Time can often be a tricky little game depending on who or what is running the clock.
Two years have passed since I wrote “That Time You Went Home Again” — a brush with fate when my family was invited by the new owners of the ancestral homeland we’d lost in Hurricane Katrina. It was a follow up to a piece I’d penned six months prior. ("That Time You Let Go") And now, having been a player in time’s little game, there’s another layer to the story, another response, one that begins within the hour “That You Went Home Again” was published.
The morning it ran in New Orleans Magazine was also the day we “checked out” of the guest house. We had agreed to a noon departure because a cleaning service was coming to prepare the house for new guests. I had planned to suck every last moment out of my final morning “home”. I’d be shutting the door behind me at 11:59. Who knew when I’d ever be back?
Not so fast, Annie.
At 11:30 am, the owner drove up the driveway, followed by the cleaning crew. I was sitting on the porch, taking in my last looks of the property I’d called home the first three decades of my life. When I saw the car, my stomach clenched the way it does whenever I feel caught. And that’s exactly how I felt -- caught. Caught in one last farewell, caught in one final moment of remembrance, and caught in overstaying my welcome.
I slipped into the house and declared martial law.
“Whatever you’re doing, you’re not doing anymore. Grab the bags! Grab your toys! Grab your electronics! Grab everything!”
It was a frenzy. The little cottage had turned madhouse. I could hear the new owner climbing the outside stairs to the front porch. There was a muffled conversation between him and the cleaners.
Noon. Noon! Hadn’t they said noon?!
Then a knock.
I opened the door, flushed, embarrassed, but gave a casual smile.
“We’re bringing everything to the car now. Just grabbing the last of our things…” More like all of our things.
I refrained from anything like “I thought we’d agreed on noon” or “I was just soaking up some final moments.” I knew the minute his car drove up the driveway, he had assumed I would have been long gone. But he’s an early person. I’m last minute. And more importantly, he is the owner, and I was the guest. Yes, I was the guest at his home. Sure, he’d been generous beyond measure to invite me. I’d relished an opportunity I’d previously believed impossible. I’d partaken in what I never thought I would do or could do. It was more than I could have asked for. I was grateful -- eternally grateful to share those days with my family and watch my children play where I came of age. But it wasn’t mine anymore. It didn’t belong to me. It was his to share, and I was just the borrower.
“We have more guests coming this afternoon and I gotta get these ladies in here to clean before that.”
His stress on “gotta” gave me pause for any explanation about why I had lingered. I was no different than any guest. I needed to vacate as soon as possible. And unlike the first time I wrote about the property in “That Time You Let Go”, and unlike “That Time You went Home Again”, I didn’t see anything beautiful in the turnover of the property anymore. They weren’t surrogates, caring for something that we could no longer care for ourselves. They were the real thing: owners. It was theirs -- all theirs. Whatever fantasy I had been living the previous days, came to an abrupt, anticlimactic end.
When we pulled out of the drive, I cried. Not because I was sad to go, but because I was angry. And bitter -- very bitter. Why did it have to be this way? Why did we have to lose the house? Why did we have to sell the land? Why was life so damn unfair?
I questioned myself. Had I made a mistake in returning? Not when I consider my children, no. Not when I consider the opportunity to live a dream, no. But I had made one mistake -- one careless move. I chose to slip away from reality just long enough to be shell shocked when my fantasy was over. The false move landed me right back where I started, long before I saw the property in its rebirth the first time, before I wrote “That Time You Let Go,” and even before I had children. I was back at that sweltering late August afternoon of 2005, having just been told that the house was gone for good. Thirteen years had come and gone, but heading down the drive after my pilgrimage, reminded of what wasn’t mine anymore. And for all I felt, it might as well have been the day we lost it all.
And in the weeks that followed my shell shock, I came to understand that grief is just like that. One day it feels like a lifetime has passed, and in the next instant, the heart aches like it’s just been broken. It’s a tug, a war, and I had experienced my first capture in its game, the first of many times I’d be caught that year.
When we left, (just before noon) halfway home, we turned the car and headed straight to New York where my father-in-law was undergoing open heart surgery. Shortly after we finally made it back to New Orleans, my mother went into the hospital with vascular aneurysms. The week after she was released from rehabilitation, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Two months and eight days later, he was gone.
Between bouts of depression, fear, and anger, I’d often find myself the second half of that year thinking back to that week in the bay. It was the last time that I could remember feeling light -- emotionally without worry and physically without the weight of life. I’d look at the pictures on my phone, not fixated on the images, but on the joy that spilled over onto the screen from them. Those pictures perfectly captured the final moments of my “before” -- before my parents’ mortality slapped me in the face and before I truly understood what it means to grieve.
At my father’s funeral, two of the first people I spotted in the back of the church were the new owners.
“That week at your house was the last week I remember being really, truly happy,” I choked out through tears that were as regular as blinking then. “Thank you for that gift.”
Because now I know enough to know that that’s all it really was -- and all I truly needed to understand on that sullen departure day when the owner’s car drove up the driveway thirty minutes ahead of schedule. It had just been a gift -- a thoughtful, generous, immeasurable gesture. But it was still theirs to gift me because it belonged to them and was theirs to keep. I’d forgotten the facts while playing on the beach and looking out from the bluff. I’d been too swept up to remember what wasn’t mine. But that’s the other thing about grief. It hurts so much because love’s exhilaration sweeps us up into forgetting how fragile it all was all along. I think half of grief is fighting against the truth that it (relationships, happiness, our everything) broke into a million pieces and nothing, not even a trip back in time, can ever put it back together again in the same way. And it doesn’t matter how old you are or how much you’ve lived: that symptom of grief makes you as vulnerable as a child, easily susceptible to disappointment without the ability to see the positives. And that is why the brutal awakening that I was merely a visitor in a home that wasn’t mine hurt as badly as it did. I was caught in grief’s tug-of-war with time. A game — one I still play today. One I may never grow out of.
The new owner’s wife passed away this spring. It was sudden and came without warning — sort of like a hurricane. Lately, I’ve been thinking about him pulling up the long drive to their big, beautiful home under the oaks — so newly built the paint smell might still linger in the closets and cupboards. Only, there is no one to greet him there. No one with whom to share it. He had what? A year? Two years tops to treasure it with her? I think about all the years I shared it with family, all the years my ancestors treasured it before I was born. And it is then that I find myself sorry for him — the one I’ve envied for so long — and once again I’m caught. Caught in time’s tricky little game.
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