They say you can never go home again.
I suppose that’s true; just as you can never step into the same river twice, because the water is constantly moving, home will be different every time you come back. The people may be the same, or at least appear to be, but they are moving too. They are thinking, growing, spreading their wings. They are separating, searching for their own identities, their own callings. They’re coping, looking for handholds along the way, just as you are. Just as we all are. The people look the same, but they aren’t. And neither are you.
Trudy, Eitan and I flew to Chicago last weekend. The details are more complicated – they always are – but let’s just say that there was a death in the family and we felt like we needed to be there. I’ve been back to Chicago a handful of times since my family moved to New York when I was eleven. We went back for a couple of family vacations; I went back in my senior year of high school; and then Trudy and I staffed a youth group trip to Chicago when we were in college. The city has been different every time, especially the neighborhood where I used to live. It’s more modern, and yet, still just the same. So many of the stores have been updated, while the homes look very similar to the way they did back then. It was familiar but strange, all at once.
We saw my father and his girlfriend, which was our main reason for making the trip. We met extended relatives, new to us but not to each other. Eitan met his baby cousin and gave her the presents we had brought with us. We saw family friends from my childhood and a friend Trudy and I knew from college. I even saw some of my old elementary school teachers when they came to visit during shiva.1
Everyone I had known before looked the same to me. A little more grey here, another wrinkle or two there, but the faces and the smiles were all just as I had remembered them. They were thrilled to see me and to meet Trudy and Eitan, and I was just as excited to catch them up on what I had been up to over the past few years.
Still, something was off. The city felt so foreign to me. I remembered much of the geography and some landmarks here and there, but it wasn’t mine anymore. I didn’t have the same connection to the streets or the stores or the houses. The people, some of whom I’ve known for literally my entire life, had grown up or grown older or changed in some other way and I’d had no idea.
I’d come home, but it wasn’t home anymore.
If there is any silver lining to losing a family member, it’s that it brings people together; it brought us to Chicago, after all. But throughout the trip, I kept coming back to that one thought. We brought Eitan to a museum, showed off the sights I’d remembered from my childhood, reinforced his Chicago sports roots. We ate deep dish pizza, spent badly needed quality time with my father, bonded with new family members. And underneath all of it was the terrible loss my relatives had suffered. The new relationships we were forming were all because of the relationship that would never be formed with the stepbrother I had never met.
The stepbrother I would never meet.
It’s still difficult for me to process the circumstances that brought Trudy, Eitan and me to Chicago last weekend. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ll ever really understand. People who have experienced a death tend to want to ask why, even though they know there isn’t a real answer.
The family and friends who came to visit kept saying, “Hopefully, next time we’ll meet under better circumstances.” I almost laughed every time I heard it; next time would have to be better because how could there ever be any worse situation than losing a family member?
And yet, I I understood the sentiment. It was an acknowledgement of a difficult, horrible time, while still expressing some hope for more positive times in the future. This, too, shall pass, as awful as it seems right now. We will all continue on as best we can; coping, growing, moving forward, somehow finding the strength to put one foot it front of the other. We will surround ourselves with the special people in our lives who offer support and guidance and distraction. We will use them to help restore structure, while still leaving the windows to the past and the future wide open.
They say you can never go home again. But they should have added that home is more about who you’re with than where you are.