The long road home
There is a road that leads to my childhood hometown that slices a path through fields of mint. I used to yell at whoever was driving to roll their windows down, even in the heat of summer, when we’d get to that specific spot where I knew the air would be filled with the sweetest fragrance imaginable. It wasn’t the same if I was driving, because I needed to close my eyes to really experience it. The thick, perfumed reminder of the place that had nestled in my bones. The mint, a signal that I was so close to home.
I told people the fields were owned by Wrigley’s, unsure if I made up the story or someone else did. Perhaps they were. What else do you do with that much mint? Some people couldn’t stand the smell, the way it hung in the air, especially at dusk, clinging to the last few minutes of daylight. When I moved away and people asked if I missed home I would often say I only missed the smell of mint. When I thought about the place I lived for ten years, then returned to for another seven, I felt a deep sense of relief that I escaped a space where I never really felt like I belonged. I could live without the mint.
One time, when I was still in high school my friend was taking us fishing and he didn’t notice an upcoming flagger who was stopping traffic. He slammed on his breaks to avoid rear-ending the car in front of us. There wasn’t enough time to fully stop so he swerved into the field of mint, narrowly avoiding a serious accident. He was hyped up about the near-miss but I felt surprisingly calm. Years later he would die from a different type of car accident, with nothing as soothing as mint to surround him.
When I told my husband that another of my classmates had died last week I said to him that I wanted to go home for the funeral. The word felt strange on my tongue as soon as I said it. Home. Home is what we have created over the last eight years. Home is this oversized bed that I type from with my dog lying at my feet while the soup simmers in the kitchen. This bed that has cushioned the crash of our tired heads, the bounces of my jubilant children, the tears, and laughter, and memories of a household– this is home. This house, this city, this life. But the word still felt right. And I went.
I watched one of my best friends eulogize her amazing sister-in-law with such determined strength. Her voice was steady, her words were elegant, she found wit and charisma in the depths of despair. She talked about running, their favorite thing to do together. I could see it, so clearly, what Becky’s life had looked like. She was 37, she loved her children and life fiercely, and even in the face of cancer, she was fearless. I’ll always think of her taking one last run to her final destination.
It is strange to return to a place that you thought you knew so well, only to become surprised by how little you really processed. Maybe my own discomfort didn’t come from being misunderstood. Maybe it came from being in a place where I felt emotionally exposed, and not yet secure enough to really be seen. People and land that know every secret, every swerve off the road, every inclination to roll the window down and close your eyes, time and time again. That is also home.
In a day filled with grief and joy, tears and hugs, I said “I love you” time and time again, and I meant it. The span of a life cut too short will remind you there will never be too much love or too many homes. I also found myself thinking about my own road home. How I always imagined myself driving away from this place–this physical place, this mental place, this vulnerable place in my heart. But lately, I feel myself driving toward it. I thought about how there will be a last for everything and we never really know when that is. I found myself hoping that whenever and wherever my last road home will be, that there are mint fields to let me know that I’m almost there.