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Why You Can't Go Back

My Girls and Me in La Jolla, May 2019 (Photo Credit: Kristin Michelle)

They say you can never really go back home. Not once you've left it. Because once you return, you will find things have changed.

Mostly because you have.

Last May I went home to San Diego for the first time in twenty years. I'm embarrassed to admit this and as I now reflect on a reason for my absence from my hometown for so long, I can find none. None that seem plausible anyway. Every excuse is flimsy. If I'd truly wanted to return, I'd have made it happen before now. Even with eight children to consider travel plans for and animals on a farm to contemplate care for.

Though I missed parts of my old life, I was wholly content in Kansas City. I preferred so much what was new to what I'd left behind. There was no point reliving where I'd been, even though there was so much joy there.

Alongside a lot of pain.

My Siblings and I at our first house on Tonto Way, San Diego, 1970s

And I suppose the truth is, in survival mode, I was afraid of looking back, that I'd turn into a pillar of salt or something.

Or maybe I was concerned I just couldn't bear it--the pain part and the good too, the joy that now whispers the same when evaluated looking back at the past. And in that, it felt as if too much of what could squeeze my heart into liquid and turn my insides to stone was there, instead of what remained resolute and grew stronger, treasures left behind in the sand and white foam and loyal waves, in the buildings that still stand and the tall trees that are sure to outlive me and in all the places that still hold a part of me near my sea.

The reasons for leaving were numerous, but the long and short of it was a company relocation following a divorce and when I think about it now, I guess I never planned on staying here in Kansas City forever, or at least I never planned to stay away from home so long.

Technically, my husband and I were in San Diego for a couple of days fifteen years ago when I was pregnant with our youngest, Gracie, but that doesn't count as far as I'm concerned. We were there for a conference downtown and didn't visit friends or family, didn't drive around town to have a look at the houses of my childhood, or the one I raised my kids in early on, or to see all the places that exist inside of me, will always exist inside of me, those places that hold all my memories. I had never shown my San Diego memories to my now grown children--those that hadn't been a part of what we made together there before leaving.

My Dad and Me at the Embarcadero for a Pops Concert, Late 1980s

To be honest, when our plane made the approach to Lindberg Field and I saw the lights of the Coronado bridge that night in May, I cried.

I cried because every approach by air reminds me of that TWA crash in September 1978 that happened in the middle of our city, the worst aviation disaster in the history of our country at that time.

I cried because the city reminds me so much of my architect father, who left his mark there. The one I lost to a commercial plane crash too.

I cried because I once flew over the city reporting traffic from the air, and in a studio on the ground too, providing the morning news to its citizens. It was if my city and I were connected on a deeper level than average, as if my destiny was part of hers, and all the history she had ever experienced was mine too, the past and present and future all woven together somehow.

And yet, somewhere along the way I was removed from the future and my return was too late, a betrayal, and to spite me the city had moved on without me.

Balboa Park and North Park Beyond (Site of TWA Crash in 1978) and One of My Late Father's Favorite Spots

It's fitting that Milk and Honey Land begins in my hometown, of course. It's fitting it was published on May 3, 2019, thirty years to the day my father died in a plane crash. It's fitting I would return exactly twenty years since I'd left, that my husband would surprise me with tickets to San Diego at the same time my anniversary arrived and my book published.

That time was attached to a supernatural process.

As if God was showing me he had everything figured out, not to worry. As if plane crashes could be good and time spent away could be better perspective.

And time is no mere coincidence.

There is no coincidence with God in a thing.

And I wonder what we are missing in our lack of understanding. I wonder how many alignments we miss, or attributions to coincidences we make, when we aren't paying attention to God's messages for us, those that assure us he is still there for us, still involved in all our little details, and still assisting with every intricate part of our journey. Whether we realize it or not. Whether it seems coincidental or not. Whether pain is cruelly part of forward movement or not.

Thirty years to the day of my father's crash my book published. Twenty years to the month I returned home with my girls to show them my stories, to paint what remains on their minds.

There was something sacred there.

My Sister Jackie (Who Still Lives in San Diego with Her Family), My Late Father, Ed, and Me in San Diego in the 1980s

Still, visiting home was as emotionally draining as I'd known it would be. I'd had reason to wait, as it turned out. Because more than anything, the trip turned out to be a visit of the past, the good and the bad and of course that's the way it is when you step away from a place that holds so many of your precious memories, and certainly all from your childhood, for so long. When current surroundings fade easier to those left behind. When you find you've stepped back in time and it's all there, your mind retrieved, and yet so much is missing too, and you think if you look hard enough the people you've loved that are gone now will reappear in this moment in time that happened so long ago.

The fact that three of my closest San Diego friends in youth passed suddenly doesn't make the remembering easier and the city itself, where much of the landscape remains as it always has, with every single inch of land claimed and built upon, holds still in a way.

For goodness sake, it still looks exactly as I'd left it.

One early morning I drove around town by myself, after having dropped Emily off at the airport so she could get to a wedding in Minnesota. I made my way over to the condo I had once shared with my father and brother nearby and parked my rental car at the top of the steeply angled street, right above Lindberg Field. The grand, southern view of downtown and I-5, and, the airport, was still familiar to me, the bedroom window I had once called my own with the same view from the condo nearby, mine still and I had no trouble imagining myself back in the 80s. It really was all the same. I put the radio on in the car and thought to myself, who listens to radio anymore? And even as I had these thoughts, 80s music came on and my step back in time became realer still.

Rachel, Kelsea, Me, Emily, and Grace Visit Home (Photo Credit: Kristin Michelle)

This happened again and again during my visit, times when I could have sworn nothing had changed, even as everything had. The bay and Fiesta Island and the ocean were exactly as I'd left them, as were the highways and most of the buildings too. El Indio was there with the same paint on stucco, the smell of sweet meat and corn tortillas wafting through the air, while the Old Town Mexican Cafe was still serving up the best Mexican in town, packed with tourists and locals alike, and I half expected to see my father there, eating his favorite meal while mariachi music played.

La Jolla and the pier, Pacific Beach and the local Denny's, Balboa Park and the pedestrians, and all of them the same, and life continued just as it always had without me, without any of us, there.

All of it the same but different somehow too, because I am changed. And I consider how unlike my current life would be, how much less I'd know of the world around me had I stayed to change there, differently, in my hometown. The possibilities are too much to reflect upon.

Regardless, one thing I know to be true is this: there really is no going back, only moving forward, appreciating the moment for the past. Change brings us our destinies, our purpose, with help from the past. It propels us into our future.

I feel achy inside when I think about all I've missed in San Diego but I know I would miss my new home here in Kansas City too, were I to leave. So when I left San Diego this last time, I laid my memories down there and walked into the future. I can pick them up and hold them again one day, but I won't be living them anymore.

Every day I'm alive I'm making new memories, good ones to take into the future, where change is taking me home.

My Girls and I Love Our Time Back Home, May 2019 (Photo Credit: Jade Coast Photography)


Kansas City, Kansas l jm@jmhuxley.com

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