Once there was a way
To get back homeward
Once there was a way
To get back home.
Sleep, pretty darling,
Do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby.
Fill your eyes
Smiles await you when you rise
Sleep pretty darling
Do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby.
—John Lennon and Paul McCartney
For the better part of the past 24 years, I’ve been trying to find a way back home. A way to inhabit and relive my childhood, replete with its manifold painful memories and rousing tragedies. To study, memorize and memorialize where the road splintered and brittled and eventually veered off into horizons unknown. To pick up the threads of my own inertia and bear witness to the subsequent empty years spent wallowing in a profound grief that nearly undid me.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. I have lived an entire life in the interim since the road turned crooked. We outlive our childhoods and then spend an eternity trying to return to them. We think if we reshape and hone them in our minds, the rolling and bleeding rough-hewn stones will begin to glitter a little more brightly. They never do.
In reality, what I’ve really been after are the memories once shared by the dearly departed soul who dwelled there. He’s gone now, as is the pellucid quality of those mementos of a childhood also departed. And while the remembrances are fragmented, he somehow holds the key to all that was steady and constant during that long-ago realm of Never Never Land. That someone is my older brother, now deceased for a near quarter century. He seems more solid in form than the other survivors of his suicide—my sister and parents—even still.
The irony, of course, is that our very mortal existence and the consciousness that breathes life into it is never static—it only seems that way from our transient and limited human perspective. And while there remains a solid core of truth within me that feels and knows this intrinsically, never far away is the grasping hand that continues to grope for the past. For him.
Several months ago I sat down to steady myself against the onslaught of a fresh sorrow that washed over me after a new ending. That ending was a serious falling out and bitter estrangement from my surviving sibling.
Our false childhood story—guarded by her and reinforced just as deceitfully by me as an unspoken way to safeguard the past and circumvent further suffering—finally exploded like an overly helium-ated balloon. The lie we had fought to safeguard suddenly overwhelmed me with its malevolence and unsupportable premise. It wasn’t anything life-threatening or truly sinister. It was not a sordid tale of base abuse or child neglect. In fact, the issue that pulled us together and apart like a pair of alternately attracting and polarizing magnets was ordinarily mundane. It was only this: that I had gotten more and she had gotten less. More stuff, more love, more—whatever. In truth, we were both equally impoverished and emotionally deplete children, but the fable seemed to work to our varying advantages in a way that always defied logic but never toxic family function and survival. It became a knight’s shield of protection between us as well as one, ironically, that kept us emotionally, spiritually and physically separated. In fact we had been separated in all those ways for many years, but neither of us would admit it. I just kept on playing the role of coddling enabler, desperate for any scrap of time or attention she would throw me. She upped the ante to make me pay for my perceived ill-gotten gains until the price grew so high it staggered me. Before this event the crumbs she had thrown me had grown less and less. I hung on as though to a lifeline. Then the mirror shattered. I could no longer embrace the gilded illusion. The truth was ugly but needed to be faced head-long. I wondered why I had guarded the illusion for so long when it had so obviously served no useful purpose.
Although, in a way, I did know.
I spent the summer between my junior and senior years of high school working as a buss girl and waitress at the Nonantum Hotel in Kennebunkport, Maine. I lived in a rough barracks across the street from the old statuesque hotel. Though a decidedly singular building, this shed-like accommodation was inexplicably dubbed “The Dorms” by the lowly employees who dwelled therein.
My boyfriend that summer was the hotel restaurant’s pastry chef. The son of a prominent local psychiatrist, he lived in a real house in town but spent most of his off time in “the Dorms” with the rest of the hotel’s staff. His sidekick in the kitchen was an affable, plain-spoken Kennebunk local by the name of Jimmy Lapointe, who happened to be dating the high school friend who had found me the job. There was something endearing about Jimmy’s rough Maine speech and rooted ways. He was the sort who, as my mother might have said, “wasn’t going anywhere.” There was a comforting feeling in that, at least for me.
And as a matter of fact, he didn’t. Go anywhere, that is. Seven years later I found myself living with my mother in the apartment of a beachfront mansion overlooking the ocean. I was sick in body and soul, having recently returned from a grueling and disastrous year in England where I’d attempted to complete a Master’s degree directly on the heels of my brother’s death. Within months—horribly homesick and miserable on the desolate and isolated Northern England campus—I was diagnosed with “glandular fever” (the British moniker for mononucleosis) and began to shrink into myself. The days passed in a torpor of lethargy. I would often crawl into bed at 8 p.m. in my cramped room and sleep until 11 a.m. the following morning. I’d drag myself through the day listlessly, still exhausted. Lectures were a cruel torture and were exacerbated by the fact that I understood almost nothing I was being taught. I was ostensibly studying Shakespeare, but the Bard’s name was seldom mentioned by my “tutors,” the British word for a university instructor. Instead I learned about the various maxims of H.P. Grice, who had, by coincidence, been one of my father’s professors at Harvard. That was about the only connection I ever made to Grice. The other part of the course was made up of Foucauldian rhetoric and the theory of a new-fangled British literary theory by the name of “Cultural Materialism.” I tried to stay awake in seminars and murmur something intelligible. Mostly I was aware of how odd and unrefined my American accent sounded in a room full of English intellectuals.
