Far From Home
There’s this saying from my hometown. I just don’t know it. Not the saying, actually, but where the hometown is. I know where I was born, I know where I grew up, I know where I went to college, and I know where I live now — all different places, by the way — but not one stands apart from the others or represents whatever notion I have of home. Lots of people move around a lot, but many of them feel a home within the institution that moved them, like the military or professional sports. Many others have a home, but they hate it there for numerous reasons and so seek to leave it. Me, when it comes to thinking of supposed-to-be faraway things like where I want to settle down or retire or be buried, I come up blank.
I suspect my brother Michael was the same way when he was younger. And when he was 18, at the first chance he got, he split from the East Coast and went as far as he could get in the continental United States: San Diego. He had no family there, nor any connections beyond a couple of people he knew from Massachusetts who moved there earlier. He had no job lined up, and he had no college program waiting for him. Yet he hopped in his car, packed with some clothes and the best Clash album collection you ever saw, and headed west until he reached the Pacific. He was driven by something, and I suspect it was a quest to find his home.
And San Diego was home for him, undoubtedly. He embraced the culture (“sunshine with a lobotomy,” as the East Coast transplants call it). He built a life through determination and intensity. He got himself through college. He became a star for University of California-San Diego Masters swim team. He built up a cadre of friends and a palimpsest of tales, stories of absurdity and hilarity so many layers deep that their retelling never got old, and never ceased to be funny. He was in a great place.
And then he died there, suddenly and unexpectedly and for no particularly good reason at the age of 37 years and 364 days. He lived a healthy life, he made good choices, but he died. This is among those certain events that defy description and encapsulate horror for the survivors.
That was 10 years ago. Over time, in place of such events comes what was good in someone’s life, as positive displaces negative or at least fights for a place at the table. All of us that are Michael’s family do this for good reasons, to keep a memory alive, but for selfish ones as well, as a way to deal with the pain. We’re not alone. The same has been happening in San Diego, his home, as each year his friends on the Masters swim team go out to La Jolla Cove and swim out into the ocean for what they call a memory swim. They’ve been doing this every year on his birthday, May 25.
Think about this for a bit. Can you imagine a group of friends so devoted to someone to put together such an event and keep it going year after year? Michael’s friendships were something we in his family knew of, but we had know idea of their profundity or resilience.
A decade later, which was last month, some of my family went out to join his friends for the memory swim. I’ll save the narrative for a future story. The point here is simply about the strength of real friendship, and the importance of finding home. Joining so many people gathered at 7:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning before work to remember a friend was powerful. Understanding what my brother meant to so many people was even more powerful. Here’s a person who made a difference in people’s lives just on the strength of his personality and goodness.
Floating in the ocean, my father next to me, my brother beside me, my mother and other family on the shore, and Michael around us all, the boundaries of home and friendship opened up. The taste of salt water, a distant buoy, and the overwhelming quiet everywhere, it’s enough to make clear I haven’t found home yet. But now, I’ll know it when I get there.