The Way Home


Look from the sidewalk into this home with me as we casually stroll our neighborhood, walking off supper.

We’re wearing masks. Not the kind made of wool sparing our noses and ears from frostbite, but a necessary covering for our noses and mouths. Hold my hands. It’s chilly outside, yet our breath stays neatly tucked inside the cotton hand sewn white facial protection from this last years’ pandemic. Will it never end, I think, as you think, simultaneously. How right Jung really was: the psychological mechanism that transforms energy into a symbol beyond verbal explanation. The mask forever imagined as a representation of all things bad in this world of ours, yet the symbol of doing the right thing to protect ourselves, everyone really, from spending another year inside a pink bubble.

We stop and look at one wildly decorated house, just a block from home. It’s brighter every year. Out in front of the neighborhood show-offs – I’d swear I don’t recall the Santa’s sled pulled by eight reindeer lit brighter than Krakatoa upon their newly tiled roof last year. We gaze amazed by the amount of careful work her husband puts into their gaudy block blinding display year after year. His wife is healthy and kept news of her recent negative mammogram results from us until one of their teenagers slipped and told our son when she saw him at work at Trader Joe’s. He said he was happy for her but he felt like she was showing off like her mother was better than his somehow, and he hugs me and heads to grab his keys. He spends the night at his gender fluid partners house nearly every night now. It won’t be long before the feathers in the nest begin taking off in the winter wind – no need anymore. But my thoughts digress so easily these days don’t they?

The family sees us gawking at the red, green, gold, blue, silver, and energy efficient extravaganza replete with articulated waiving snow people (political correctness applies to snow sculpture, does it not? I make you laugh as I consider creating a phallus to stick on Frosty the Snowman to adjust his anatomically correctness. You wait and then look away from me, the unsightly scene, frown and say you’ll miss my laughter.) From inside near the fire and 12 foot fresh cut tree decorated in peacock colors, the ten of them wave at the two of us. They wave very vigorously, almost too happy. Too many people inside. Unsafe.

We near our own home, slightly darker than in years prior. There in the picture window, framed by white flocking and boughs of pine and LED bright white lights stands a family. How sad, we think as the woman looks slightly disheveled, her hair very short, purple circles under her eyes even visible from 200 feet away. They cannot see you. It’s dark outside and light inside. Don’t linger long.

It’s a usual sight, should one be an onlooker into a Norman Rockwell painting, except it’s cut, burned, and poisoned without any a big deal being made of it by the family serving the terrine of food. The green tree’s decorations not quite right to those people in the know – still the comments will come, “it looks great,” as you reluctantly send some phone photos to your friend across the county. It looks fine. Fine for someone whose lost the spigot out of which flowed her usual unstoppable, unwavering holiday energy due to cancer. Breast cancer. Very metastatic breast cancer.

In the window three people look at the tree. It’s slightly slanted to the right. The gifts, wrapped only in the paper and plastic bags in which they left the stores they were purchased or the postal service boxes in which they arrived, sit on the apron around the base of the fresh Douglas fir. The fluffy white skirt appears backwards even to a stranger looking in on the scene. She forgot how to arrange it at the bottom of the tree. And the tree’s scent is unusually faint to her this year. The sense of smell she once used to catch musty odors under a bathroom sink, or determine the right amount of cinnamon in a pie is no longer useful, no longer part of the five senses she once controlled. This year her nose missed the lack of nutmeg in the pot of apple cider. No one dares say a word. It might be her last pot so who can forsake her as they would have before the diagnosis.

You look harder and notice there’s only one car in the driveway where there were two before. There hangs a plain but fresh green wreath on the front door. No lights outside and only a few strands inside lighting the top half of the tree. The halfway point is a marker of sorts to the point at which she ran out of energy. There’s an envelope under the tree in a Manila envelope showing off scans brightly lit of her body like a Christmas tree. Stable disease as a gift to her son and husband this year.

And it’s these pictures we will look back upon next year to remind us we were either better or worse off then, now. But the untied apron strings of you and your reluctant teen sous chef who’d rather be on Instagram or Tiktok keep him held safe to your heart for a while longer. We never do know, so sad so true, how long it will be before those independent souls free themselves from the kitchen; yet he will always remember how you showed him to cook, every holiday when he recalls to his own family, “my mom showed me…” and you live longer than that day this year. That day recalled in the coming years ahead.

We look down at our path to the front door of our home. I hope to see many many more evenings like this one. Such tricky business – to create an image of life as we know it and symbols that we all can understand – and we pass the test, looking “good” having so much energy for someone who’s terminally ill. Yet it’s not for those of us who remember every year’s commentary on the beauty of the wrapping paper, the decorations on the tree, the scent of the combined dishes at the door to greet every visitor. This image painted from memory of better days, healthier times is merely that: a facsimile of those memories.

We know how different this years’ preparations, meal, and decorations are as we shift our weight from one foot to another, one arm to the other, fewer people but the love, the love, the love is all that really matters and all anyone remembers. All those “things” represent the love. And we are set free of the resolute duty of the ties which bind us to the responsibility of yet another year of stuffed stockings filled with love.

Wasn’t that always what we really meant anyway?

4 comments on “The Way Home”

  1. Hi Ilene,
    It’s intriguing to think about the lives being led behind the glass of windows we more freely allow ourselves to gaze through this time of year as we walk past homes decked out, or not decked out, for the holidays. For many, this year there will be fewer people, fewer lights and much less stuff. But you’re so right. It really is about the love. It always has been. Perhaps this is more clear than ever this year. Thanks for the post, Ilene. May your holidays be filled with much love. x

  2. I decided to take a virtual walk – using the metaphor seemed real to me – we are voyeurs in on our own lives sometimes – somewhat removed as we lose control over the outside world and on some level our own lives. But we can let love guide us. It is indeed as I grow older and I hope slightly wiser not just closer to death, all that matters. Period.

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