I’m not a particularly spiritual person; less so as I’ve grown older. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around a God who would allow such atrocities as we’ve experienced throughout humankind, and even more difficult to comprehend how my kind, selfless mother could have been condemned to suffer the decades she did. Is there a higher power somewhere, overseeing our time on Earth? Maybe. It is easier for me to believe that extra-terrestrials are out there than to imagine some all-powerful deity floating about in the sky above us—but that’s just me. I respect opinions and beliefs to the contrary, though I don’t condone the wars and casualties those differences cause.
My younger self adored Easter. The dresses, the bonnets, the Easter egg hunts with friends, the special children’s mass at the Catholic parish in my hometown. The best part, though, was the after church lunch with our families and cousins. (I grew up to discover most people called this brunch, but that would have been too fancy for our ilk. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner and that was that.) A few particular years stand out in my mind, in which we had Easter at our house. My parents converted the giant ping pong table in the basement into a table for twelve by covering it with a flowery paper table cloth. The space was wide enough to fit all of the dishes in the middle, and I remember a unique sense of comfort, happiness and warmth sitting there alongside my older cousins and grandparents in my grown-up dress and curls, knowing that this was my home, and things were safe.
In 2014, when I was thirty-one, we sold the home my mother and father had bought as a starter in the late seventies and stayed in another four decades. They’d shared early memories in that home, raised a family in that home, watched their kids grow up and move out from that home, and eventually divorced in that home. Even though my father hadn’t lived there since 2000, the vast majority of my memories center around our family as a unit—watching golf with Dad on Sundays while Mom read on the front porch or grilled up a steak out back; watching the Wonder Years with Mom—her favorite show—while Dad peaked through the open foyer shelves and teased us for “blubbering” during narrator Kevin’s reflections at the end of every episode; playing catch in the backyard and the neighboring park; making weekend pancakes, inventing science fair projects, learning to play the piano and learning to grow up. We shared tens of thousands of meals in that eleven hundred square foot home on McLain, and created countless memories.
To this day, it is difficult for me to think about that house, let alone write about it. Perhaps to hang on to one remaining tie, I still visit the dentist a mile from my childhood home—forty miles from where I live today. I take the freeway to get there, and every time I get off at the Southfield highway exit a second nature kicks in. I’m steered right, then left onto Pelham, then right onto Allen Rd. A quick left at the party store and another eight houses down, I see it. My beautiful home, the home I likely took for granted as a somewhat rebellious teenager, the home I’d wanted to be bigger but secretly liked the coziness of. Not every house is made a home, but ours undoubtedly was, through the care my parents put into it, through the generosity of neighbors and the proximity of both sets of grandparents, who filled it with love, light and laughter.
Can you ever recover from losing your childhood home? I think the answer is no, not entirely. I think often of displaced people, of asylum seekers fleeing war and corruption, of immigrants looking for a better life—people like my great grandparents, the Irish, the Macedonians, Hungarians, Slovaks, and everyone who’s had to leave a place they knew and loved, never to return. My case is not as severe, clearly, but the emotions are similar. To drive by that house—park in front of it, walk alongside it—but not have authority to enter seems ludicrous. An outside observer, I can only grasp what I can see, inventing my own stories. The heating and cooling van that sits in the driveway; the two adults I briefly met when we signed over the papers; the four kids they somehow fit into a house that was tight enough with four people in total. The house looks cared for, the landscaping crisp, the windows new, the crack in the front porch concrete finally fixed. But something is missing. It will take several visits to notice they cut down the two red oak trees in the front, the trees we had lovingly planted all of those years ago. And while this allows more sunshine to illuminate the home, it seems disingenuous and unfair that these trees no longer remain.
The day of the move we had a bet. My sister, my husband at the time, my brother-in-law and the half dozen friends that had come over to help with the move of our dearly beloved mother, two of which had also helped as caregivers throughout the previous several years. We bet on the classic rock song that would play on her cherished black Sony radio when she was on her way out. Here was a radio she loved so fiercely she requested to be buried with it—a wish we carried out four years later. Music was her heart and soul, a place she could escape to when her legs wouldn’t carry her anymore.
Wagers were placed:
“It’s Still Rock’n’Roll to Me!”
“I’m Still Standing!”
“You Wear it Well!”
In those final moments, after the last boxes were packed into the Uhaul and any unwanted furniture items were lined up on the curb, my mother sat with a neighbor from across the street—a friend of forty-plus years. They looked out the front picture window, our neighbor’s hand on Mom’s shoulder. Despite the heat of the day Mom had on a white shawl and pants, and her favorite pink New Zealand hat, signed by Olympic champion Nick Willis, my sister’s former University of Michigan running mate and friend. My mother was and still is, I suspect, his #1 fan, just like she was our #1 fan and champion our entire lives.
As the sun slipped through the red oak trees out front—the trees we had planted decades ago—the radio turned up. ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” blared through the empty house, filling the space with the music that had made it so inviting for nearly half a century. And while some of the lyrics didn’t apply, the ending—as we wheeled Mom toward the door and she waved her final goodbye, as an entourage of people who loved her looked on through tears and smiles—couldn’t have been more perfect:
Don't bring me down
No, no, no, no, no
I'll tell you once more before I get off the floor
Don't bring me down, down, down, down, down, down
I'll tell you once more before I get off the floor
Don't bring me down
That was Mom, wasn’t it? A fighter. A warrior. Invincible. She’d been knocked down by MS more times than I could count, figuratively and literally. She’d been tested time and time again and every time she got back up; every time she kept up the fight. My father had carried her home from the curb, I’d lifted her off the cold bathroom tile in the middle of the night, and my sister and I had carried her from the house to our backyard pool when she could still swim but not walk. She fought that fucking disease until it killed her—but by God I’d hate to see what the other guy looked like.
The song faded to silence—the sense of an ending. I peeked into the kitchen and saw nobody there. I don’t consider myself a particularly spiritual person anymore. But sometimes, I wonder.