in, so there are the familiar stores and schools and fields, though much of that has also changed. Similarly in New York, I feel at home in my apartment yet it isn’t mine, I don’t own it nor intend to live in it long-term. I consider Prospect Lefferts Gardens to be my home, but it’s the third neighborhood I’ve lived in here in NYC, and besides, Brooklyn is known for how rapidly its storefronts and populations change, meaning that even if I had stayed put, most everything around me would look different. So yet again I circle back to, What is home?
Anyway, this entry is a two-parter. First, something I wrote when visiting Dad in my hometown back in July. Then, in the next few days, I’ll post part two about our most recent visit that started with the road trip described in Brain-Picking Becky #2: Notes From the Road.
Out of dedication to honesty, I wrote and edited this intro in 35 minutes. I spent an hour writing Part 1 back in July but then edited it a bit today before posting. I promise Part 2 will be written and edited in an hour only (this challenge is hard, give me a break).
From July 2, 2016:
I love the Kentucky summer. There’s something about the heat and humidity that puts you in another world, soaks into your skin until it permeates your brain and makes everything feel distant yet deep inside of you at the same time.
Being back home in Mt. Washington is always a funny thing. I just don’t like it here. It seems so sad and boring to me. I look at everything with such a city girl air that I make myself feel guilty. Mean. Judgmental of my own people. But I’m not being judgy. I understand that they look at my life in Brooklyn with the same awe, think the same thoughts about why someone would ever want to live that way. I think the guilt is less about being snobby and more about a feeling that I’ve somehow rejected or turned my back on a part of myself. But even that isn’t true; I never liked it here. I always felt out of sorts, despite the things I desperately love about my hometown. I was just born in the wrong place, and there’s something that will always feel bizarre about cleaving my life the way I did when I moved to the Northeast.
Despite all of this, today, for the first time, I was able to look out of my car window at this strange hometown of mine and see happiness. I’ve been looking out of my car window as a transplant for 13 years now, and it took this long to realize that I see so much sadness here because I look out and see my own sadness. That doesn’t mean there isn’t sadness here; people are bored, depressed, underworked and underpaid. Farmers have lost their livelihoods, and generic yet uniquely American strip malls have sprung up on the land that once meant everything to them. High school kids are on meth and heroin, they’re missing teeth, they eat bad food every day. But there are also high school kids smiling while they do tricks on their bikes and skateboards. There are contented parents sitting around the public pool while their kids squeal in the water. There are athletes running alongside the highway, sweating and glistening and gritting their teeth in that satisfied way the insanely athletic do. There are dogs and beers and lanky legs propped up on lawn chairs. There are vibrantly red cardinals flitting from one gorgeous tree to another above proud men mowing lawns with their shirts off. There are familiar faces waving and saying hello, there are heavily accented, ridiculously friendly conversations in grocery store lines about butter, there are swing sets and grills and the smell of damn good meat in the air. It finally occurred to me today that within each of these pleasant, small town markers, I still see my own lanky legs with their hand-carved scars, smell the remnants of barbecues that taunted my anorexic resolve. The cardinals and trees and swing sets remind me of the house the bank took from us. The contented families remind me that my mother is gone, and that in some ways, she felt gone even when she was still here.
We have a choice about how we tell our stories (I stole this line from Hazel of The Fault in Our Stars; brilliant). I realized today that I’ve been telling myself a story of sadness, a story that started well enough with a cute family filled with love and happiness that was shattered by mental illness and tragedy. A story of a girl who was saved by her swift exit, her getaway to a greater, more sophisticated place where she actually belonged. But now that I can finally stare the sadness of my past in its face without disguising it as the sadness of this town, I realize how even during those difficult years, there was happiness. My family’s story is not just about our tragic woes, but it is also about a young artist discovering the importance of her creativity, the same creativity that her mother shared and sparked and encouraged. It’s a story of people who loved each other so much that despite the angst they evoked in one another, their deep-rooted connection brought them to a place of understanding and peace. It’s a story of a brother and sister who learned how to be strong and big-hearted enough to grow into happy, healthy, educated people in loving relationships with kids of their own. It’s about a daughter and father who made each other laugh at the darkest aspects of life. Despite my scars and boniness and our collective insanities, we succeeded as a family. I don’t need to feel sad and guilty about the fact that I am living my dream life in the greatest city in the world. I don’t need to look at my history and feel an uncanny confusion about who I was then versus who I am now. I know exactly how I got here, and it wasn’t on a trail of tears. I can let go of that guilt; it’s okay to dislike my hometown. It’s okay to see and feel sadness when I’m here. But it’s also okay to see and feel beauty and joy. Perhaps I was rejecting or turning on a part of myself, the happy part of my teenaged years, and now this guilt is fading because I’m finally embracing them while also giving myself permission to just be who I am.
