A Survivor's Tale

She's Leaving Home

My grief had less to do with losing my home than my awareness of the unstoppable, heartbreaking passage of time

I didn't realize how attached I was until moving day, when I burst into tears at the sight of the 18-wheeler pulling up in front of our house. What was wrong with me? This was no tragic drama of loss. The house wasn't being repossessed. We weren't political refugees. My husband and I had sold our home in Washington, D.C., and were moving back to the Bay Area, where we'd met in our early thirties. We would be close to our son and daughter-in-law, our grandchildren and many dear friends — in one of the most magnificent spots on the planet. Soon enough, we would find a new home.

So why did I feel so bereft and brokenhearted? So leveled by grief?

Yes, I was sad at the thought of leaving my East Coast friends. Sad to leave our beautiful neighborhood. Sad to say goodbye to the 1920s brick colonial that we'd renovated the hell out of during the thirteen years we lived there: new kitchen, fish pond with shimmering waterfall, art studio for my husband, scores of trees, shrubs and perennials planted, the new master bath with radiant heat to warm our feet on frigid winter mornings. I loved that house. It had been a sanctuary for us, our families, our friends, the meditation group that had met in our living room twice a month for twelve years. What's more, we'd celebrated my mother's 95th birthday there, just six weeks before she died.

Certainly, the good memories contributed to my sense of loss. So did the fact that I'd lived in our sweet brick colonial longer than any other home in my entire life. Still, I knew there was more. Something deeper working its way up from my unconscious and stirring up feelings of sorrow.

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I'd gotten a clue as to what that might be the day before, when I was packing our books. In one of those sudden aha! flashes, I realized that packing up a house is very much like striking a stage set on the closing night of a run. As a playwright and director, I am intimately familiar with that bittersweet ritual and the simultaneous feelings of loss and freedom it inevitably evokes — about the end of one thing and the leap forward into an unknown future.

It was startling to compare my beloved home to a stage set, but in fact that's exactly what it was: the setting for one stage of our lives that had enjoyed a long and happy run. And now that run was over. Once our belongings were packed away, the house was no longer ours. What was left was just a shell — four walls and a roof that gave no hint of the life that had been lived there. The same way that a stage stripped of its actors in their costumes, its sets and glittering lights, is nothing but empty space.

I understood then that my grief had less to do with losing my home than my awareness of the unstoppable, heartbreaking passage of time.

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I vowed to remember my aha! moment. I promised myself I wouldn't forget that a house is just a house is just a house, and that we're merely passing through. I swore up and down that next time I wouldn't get quite so attached or obsessive about making it perfect. However, I am embarrassed to report — as we near completion of the renovation of our new home in California — that I'm nearly as obsessive as ever.

Still, between freaking out about the material for the kitchen countertops or what color to paint the living room walls, I have moments of clarity when I remember that, really, I'm just creating another stage set that will someday be struck. Strangely, there is freedom in this knowledge.

The day we left D.C., after the movers had emptied the house of our belongings and driven away in their great big van, my husband and I went out to the backyard one last time to say goodbye to the fish. There was a net over the pond — it was late fall and the net prevented the leaves from clogging the pond. To our horror, inside the net, a tiny sparrow was trapped and screeching for its life.

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I ran next door and borrowed a pair of scissors from our neighbor, then slowly, as if we were performing the most delicate surgery, my husband and I set about trying to free the bird. It was touch and go; the sparrow was so small, so fragile, its feet all twisted in the net. We could easily have killed it. But we didn't. Somehow, we managed to free it.

We left the house as the bird flew away.