I recently went back to the States for three months to spend time with my mom at the end of her life, and with my family after she passed. Despite this being a very difficult time for obvious reasons, I found it additionally painful to leave behind my ‘home’ in Peru and temporarily move back into my parent’s house. My handsome husband, chicken-eating dog and dream house were all back in Cajamarca and I was in Concord, NH feeling grief-stricken AND homesick.
This didn’t make sense. I was with my family, in the house I grew up in and always go back to. But as mom’s cancer advanced into her brain and ultimately ended her life, I realized that for the past few years everything I had considered home, the place where I felt anchored, had been defined by my mom. My father, siblings, extended family and my sense of self all seemed to be a direct result of my mom. Without her, I felt like Concord could never be home.
Five years ago, when Mom was diagnosed with stage four metastatic breast cancer she was told that at best, she had 12-18 months left to live. At the time, I was finishing up grad school with an internship in Colorado and about to start a highly sought after position as an occupational therapist at a clinic in Steamboat Springs. When I learned of mom’s cancer and bleak prognosis, I abandoned the job and moved back to Concord. I eventually found work and an apartment in nearby Vermont, but the thought of loosing my mom was too much to handle and I spent much of that year silently battling depression and anxiety.
Mom, on the other hand, was visibly upset for about two weeks then decided that if her time was limited, she might as well have a good time! She continued to enjoy her life taking advantage of every opportunity that came her way. In the Spring, I decided to spend the money I had saved up from my first year of work as a therapist to take mom on a vacation to Florida. I thought we could both use a get-away.
Mom and I had a blast shopping, talking long walks on the beach, going out to bars, and sitting on the hotel balcony chatting until all hours of the night. Our last night we went to a bar for cocktails, then to dinner, played two very tipsy rounds of mini golf, and finally returned to the hotel balcony with a 6-pack of beer we had bought on the walk back. The discussion turned from silly to serious in a matter of seconds when Mom told me she wanted me to move back to Colorado. “You haven’t been happy in New Hampshire, you miss your friends and the mountains and whatever you do out there. Move back!”
“But Mom,” I replied, trying to swallow the lump in my throat “I want to be close to you in case…” I trailed off.
“Well, what if I try not to die while you’re gone?” She said in a smart-alecky tone. Mom went on to disclose that since I had moved home, she had felt guilty. She desired for me to do as I did before Cancer infected our family…to live my life to the fullest and tell her all about it. “Go to Colorado so that I can come visit you! And if you miss me, you can always come back home.”
Two months later, I accepted a position as a travel OT and since then have lived in Colorado, New Mexico, Seattle and then Peru. Mom visited me in most of these locations. She even got Rosetta Stone to learn basic Spanish and made two trips to Peru! We would chat on the phone or Skype every morning as we drank our coffee then e-mail throughout the day. I made frequent trips home and prioritized spending time with Mom above all else.
Upon arriving home in August my world began to deteriorate as I heard doctors use phrases like “palliative care” and “symptom management”. I’ve worked in healthcare and know the meaning of these words all too well. I cleaned the house, organized things and ran errands. Anything to have some semblance of normal as I fell apart inside. I didn’t feel like myself and home no longer felt like home. If “home is where the heart is” and your heart is broken, I guess it’s easy to feel lost.
Fortunately, there is something about Concord, NH that I had been neglecting to appreciate since mom had been diagnosed. From the minute I got back I was surrounded by a warm blanket of support from my enormous circle of family and friends. They cooked for my family, took me out for coffee, and spent hours at the hospital, not only to see mom, but to support my dad, sister, brother and I. They sat with me, grieved with me, walked with me, drank with me and listened to me without judgement. When mom died, dear friends and family put their own grief aside to help plan the memorial service which more than 450 people from the Concord community attended.
I stayed for a month after the service to be close to my family and friends and to participate in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer fundraiser that is so important to my family. During my last week in Concord, I struggled the most. Home, although not the same as when mom was there, is a place when I am surrounded by family, friendship, support and love. It was a comfort I did not feel ready to leave behind.
I am lucky enough to have an awesome husband who knew it would be hard. Charlie met me in NH, took me on a mini-vacation to Colorado (another home of mine) and traveled back to Peru with me. I returned to Cajamarca feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and…surprised! As the taxi neared my house, I saw the children from my neighborhood, my little English students waiting for me. I got out of the vehicle and was surrounded by another blanket. The kids drilled me with questions. They were eager to know where I’d been and why for so long. Each child handed me a card they had made…in English! I sat down with the kids and read the cards out loud. Every one varied on the inside with expressions such as “I am 10 years old” and “Today is Tuesday” or my favorite “You are pretty”. But on the outside each had the same words written on it: “Welcome Home”.
If home is where your heart is, I guess I’m lucky enough to have two. After all, there’s no place like home.