Elihu came home late at night on New Year’s Day. We just missed each other at the airport, and so I lost the opportunity for our picture-perfect reunion, we two running towards each other and into each other’s arms, all smiles, kisses and tearfully happy eyes… Instead, seeing that his flight had been delayed yet again by ten minutes, I’d gone upstairs to see the current art exhibit on the airport’s top floor to kill some time. Unbeknownst to me, he’d already arrived at the gate (?) and had just arrived at the point where we usually meet. The woman from Southwest assigned to accompany him until I got there suggested they go to baggage claim to wait for me. I heard my name over the PA, cryptically requesting that I come to the lower level. Flushed with some adrenaline – I’m never entirely relaxed until my child is actually in view – I ran to the office and once there, finally saw him.
I knew he would seem taller, older, bigger. That’s always been the case. But this time there was yet again another element of newness; while he was all smiles and kept repeating over and over that he loved me so, he was nontheless different from how he’d been in our reunions of the past. Gone was the tiny child, that small boy, the one who clung to me only, who needed contact with me at all times, who never let go of my hand. Here instead was a gangly kid with giant teeth who came nearly up to my chin – who was talking with me as if we’d just picked our conversation up where we’d left off ten days earlier. As I signed the release form for the woman from the airlines, she remarked that this was the smartest eight year old boy she’d ever met. Of course, it’s sweet of her to say, and it’s always nice to give a compliment, but I sensed something out of the ordinary might have occurred. I looked at Elihu with a question on my face, and laid my index finger to my chin and rolled my eyes up at the ceiling. He put a finger on his chin too and smiled. (This is our reference to the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the Scarecrow is suddenly able to recite the Pythagorean theorem upon receipt of his new brain. Once, having referenced it for the umpteenth time, yet unable to actually deliver the line, we looked it up and both memorized it. Apparently, the Scarecrow’s 1939 recitation was not actually correct. While not quite as poetic and flowing, we found an accurate definition and memorized that one instead. Elihu is still able to whip it out at the perfect moment. In this case he did not; we were only making an in joke for ourselves.) I thanked the woman for working on the holiday, and for taking good care of my child before we headed out.
As we walked to the parking garage I asked her what he’d said that impressed her so. “I just told her that you were probably at the art exhibit, upstairs. Then I told her a little about the exhibit they have up there now. She still wouldn’t let us go look. But I knew that’s where you were.” We recounted our favorite installation in the current exhibit, one which features all “seriously funny” works: a guy hangs a car-shaped air freshener on a pine tree, giving the woods that new car smell. We both love the final photograph: a headshot of the man, extremely pleased with the improvement he’s made on the great outdoors. It is, of course, so ludicrous that it’s hilarious. The Albany “International” airport is small and tidy, and one can be in and out in less than five minutes. Karmic justice, perhaps, for all the many hours spent at O’Hare picking up Elihu’s father. ! In short order, we’re in the car and on our way. (Even the half hour spent in the parking garage was free! Gotta love small town life sometimes.)
It was now past midnight as we set out through the rainy night, with not quite an hour’s drive north still ahead. Elihu knew the drive well, but the whole way he just kept asking me how much longer it was. Saying how excited he was to be home. How much he couldn’t wait to see his house, his room… He feels the familiar pitch of the steep hill in front of our house. “Are we here?” he asks. I say nothing. The movements and sounds will answer his question soon enough. Then we begin the long, bumpy driveway to our house and he begins to shriek in anticipation. Finally, finally he is home.
I guess I’m always surprised that Elihu feels so strongly that this is his home. I guess it’s because it was in Dekalb where he, his father and I last lived together as a family. It’s also there, at the Riverhouse, where he now experiences his life with his father and his small brothers. Somehow, I wonder, if he might not feel that place to be equally his home. He doesn’t. In his heart, this small house is his home. In that I didn’t choose this place, in that I’ve spent three years trying to clean it up, in that I came here under extreme duress, I guess I still haven’t fully embraced it as my home. (Those who have known me personally know how very much I loved my lakeside apartment in Chicago, and many know how strongly I felt about the mid-century treasure in Evanston in which I’d hoped to live out my life. Those were both places I loved dearly. This place, not so much.) This house came to me by default, not by choice. However, I believe my deeper feelings about this place have finally begun to change. I’ve made a huge effort to make this place mine, to make it beautiful, comfortable, functional, welcoming. I’ve worked hard to make this home. My son has come to know it as home with a lot less effort than I. But I do think I’m finally catching up.
Yesterday, my brother, mom and dad came over for our belated, Conant Christmas. We enjoyed several hours together. Dad played the piano, we played some games, we ate and drank, opened gifts, told jokes and stories. We watched as Elihu flew his remote controlled birds with great skill around the living room. I was relieved that Andrew came over too, and was calm and reasonable. It seemed he’d read my note to him. (For Christmas, I’d written a letter to Andrew, telling him how I loved him and cared about him, and would accept any blame he felt I deserved. Howsoever he felt, that was his right and business. I also told him that I thought he needed help, that he needed a support group, a counselor, medication. I told him I knew that he could live a real life again, that it wouldn’t be easy, but I knew he could do it. The letter was accompanied by a book about living with hoarding. It was written by a man who himself had been an alcoholic, a hoarder, a seriously dysfunctional human being. I’d had the author sign it to Andrew, hoping that it might add a little weight. If it only prevented Andrew from throwing it away in disgust, if it increased the probability of him reading it in the slightest, the signing had done its job.) Andrew even brought Elihu a chicken calendar. A good start to the New Year. We’d all had a very nice time together.
Each now armed with a cane and moving a bit slower, my mom and dad not only made it over to our house for a nice, long visit, but they were both able to visit our newly refurbished basement as well. While not quite complete (some walls and all ceilings are missing) it was still quite a dramatic change from its earlier state. I think they were both able to see how the place had finally transformed from a dingy rental property into a true home. Later on, as we sat in the living room upstairs, my father remarked how it was hard to believe this was the same place they’d bought years ago. I was glad they approved; it’s still my parents – or more accurately my mother’s current income – who pay the mortgage on this place. I don’t even pay rent. The very least I can do is contribute sweat equity. I remember the dark walnut of the kitchen cabinets with their crazy medieval-themed wrought iron styled pulls. I remember the kitchen’s orange linoleum floor, the avocado green shag of the living room… I look about and now see the warmth of wood floors throughout the house (laminate, yes, but man it’s upped the feel of the place), pale apple green cabinets with white porcelain knobs in the kitchen, a deep, colonial red on the wall in between the home’s two main rooms. Then there’s the piano. And the couch, the rocking chair, the harpsichord. The Christmas tree and the view beyond. Yes, it does look fine. And it feels fine too.
It feels good to be home.