I returned stateside as a shadow of my former self and ill from three months spent laboring on a dissertation that I eventually failed and for which no degree was granted. Although I would eventually rewrite my dissertation and receive my M.A. three years later, I was broken, body and soul.
I lived with my mother in Kennebunk and we became partners in depression. Mostly mine went unnoticed as it was perceived that hers needed constant tending to. I had merely lost a brother—she had lost her son and first born child.
It was not long after meeting up with my old friend from the Nonantum days that Jimmy LaPointe resurfaced. He was no longer my friend’s boyfriend, but he looked more or less exactly as I remembered him from seven years before. For some unknown reason, the terrible dread and apathy that had consumed me for the past 18 months or more momentarily lifted whenever I casually bumped into him. We didn’t know each other well, and would never be more to each other than casual friends of a mutual friend. Inexplicably, however, there was something about his rootedness to the world, the tenor of his Yankee accent and jaunty stride that transported me. While there was no way to convey my gratitude to him for this occasional but much welcomed reprieve from my continuing sadness, I nevertheless felt a weight lift in his presence.
“So, Jimmy,” I greeted him with practically audible relief. “You’re still here.”
“Oh yeah,” he laughed. “Where else would I go?”
In fact, he had tried—albeit briefly—to go somewhere else. It didn’t take. A year or so earlier he’d somehow or other gotten the gumption and the money together to buy a plane ticket to the west coast. He wound up in Southern California, wondering if he might improve his fortunes. Instead he found himself hiking alongside one of the Golden State’s innumerable Interstate highways. He watched the tangled spaghetti junctions of Interstate traffic intermingle above him. Beside him cars blew past with dizzying speed. The fact that he’d put himself almost squarely in the arms of death didn’t seem to resonate with him—either then or later. What did resonate with him was the fact that this wasn’t Maine. There were too many buildings and not enough space. The smog suffocated his vision of a quiet country life. No longer could he lope along a roadside and stick out a thumb until a friend in an ancient, rusty and non-descriptive truck stopped to pick him up. Los Angeles and its environs were surreal and artificial in a way that made Jimmy shiver. He packed his bags, flew home, and never looked back.
There was something pure in his demeanor and purpose. He knew who he was and where he belonged. He smiled a smile of beatific eventuality and shrugged. Our brief intersection on the road of life was about to end again—at least for the time being. I watched him jauntily walk away down a road that was as much a part of him as his well worn workman’s fingernails.
I blabbed that I admired him and the life he had made for himself on the rugged Maine coast. That it was brave. It was then that he turned around and shrugged, that crooked smile lighting up his face.
“I’m not so sure about it being brave,” he said. “But it’s the only life I know.”
The words seared into my consciousness and stayed there. The ordinary extraordinariness of Jimmy Lapointe left a lasting impression. I returned to his casually thrown, over-the-shoulder sentiment many times over the years.
Months after my sister and I fell out, I abruptly realized that I did understand why. Our relationship, built on the sand of an unstable childhood, had finally vanished into a dust bowl storm. The roles we had played for so long had wearied us and broken us down. We weren’t ready to redefine and recreate them with regard to one another. We held onto what we had, preserving it even when it no longer served us. It was the only life we knew.
In the terrible first weeks of our estrangement I called out to the one person who I felt would understand, who had always understood: my brother. With keening sobs I called for him and asked him to show me a way back home—to where the crooked road was familiar and the elaborate play acts of family dynamics allowed one to survive.
I closed my eyes and saw him—wavy red hair, gold rimmed classes, penny loafers. He was wearing his favorite white Aran sweater and standing in the front room of my grandparents’ Maine beach house. A heavy shadow framed him and I could only make out his silhouette. I spoke to him from the depth of my soul, without words.
“Step into the light,” I pleaded. “Please, I can’t see you.”
“I am in the light,” he responded kindly. “Now it’s your turn to step in.”
His tone was unhurried and steady. Tears streamed from my eyes.
A flashbulb of purple ignited in my mind’s eye as his beloved vision faded. The room around me became quiet and still. As usual, he had understood me as no one else could. His wisdom, which was really the light of consciousness, shone through his departed form.
He had invited me to keep my mortal flesh but to join him in a place where there is no sorrow. Into the light and joyful life that our temporary forms have forgotten but our immortal souls have always known.
Photo courtesy of Paul Lovine under the Creative Commons license.