Coming home after months or even years away is hard because the people you are coming home to only know — and thus expect — the you that left. This is true for the college kid who is still teased by his family about his sloppiness, his pizza-only diet, or his C’s-will-do work ethic, despite the fact that he actually worked fairly hard to get his act together while living on his own. This is true of the 20-something who is still referred to by her mother as a Prima Donna, regardless of the fact that she just spent 18 months living out of a backpack. This is true of anyone who has ever come home to find that the people there no longer see them as they see themselves.
There is no one to blame here but the game-changers that are expectation and time. We can’t help that we left as the people we left as, or that the people we said goodbye to screenshotted us in their minds, remembering our carefree manner, our insecure smile or our constant refusal to do the dishes.
But time, almost by definition, changes things (read: us). This, incidentally, is probably a good thing. How many people do you know that, if asked if they wanted to be exactly the same in two years, would say yes? Probably not many. Furthermore, what was the point of study abroad or taking a promotion in a new city or backpacking Asia if you weren’t going to let it change you in some way?
For better or for worse, few escape time. Time is a potter who takes the already-drying pieces we are as 20-somethings, composed of a certain shade of clay with a determined grit, and molds us slightly, sometimes gradually and delicately changing the structure of the entire piece. Sometimes time smooths out a previously jagged edge. Sometimes time is over-ambitious, and in attempting to pull a vase out a bowl, renders the clay a bit too thin in the middle. Sometimes that thin clay even tears.
But no matter what, the wheel keeps spinning and rarely does the clay just sit there untouched. As we get older, the clay begins to harden in the air, and the alterations become increasingly difficult. The miracle of damp clay is that it cannot shatter.
And so we come home, molded by time and the experiences it offered. We come home, in some way altered, to the people we have left with a screenshot of our former selves; an expectation of the person we were.
Coming home is hard because, in many cases, the people we come home to will want to understand. They will beg for stories, and their eyes will dart back and forth between ours as they listen. They will ask the right questions at the right moments.
But, intent as they may be in wanting to understand (“Tell me everything. No seriously, I mean everything”), they weren’t there when that handsome once-a-stranger clumsily nudged the lego house that was your heart off of the coffee table. They weren’t one of the friends down on their hands and knees searching for the scattered pieces in the dust under the couch. They weren’t there as you tried to reassemble the structure, but struggled, as no step-by-step instruction manual could be found.
They weren’t there when you lost a friend to alcohol poisoning, they weren’t there the night that guy from the gym assaulted you. They didn’t spend weeks on weeks walking up and down the Australian alps, they didn’t have the same eye-opening conversations with the surprisingly happy homeless people you met in the Philippines. They weren’t in your mind that nondescript Sunday you woke up and decided that actually you’re not really as bad as you once thought.
They didn’t experience these things with you, despite your subsequent Skype sessions and the emails that had half as many words as Anna Karenina, but they will experience the way time and circumstance have changed you. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it is a reality that we are often under-prepared for.
Coming home to someone (read: not your mother), due to the familiar culprits of time and expectation, is even harder. It’s so hard that it’s almost like the occasion warrants some sort of peremptory message, something that tactfully conveys the thoughts that insist on playing tag in your head when you can’t fall asleep at night. The ones in which you blurt out something like this:
“Listen, it’s not that I’m not really excited to see you, but I think we need to maybe manage our expectations a bit. We haven’t seen each other in what will be 14 months. We are 5,000 miles apart. We haven’t spoken face-to-face in over a year. You’ve romanticized me, and I can’t blame you. It’s impossible not to airbrush someone’s flaws when you are infatuated with the idea of them from a distance. I’ve done the same to you. This is not to say it couldn’t work out, but simply to point out (to both of us) that it might not. We’ve changed. So let’s do ourselves both a favor and press reset on our expectations, because I don’t want either of us to be kept up at night by the idea of someone who doesn’t exist anymore. That being said, please know that I look forward to meeting you again.”
None of this is to imply that leaving your “home” for months or years at a time inherently weakens or destroys relationships, but sometimes it will. Remember that high school friend you got coffee with a year after graduation, only to discover that you actually had nothing in common besides chemistry class and mean girls to gossip about? Relationships like that, based on nothing beyond a common experience, may start to disintegrate, and perhaps you should let them.
The converse of this is that the people you feel just as connected to after months or years of geographic distance, after all the circumstantial things you had in common (location, classes, workplace, the team you were on, the people you had to talk about) have fallen away, these are your people. These are the people who will give a toast at your wedding; who will be drunk with you on your 40th birthday. This is your home team.
I like to joke that if you want to know who your real friends are you should disappear for a year and see who is still there when you get back. I say this laughing, but in reality, few things could be closer to the truth.
Coming home is hard, because managing your expectations of people is hard. Coming home is hard, because changed people mean a changed relationship; an altered dynamic. Coming home is hard because explaining the events that changed you, perhaps in a few dramatic hours or days, is hard. Coming home is hard because you see yourself every single day and may not even realize that you’re different until you don’t quite manage to fit back into your old role. Coming home is hard because often some of the places you used to occupy have been filled — by new best friends, new love interests, a new social dynamic. Coming home is hard because you’re expected to pick up where you left off, when in reality you’re miles away from that spot.
Coming home is hard because your family isn’t perfect. Your mother, despite all the effort she put into raising you, is probably still over-bearing or slightly (highly) irrational. Your father, in spite of all of the support he has provided you, may be just as critical as you left him. Your cousin might still be losing his war with alcohol; your aunt might still be wrestling with divorce papers. It will be just as difficult as it has always been to be with people 24/7, to see them through their nastiest moods and that annoying way they always talk with food in their mouth.
Coming home is hard, but coming home can be also be wonderful. Coming home means your mom’s famous brownies, your little brother’s sorority girl imitation, and drinking port with your dad. Coming home means that park you used to drink in, it means the the bed you’ve been missing for months. It means people that have had you counting down the days until you could hug them. It means someone, perhaps the officer that checks your passport upon arrival or the woman who has worked in your neighborhood 7/11 since you were a kid, saying “welcome home.”
Coming home is hard, but it’s worth it.