Some thoughts before leaving – Later on today my wife and I will be traveling to the States for the first time in almost two and a half years. This will be my fourth time back to the States since I left, and my third time with my wife. It will also be the first time our whole family will be together for Christmas in quite a while—since the last century, as a matter of fact.
It’s always a bit strange going back to the States, and the more time passes the stranger it gets. I suppose it makes sense, but I’ve always found it a bit odd (and not a little frustrating) that my picture of “home” is what it was like before I left the first time. No matter how things may change when I go back for a visit, those new memories fade away to reveal the old memories beneath them. Like I said, it makes sense—after all, those old memories were built up over a period of seventeen years. How can I expect them to be replaced during a brief visit?
I vividly remember the day I left. My plane left in the evening, so I did my packing that morning. I have never been able to pack in advance—if I’m leaving in the morning I pack late the previous night, and if I’m leaving in the evening I pack that morning. Even leaving the States for Korea, not knowing when I might come back, I couldn’t bring myself to pack even the night before.
After packing as much of my life as I was willing to bring with me into two big bags and a carry-on, I went outside with my brothers to go rollerblading. For some reason we decided it would be a good idea to have my youngest brother lie down in the road while we jumped over him. Everything was going fine until I missed a landing and ended up scraping just about every joint in my body. That certainly made the 16-hour flight to Korea fun.
I went back home, patched up my wounds as best as I could, and then grabbed my luggage. The whole family was going with me to the airport, and everyone filed out the door, except for me. I stopped at the top of the stairs leading down to the front door, as if my feet had suddenly been glued to the ground.
“Come on,” urged my father. “We’re going to be late.”
“Wait,” I said. “Give me a moment.”
I slowly turned around and stared into the kitchen, and suddenly it hit me. I was leaving, and this wasn’t my house anymore. This was the last time I was ever going to see this kitchen. Oh, I knew that I would visit again, and that I would sit at the kitchen table in my old seat, but it wouldn’t be the same. It would never be the same. I fought back tears as I looked around the house, and my father said nothing, giving me my moment. I can remember exactly what everything looked like in that moment.
And that’s how I remember the house today. The old wallpaper in the kitchen, the one with the white background and the old fashioned pictures of fruit and a stein (or maybe it was a teapot) sitting on a shelf, repeated over and over again. The railing on the stairs is loose, and it rattles when we grab onto it and vault down the stairs. There is a hole in the hallway wall where I once kicked it when I was angry, forgetting how fragile sheetboard is. Then there’s my room: rust-colored carpet and blue walls, and a ceiling fan that didn’t really do all that much for air circulation.
Some of these things have changed, and some haven’t, but this is how I remember things. I know that the kitchen has been redone, and I even sat in the new kitchen the last time we were in the States, but I honestly cannot remember what it looks like. The whole exterior of the house has changed, for that matter, since we were there last. I’ve seen pictures, but it doesn’t look like our house. Our house is brown, not blue with stonework around the bottom. There’s a big pool and deck in the back, but I still see the garden—the garden where my mom spent so many hours, and where the tomatoes grew that I used to sell by the side of the road when I was young.
The house, my tiny little hometown of Mahopac, the church—however they might change, it is fairly easy to readjust. It’s a lot harder to readjust to people, though, especially my family. I remember my family the way they were when I first left, but people change over time. It pains me to see my parents, because they look so much older than the way I remembered them. I know that they are growing older as I am growing older, but it’s still a hard thing to deal with.
My youngest brother, Matt, is the hardest to deal with, though. When I left the States he was eleven years old. I remember the last time I saw him—we had come in from the airport and I walked in the front door, and there he was, standing at the top of the stairs. I recognized his voice, but the little boy I remembered was gone and a young man stood in his place. He smiled as I reached the top of the stairs, but I could only stare at him.
“I need to be alone for a minute,” I said, and walked down the hall into my old room. I was examining something on the shelf when my mother came in to ask me if I was OK. I wasn’t OK. Here was my brother, and I didn’t even know him. It was a while before I could come out of my room to face him. I can’t imagine what he must have thought, and I feel bad about it, but I just couldn’t handle seeing him at that moment.
My other brother, Brian, is a different story. He is only three years younger than me, so he was nineteen when I left. Still, I was much closer to Brian than I was with Matt, mainly because we grew up together. Matt was almost like a son in some respects—I changed his diapers, fixed meals for him after school, and took care of him when my parents weren’t around. Brian was different, though. I took care of him, but in a different way (“taking care of him” often involved beating him senseless, until the day we wrestled to a standstill for two hours in the floor lounge of my dormitory at university). We shared so many things—hopes, dreams, and fears. We were very close.
I sometimes forget how close we were. The other day, though, I happened to stop by his website at www.ambioniks.com. It’s primarily a site for his music, but he also has some of his writings posted there as well. I never really got around to reading them, mainly because they’re really long files stuck in these tiny framesets. This time, though, I decided to read some of what he had posted there. I glanced through each of the framesets and stopped when I came to the last one. It was his old journal that he used to keep religiously on his Mac. The first entry was dated June 11, 1995.
“June 1995,” I thought. “That was the summer I left the States.”
I began to read through the entries, and in August, the month that I left, I found these entries (I hope Brian doesn’t mind me quoting him here):
August 14, 1995
My brother is leaving in two weeks. That hurts me probably a lot more then I realize. I don't know how to react to him leaving. I want to.... I don't know what I want to do.
August 27, 1995
Charles is leaving tomorrow. It hurts me, but I don't think it's really hit me yet. I'm just choosing not to deal with it at the moment, but I'm eventually going to have to. I hope that I see him more then I think I will. I think maybe when he actually gets to Korea, he might change his mind and decide to come back sooner, or he might not. Anyway, that's a rough subject to talk or think about so I won't.
August 29, 1995
My brother left last night. I really didn't know what to say to him so I didn't say anything. I just don't know what to feel.
I was stunned as I read—I never knew that my brother felt like that. As he said, he didn’t say anything to me when I left, and I didn’t say anything special to him, at least not that I can remember. I guess there’s not really all that much you can say in that sort of situation. It’s not like we could say anything we hadn’t already said in the years we grew up together.
I am often assaulted by guilt, guilt for leaving my brothers. It pains me to think that Matt has grown up without me, that he doesn’t really know me, and I don’t really know him. Brian has also changed over the past eight years, and there is much we don’t know about each other. But as I read through his journal, I was stunned by a sudden realization. All this time I had been feeling guilty because I didn’t know my brother anymore, but the truth was that I didn’t know him before I left either. I had gone away to one school, and three years later he had gone to another, and we obviously saw a lot less of each other. All the pain and doubt that plagued him—I just never knew. He was going through all of that, and he was going through it without me.
That was when I realized that my leaving for Korea was not what started the process. It had already started, and it was going to happen whether I was in the States or not. Yes, being halfway around the world has made it a bit more difficult to keep in touch, but what happened was most likely going to happen anyway, at least to some extent. I don’t know if this should be a comfort or not, but I think it is more truthful.
Will one month be enough to catch up on all the time we have missed? No, it will not. When we get together with someone we haven’t seen in a long time we speak of “catching up” with that person, but in reality there is no such thing. You cannot make up for lost time, and you cannot go back and become part of a person’s life when you weren’t there to begin with. You can, however, start anew, and make new memories for the future.
At least for the next month, my family and I will be part of each other’s lives, and I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to getting to know my brothers again. I’m looking forward to seeing what has changed, and what has stayed the same. And I’m looking forward to being a family, together, again. I think it will be a good Christmas this year.