I’ve always struggled with homesickness. As early as kindergarten, maybe even before that, I remember overwhelming anxiety at being away from home. I cried every single day of kindergarten, first grade, most of second grade, brief reprieve in third grade, and then it finally stopped. The crying, I mean. The homesickness never really improved. The night before my wedding, I slept in my parents’ room, in their bed, in between them, as a grown adult with no shame, because I was so apprehensive about living somewhere else. I was married, living in our first house for 2 months before I finally started to think of my new house as home rather than my parents’ house.
I remember thinking, “They already gave my room away. Even if I wanted to go back, I can’t. There’s nothing to go back to.” I had no idea how profound a realization this would be later in life.
I’ve learned recently that you don’t have to be homesick for a particular place. You can be homesick for a person or a group of people. It’s possible to miss a feeling— security, predictability, safety. Sometimes it’s easier to manage than other times. When I was a kid and crying at school, I was comforted by wearing a photo of my parents and looking at it every time I felt the tears threatening to fall. I didn’t realize it until I was an adult, but as a child, I was convinced that if my people weren’t close to me, if I couldn’t see them, then they weren’t safe. As long as I was at home, with my people, nothing bad could happen to any of us. I think I was probably 12 years old before my desire for independence outweighed my need to be home, supervising my family’s safety, all the time.
I remember attempting to sleep over at my cousin’s house, waking up in the middle of the night, and calling my mom because I couldn’t stop crying. She got in the car, drove the twenty-ish minutes, and picked me up, stopping at McDonald’s on the way home. “You’re never stuck anywhere,” she told me. I went home, falling asleep in peace.
I knew with my mom’s death that it was impossible to make the pain go away. There was no phone call I could make to become unstuck. There was no McDonald’s drive-thru where we could get fountain cokes and chat on the way home. Now, I wear my mom’s thumbprint on a necklace and I rub it for comfort when I need her to be here the most. I write letters to my mom. I take long drives. This is the best I can do. Her not being here anymore was the second time I realized that I was homesick for someone who was never coming back. That’s when I knew I wasn’t homesick, not really. I was grieving.
Lately I have that same feeling. I sent a text message to a friend yesterday about some recent changes in my life. “The problem is going to be that I’m homesick but the home I’m sick for doesn’t exist anymore, so I just have to deal with life however it is.”
Homesickness is the feeling in my chest. The desperate longing for a time when I felt fulfilled and content and safe. The gentle knowing that, no matter what, there was a place to hide until the world felt a little more stable. The assurance that when I felt like running away, there was something or someone or somewhere I could run towards. All I feel certain of at the moment is that everything is uncertain, and that just like when my mom died, everything I miss right now is gone. Gone in the way of ashes, scattered in the wind.
Sometimes we have to accept that, although a location might be the same, the safe, warm, home feeling is gone and will never be the same. That’s why they say, “You can never go home again.” It’s not that the place isn’t there, or that your parents aren’t happy to see you. It’s that your experiences have fundamentally changed who you are, and even if you walked right up to the doorstep of your old life and were met with open arms, you could not experience the same sense of peace because you yourself are different. Some things that you’ve seen you can never unsee. Some things you’ve learned, you can never unlearn.
As I’ve found more of who I am and what I believe, I can’t say that I’m sorry about the things I’ve learned. They’ve shaped me into a person I can live with. Someone with strong ideals, firm opinions, a moral compass which points me towards a life with less regret. My circle has grown smaller, but in many ways it has grown stronger, with the people I value the most providing a scaffold to make my fragile places hold up to the pressures. I’ve learned that the people who are my people do actually stay, in spite of my fear that they would not. I wouldn’t go back for anything, even if it spared me the suffering. The person I’m becoming is worth the grief and the fear and the pain.
I got a text back that said, “Make it yours. You are strong.”
This is the opportunity we all have: the chance to face our Red Sea moments. The moments when, as we long for a place and time when we were comfortable, we stand in front of a huge body of water, with no way to get to the other side but through. Wondering if we will swim through it, walk on it, or have the waters part to let us walk through on dry ground. Unable to turn around and go back because there’s nothing to go back to, all the while feeling our pursuers hot on our feet, and the building pressure to move somewhere, anywhere, before certain annihilation comes.
I asked my therapist one time what I’m supposed to do when I feel so overwhelmed by my circumstances or changes or life in general that I can’t see a clear plan unfolding, or any particular way to move forward. “Sometimes you just have to do the next thing,” she said, One foot in front of the other, we learn to walk away, knees trembling, ankles barely supporting our weight, and find something new to walk towards. The journey itself is important. Even if your face is tear-streaked and your breathing is shallow and your muscles ache from the effort, take the next step. Maybe you’ll find home, maybe not, but in the very least, you’re moving on.