Week One: Welcome Home
To loosely quote my all-time favorite movie Love Actually, if you want to see love, go to an airport.
Any given Friday night, Love Field in Dallas is a happy place. It’s a particularly gracious airport to arrive home to and a gentle place from which to launch loved ones. It gives family a wide berth to watch people walk through security into the well-appointed gates and arrival areas. At holiday time, the Dallas Symphony has a crew of musician performing carols as people depart and arrive.
Last Friday night, I was positioned, of course, at the Security Rope Line, if you will, awaiting Michael.
Several really surprising things happened:
First, I didn’t see him until he was standing directly in front of me, laughing. My husband and I were staked out in the preferred position, with clear view of the wide walkway from the gates. Love Field isn’t like Laguardia or DFW airports, where you’re removed from view as people walk from the gates. We could see all the way down to the center of the airport, with lots of people making their way out to baggage claim. Michael says he saw us and was waving to us from yards and yards away, but we didn’t see him. How on earth did we miss him, as we strained to look around people and never took our eyes off the crowd? The only explanation is we didn’t recognize him. I just never saw the tall, long-haired, serene-looking man who suddenly appeared feet in front of me with a huge smile, until he was right there.
Yes, I cried but not as much as I’d expected. Instead, my instinct was to jump up and down, to immediately shake him and slap him on the back and throw my head back and laugh. Everything was exhilarating. He was home. He was safe. He’d walked for five months and now it was over, without any crisis. He did it.
But I have to admit, right there along side my pride for him was my pride for me: I made it. I got through it without injury, without embarrassing myself, without dashing out to California, without scolding him, without forgetting a box, losing an instruction, collapsing in fear. I was exhausted from holding up, from showing the good face, from believing it would all be alright. Now, it simply was.
He is tall, thin, tan in a natural non-sunburned way. He is defined. His hair is like silk and long and pulled back over the top of his head into a pony tail. He has a beard and a mustache. He has a huge smile and clear eyes and he looks awake in a way I’ve never seen him look awake before. He looks like a darn REi model.
I had an overwhelming urge to get him home, into the car, quickly before he disappeared perhaps. We made our way to baggage claim, where his Life Support Backpack–a contraption that has taken on a personality of its own and with which he now has a very protective and powerful relationship–was carefully packed into a Southwest Airlines tote bag. (I would later come to find out that he has this sort of emotional commitment and bonded relationship with some very pungent shoes, a shirt or two, and two really unappealing Smart Water bottles.)
But the moment that surprised me most of all–above the hair and the tan and the weight loss and how tall he seems, and I didn’t even notice this for the first five minutes or so—was when I spotted the book in his hand.
I don’t think I’m sharing anything he wouldn’t readily admit himself, but my son hasn’t read a book of his own choice since Captain Underpants when he was seven years old. (That may be an exaggeration. I do remember him reading Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer twice in succession when he was in Middle School. That should have been my first clue.) In spite of myself, I blurted out “Mike, you’re carrying a book!” “Yeah”, he says, “I’ve read several. Maybe four or five. Picked this up at the airport.”
And in that delightfully innocent, monumentally-significant exchange, I realized that a new son has come home.
The past week has proved this in so many obvious and subtle ways. He is quiet, yet more social. He is more present yet clearly more contemplative. He is more generous with is time, mindful to contribute both to conversations and to things like doing the dishes. This man who has come home is no longer a boy, struggling to get out from under house rules. He is happy, and happy to be with us, happy to talk with us and happy to take care of himself. He is grateful for the soft place to land while he regroups and formulates his next plan.
And here is something new: he is between his own great plans. The past near-year has been Michael’s plan and Michael’s execution, his passion and his success. Now, he’s got his eye on the next plan–where to go, how to get there, what he needs, what he wants to accomplish when he arrives. It’s his plan and its his confidence in his ability to make it happen that is fueling his steadiness now. I see it, plain as day.
There is no doubt that I am changed and that has to be contributing to our new experience together. How do you acknowledge something as powerfully independent and courageous and impressive as a five month thru-hike of the PCT and then revert to telling your son to clean his room or wake you up when he gets home or come to the dinner table on time? You can’t. You don’t need to. And combined with his quiet, peaceful presence, I think that is making all the difference.
There is so much to unpack from this experience and I know it will take time. The first few nights, he couldn’t sleep in his bed, as much as he loved the idea. The floor was more comfortable. He prefers his oatmeal in a water bottle, soaked in cold milk. I find him laying out on the patio, reading a book and I’m startled by him.
One step at a time, one day at a time, this new way of being together will unfold. It is an enormous relief, in profound ways. Not just that he is home. But that he is home and so very whole. And that I can be that cheerleader I’ve always fancied myself to be, but for the first time, without fear.
I know Michael can do great things. He astonishes me. I am eager to celebrate what he invents for himself next. Who knew, when this journey started last January, that it would change my life too?
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”
Love Actually, 2003