I was quickly packing for my first weekend get-away from my kids since losing Jay. I have always been a last minute packer. Jay, on the other hand, days before typed out a very detailed packing list divided into specific categories. His suitcase was zipped and ready at least 24 hours before leaving where I was always, like on this day, running around scattered from room to room remembering this and that, unzipping and zipping my suitcase over and over until I felt ready to leave.
I finally made it in the car, and as I drove on the interstate, I knew that I needed words to pull me to my destination. I spoke with a couple friends who reassured me all would be OK and then tuned into my favorite podcasts as I drove. It was hard to focus, and I found myself jumping from one to the other podcast, in the same way, I ran to the bathroom to get toothpaste (Jay was always the one who packed the toothpaste) and then to the kitchen to grab my allergy medicine. It's always been hard to leave home.
Junebug Strong might have been one of the most homesick kids in history. Her first sleep away camp experience was a two-week stay at a park outside of Nashville when she was 10. Her older brother’s friend was a counselor for the boys and early every morning when she woke up before anyone else with a homesick pit in her stomach, she quietly walked to his cabin and sat on his bed until it was time for breakfast.
It sounds odd but he was a nice guy who offered to help when he overheard her begging her mom to go home on the pay phone. I don’t think he anticipated he would find a little girl on his bed when he woke up in his cabin full of boys. Mornings were the hardest for her, and Junebug was desperate to find comfort.
A couple of years later, tears and snot were running down Junebug's face in an American Airlines office in Charlotte, North Carolina where she was changing planes. She was flying to camp alone a week late because she had been sick with asthma. She got off and told an American Airlines flight attendant she wanted to go home.
Junebug was scheduled to fly to Hendersonville, so the attendant walked her to a small office where she called her mom. “We have your daughter here in Charlotte at the American Airlines office, and she wants to come home,” she said, “Wipe her nose and put her on the plane to Hendersonville,” said my mom, not one to mince words or give into her homesickness. Even though I cried for about seven of my eight weeks away at camp, I also cried the last day as I sat around the campfire singing "leaving on a jet plane" with my friends I adored. With this being my leaving memory of my summers at camp, I continued to challenge myself.
After my junior year of high school on a six week out west trip, talking to my mom homesick on a pay phone in Wyoming saved me from being kicked off the trip. The pay phones were a short walk away from our campsite so when a local sheriff drove by slowly looking at me and waved me over; my counselors did not see. When I approached the car, he pointed to the back seat and asked. "did you buy that case of beer?" Yes, I did with a very bad fake ID and a plan to return later to the spot where I had hidden it with friends. As I teen, I turned to other ways to find comfort, and maybe the Sheriff could see that in my wide eyes when he only gave me a warning and drove off with my case of beer.
In college, I went on Outward Bound in Maine. On my three-day solo, I was dropped off in a canoe alone along a river bank with a tent, sleeping bag, a whistle to blow in case of an emergency and a small plastic bag with trail mix, an apple, and iodine tablets to purify bacteria in the water I drank. I was too nervous to put up my tent on the first night, so I threw it over me like a blanket. The next morning, I realized I could see a friend who was near me if I walked to the very tip of a peninsula in front of my camping spot. It made it easier to put up my tent the second day knowing she was a short trek and a wade through a shallow pond away. Even if my feet got wet and I was breaking the rules when I visited, it was worth it.
The problem was that it did not matter if she was in the woods or at home, Junebug was homesick everywhere. Even when she was at home where she could rest her head on her mom, she still moaned homesick words when sick with asthma. Over and over again, she would say "I want to go home." I might sound like a melodramatic Junebug feigning sickness with a damp towel on her forehead, but often I was eating red jello and hooked up to an IV at home.
I wonder if homesickness was a longing for something beyond home? With my head on my mom's soft belly as close to home as I could be, I think I was listening for more in the same way you might pick up a seashell at the beach hoping to hear the ocean. As many times as I imagined I was when I put my ear up to a seashell, it was only on a Miami beach flying kites with my dad where I could hear the waves.
I wanted to go home the first night I arrived at my weekend writing retreat on Friday. After dinner, we began an icebreaker game, and I was tired and homesick. I quietly snuck out as it started. I walked up to my room and being the only one to leave; I felt about as awkward as Junebug did when a cabin full of boys woke up to her sitting on the counselor's bed. For a few minutes, I felt pulled to join the group again.
It would have been easy to turn away from the wave of grief. I was only a few steps away from the group and running away from myself was an old habit. Instead, I decided me and Junebug are getting too wise for pretend and too tired for a path that keeps us lost. We are strong enough to choose the wave now, and it turns out, we are not as homesick in the mornings as we used to be. The forecast called for rain the next day but instead, I woke up to the sun that had cleared the sky of its clouds. I felt like I was home.
Up On The Roof by James Taylor (On our first day, Jay took me to the roof of his office building in downtown Nashville). In picture, me with Susannah Felts, co-director of The Porch's Writer's Collective, a dear friend & one of Jay's favorite music-listening friends from high school @ Rivendell Writers' Colony.