“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” –Heraclitus
My heart feels light as my daughter and I walk the road of my childhood home. Low hanging clouds threaten rain and the cool wind keeps us moving. Still, I am glad to be outdoors, and am even happier she’s by my side. Memories bubble to the surface as we go along this familiar route.
I point out a favorite picnic spot. Years ago I’d named it the “Four Trees Supper Club.” Now it’s two scraggly trees and two rotting stumps. Further down the road I use a scary movie voice to introduce the woods where “Stranger Danger” lived. We chuckle at the overgrown vacant lot. It’s hardly the place for creepy fairytale characters. My walking companion, now a worldy teenager, teases me about vivid childhood imaginings.
Where the road ends, we stop before a house I know well. It stands three stories tall and is dressed in white with green accents. A wide, pillared porch stretches across the front. Although it sits at the edge of the woods, I’ve always imagined it as a misplaced southern plantation home: elegant, old, and full of history. As a child, it housed my best summer friend. When we weren’t riding bikes or exploring the woods, we played here, mostly because her parents had few rules and little enforcement of them. Through endless games of hide and seek, I learned every inch of that house. It holds many happy memories for me. On rainy days, we raced big wheels and scooters inside the enclosed side porch. When the storms passed, we scaled the porch’s exterior to peel softened putty from the paned windows, believing it was rubber. Some days we danced on the broad-planked oak floors of the full sized attic, ‘til midday heat sent us searching for Tupperware cups brimming with grape Kool-Aid. When we tired of her pesky younger brothers, we’d tiptoe down the back servant’s steps to escape. On sleepover nights we planned our wedding receptions, envisioning the front lawn with a string quartet and tuxedoed waiters. One summer day, we discovered the attic dormer windows opened and scurried up the roof to enjoy the distant lake view. I still remember her father’s apoplectic expression and hear his shouts from three floors below. It’s the only time I remember my friend getting into trouble. Although the height made me dizzy, I never thought we were in danger; I simply enjoyed viewing the world from up there.
The house felt magical. Even today, when I read of a stately old house, my mind’s eye conjures this place, no matter the book’s description. In my reverie, it’s perfect. But in truth, the house wasn’t in great condition back then, and it is far worse now. My friend’s family were renters and moved by the time I turned 12. Other families moved in and moved on. Despite my fond memories, today it sits vacant and crumbling. I can’t remember the last time it was occupied. Twelve years ago? Twenty?
A stream of sunlight peeks through clouds. My daughter wants a closer look. So do I. We slip around the back of the property and peer into the few windows that aren’t curtained or boarded. Piles of trash, boxes, and other cast-offs litter the floor. Water stains mark ceilings. Paint peels from walls. A slightly ajar utility door indicates animals come and go. At another entrance, a tree grows through crumbling steps. Its trunk is 4 inches in diameter. It’s been there awhile.
I feel sad and disappointed. I’ve noticed its decline over the years, yet somehow still wanted it to remain the way I remembered it to be.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, the way we see things as we desire them to be, rather than how they are? Even if they are untrue? Even if they’ve been inaccurate for decades?
Last month, I lost someone very dear to me. His illness, and how he chose to confront it, taught me a lifetime worth of lessons. I feel so grateful he allowed me to walk alongside through much of it. He welcomed me not only for good days or when he felt strong. He let me see the whole picture. In a funny way, he helped me–at nearly 50 years old– grow up. I was 14 when my mother died from cancer. My beliefs about illness and dying formed then, in a maze of misinformation and stifled grief. Trauma does that. It pours our experience into a mold and convinces us this is how it is. With time, it hardens into a way of being filled with all kinds of inaccuracies. I never challenged those beliefs. I adopted them without question. In turn, I created no room for growth. Even though I’m much older, I never questioned using the perspective I’d formed as a child. I couldn’t see I was stuck. Yet my friend, facing terminal illness, opened his hands and heart and offered to include me. Fearful memories almost kept me away, but I chose–with love–to wade in. The old beliefs shattered. By including me in his final days, he helped me break that mold. It’s a gift I can never repay.
My grief is fresh, yes. Sometimes it weighs heavily. He is now part of the love, light, and energy of the heavens. I miss him and sense him around me often. I believe, however, this lesson wasn’t only for me. Are there hardened beliefs within you? Are there places that need new light? A fresh perspective?
I stare at the tree growing out of the crumbling infrastructure of a once magnificent home. My daughter chatters about an HGTV expert who rehabs old houses. She believes with enough money and expertise, it could return. She may be right, but that won’t be my undertaking. Instead my visit here was to accept things as they are. To see the truth in this moment. To remember with fondness what once was, but not to mistake it for where I am today.