Sharing one of my exceedingly rare cigarettes with a friend at this weekend’s SCMS conference in Boston, I joked about writing an avant-garde academic text in the form of a giant palindrome: it would be a perfectly cogent argument up to the halfway point, then reverse itself and proceed backwards, until, on the last page, it ended on the same word with which it had started.
Now that my wife, son, and I are back in our house, I see that the act of travel, of being away and coming back, is a lot like that giant palindrome. All of the preparations we so carefully make before depature — packing the suitcase, loading the dishwasher, turning off the lights — reverse themselves on our arrival home, and the first small acts with which I began (always, for some reason, the zipping-up of toothbrush and razor in my toiletries bag) are the last to be performed at the other end of the experience, shuffling disordered cards back into the familiar and dog-eared deck of our everyday life. For me, there is nothing quite like the pleasure and relief of settling back in at home.
All of this has an added resonance and poignancy, because today marks one year since another act of coming home. On March 25, 2011, my wife and I lost a pregnancy at 23 weeks, after medical scans that showed profound defects in the fetus and left us with little hope for a healthy birth or normal life for the child if it survived. “Fetus,” “child,” “it”; all inadequate but protectively distancing approximations for the boy we named Arlo, delivered as the sun rose outside the windows of our room at the hospital. That room continued to brighten and warm thoughout the morning as we sat with our son, saying hello and goodbye to this tiny pound-and-a-quarter person whose motionless face, after all our weeks of fear and dread, turned out to be not so scary after all: a gentle little visage, like a thoughtful gnome’s, with eyes that never opened.
There was a certain undeniable grace to that morning, a gift of release, but by nightfall much of the spell had worn off, and by the time we got home, the first real waves of pain had started to throb through the cushion of our shock. K’s mother was here to take care of us, and our dog (now deceased) here to need us in turn, and there was mail on the kitchen table waiting to be sorted, shows on the DVR to watch.
I don’t really remember how we got through the next several weeks (though I did have a moment of startled realization not too many mornings later, sitting at the kitchen table with my wife and mother in law, that the world had not in fact ended). We did the things we normally do: cooked meals, went for walks, paid bills. Early in April some robins built a nest outside our kitchen window and filled it with perfect blue eggs from which emerged a gaggle of adorably wrinkled and disgusting beasts that soon enough turned cute, sprouted feathers, opened their eyes, and flew away. In June we submitted our adoption profile. Six weeks later, we received a call from our agency. Two days after that, we found ourselves in another hospital room, meeting the newborn baby who would become our son.
We got home after that experience, too, and I guess the lesson here is that if luck is with you, you get to come home, put the pieces of your life back together, and move on. Sometimes leaving the safety zone is voluntary and sometimes it’s forced upon you, but either way it’s usually something you have to do in order to keep on growing.
Now that spring is here, robins are starting to show up in the trees and on our lawn. Irrational as it is, I hold out hope that one or more of them are the babies we watched through our kitchen window, grown up now and coming home themselves. The nest is still there, waiting for them to settle in and unpack their suitcases.