I don’t let myself off so easily when it comes to the guilt about not getting more manicures and pedicures with my mom, however. It seems like the dumbest, most trivial thing, but whenever I’m home and I pass Xscape, the salon/spa in town, I am overcome with guilt. My mom just wanted to spend more time doing relaxing things with me on my visits, and instead I pushed her to go visit other people, mainly my granny (her mother). The three of us were close – they practically raised me together – and we had a lovely rapport. Granny is old and sick and I thought my time with her was more limited than my time with my mom. And to be honest, I was also afraid to spend that much time alone with Mom, who, because of the medicine combined with her illness, shook uncontrollably, struggled to keep up with conversations, and sometimes drooled or spilled food on herself. One weekend in my late twenties, I flew in with a long list of questions, a tape recorder, a notepad, and a pen to interview Granny about her life. I wanted Mom to be there for some of it but not all. I knew Granny would open up to me more if it were just the two of us. I also wanted a break from the drain of my mother. On the final morning before I began our last interviewing session, I gave Granny a manicure while she, Mom and I talked about something (I can’t remember what), and then when Mom asked if I would give her a pedicure, I shied away, saying that it was already late and I had so many questions to get through. It was true; I really did have a project and only one more day to finish it. I also have a thing where I feel squeamish and a little nauseous about touching other peoples’ toes (though I didn’t explain this because it makes me feel silly). Mom understood and it was not a big deal, she didn’t even look that disappointed, but now that she’s dead and Granny is here, playing with my baby who my mother will never meet, I am ripped apart over the fact that I didn’t give her that damn pedicure, that I didn’t delay visiting Granny long enough to spend one more hour alone with her at Xscape, that I didn’t listen to her better. How was I to know we only had a few more years?
Being home can be hard. But now that the humidity has broken and a gorgeous sunset is setting in, I’m coming back to myself, back to this world. Ruminating can be dangerous.
These thoughts about home and my mom are all a valuable yet also long-winded way to avoid writing about my father’s cancer. We (my husband, baby, dogs, and I) are here right now because of it. We’re here to see him and hug him and go to an oncologist appointment with him. We’re here to make and freeze food so he’ll have easy options in case he needs treatment. We’re here to empty boxes that still remain from his recent move, to organize cabinets and get things in place because he gets anxious when they are not and in turn feels peaceful when they are. We’ve talked about mindfulness and acupuncture and racism and gardening and cancer and my mom and too many other things to list. My dad is a talker and he addresses all subjects head on. It’s a thing that I love and admire about him but that also drives me mad. I feel kind of selfish and dramatic, sitting here ruminating about my mother’s death and our rocky past, but his cancer has made the pain of my life feel fresh again, and Mom died only three years ago, anyway, so, as my therapist said, I need to stop being so hard on myself. I just can’t freaking fathom being an orphan. His cancer is not deadly, it is slow spreading, he will very most likely die from something else, but good god, he’s going to die at some point. And that’s how things are. If people are lucky, they witness their parents’ deaths.
It just feels so unlucky. I keep finding myself in these thought loops about what should or is supposed to be, and it’s a really terrible and wrong thought loop to be in as nothing really should or is supposed to be, but come on, Dad should get more time than this after her death, after caring for her for so long, after giving up so much. He’s 64, strong and otherwise healthy, smart, fun, funny, handsome. He should have a second wife, a second life. Instead, he gets cancer. And maybe this diagnosis and a second life aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe he doesn’t even want a second life. I just think about a future filled with dead people and sickness and grief and loneliness and then I sink deeply into a hole and I wonder if this is what my mother felt like all the time. Then I think that I need to climb out of this hole. And then I think, this hole is in my head. I made up this hole. I am not in a hole but in fact on a balcony with a laptop and a beautiful sunset, waiting for my vibrant, very much alive chatterbox of a father to return from the store where he ran off in his pickup truck to buy us a salad to accompany the pizza that my gorgeous husband is clanging around in the kitchen making for us, noises that my beautiful baby son is peacefully sleeping through while my devoted dogs rest dutifully outside his door. I am here, rooted in a wonderful reality. And then, because I’m committed to honesty, my next thought actually is, This is a long, wandering piece of writing that brings up so many themes and doesn’t connect them together in any kind of coherent way. Then, What the hell is wrong with you?
“Hey Beck, there’s a light up there right behind your head if you want me to turn it on for you.” My father is home. I am struck by how he is so much like himself, so outwardly unchanged despite the deformed cells inside.
Ruminating can be a dangerous thing. It is time to rejoin my reality.
Writer’s note: The oncologist reported that Dad’s cancer, CLL, was caught so early and is so slow-spreading that he does not need treatment and will not feel the effects of it for a long, long time.
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