by Kathy Herman
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Portland.”
If the American Airlines captain said anything after that, I didn’t hear it. I sat in my window seat, looking out at the dark November afternoon, rain blowing in sheets across the tarmac, my stomach feeling as if tiny gymnasts were using it as a trampoline. I clasped the two wedding rings that hung on a gold chain around my neck and held them next to my heart. Aren’t you proud of me, Paul? I actually did it.
The passengers around me stood and gathered their belongings, and I reached under the seat in front of me and picked up a soft nylon carrier housing my confused and anxious cat, Prissy. The look in her wide green eyes matched the feeling in my gut. She depended on me to know what we were doing. But did I? Was moving here the right choice? Had I considered the pros and cons thoroughly enough? There was no turning back.
My daughter Jody reached over and put her hand on my shoulder. “Welcome home, Mom.”
Home. For almost half my life, Tyler, Texas was home. The place where the man of my dreams got down on one knee and proposed, and months later carried me across the threshold. We had history there. Friends. Church family. A house we built. A kitchen nook where I wrote 19 novels. Dozens of hummingbirds that return every spring. A Christian bookstore that the Lord had entrusted to us for a time, and that now thrived in LifeWay’s capable hands. Texas was home to my two adult stepchildren and four wonderful grandchildren. Memories . . . so many memories. Shared joys. Shared sorrows. Indelibly engraved on my heart. Was it even possible for me to feel at home anywhere else?
Jody was the only child I gave birth to, yet we had not lived under the same roof, or even in the same city, for 25 years, not since she left Tyler at 16 and went back to Colorado to live with her dad while she finished high school. Turning loose of her at such a tender age had been agonizing for me, but she was an unhappy teenager who needed a fresh start. Over the next few years, she and some musicians she knew from high school set their sights on Portland, Oregon. I wasn’t sure why, but I sensed that for Jody it was about declaring her independence. About distancing herself from an overprotective father and two blended families in order to find herself. When Jody and her friends packed all their possessions into three vehicles and headed up to the great Northwest, I knew in my heart she had already chosen Portland to be her home.
The first couple years after Jody moved to Portland, she stopped calling as often and didn’t always return my calls. I figured she needed space, which is all the more reason why Paul and I were surprised and delighted when she brought her boyfriend to Tyler to meet us. We liked Mark very much, and it was obvious the two were smitten with each other. What we couldn’t have known at the time was that 18 months later, they would become parents of a baby girl named Selah.
Eager to see the baby, Paul and I and my mother flew to Portland and spent ten days. I think I rocked Selah nonstop from morning until night every day we were there. That was 16 years ago. After that trip, my mobility issues made it too difficult for me to return to Portland. Jody and Selah (and occasionally Mark) came to Tyler once or twice a year and we had great visits. And though our hearts were intertwined, I knew I was missing out on so much of Jody’s life.
In 2014, Paul began to experience a number of health issues, and an unexplained fall resulted in his being confined to a rehab facility for over a month. Jody flew to Tyler and stayed with me for two and a half weeks, the longest amount of time we had ever been alone together. We had some wonderful talks, and I got to know my adult daughter on a deeper level. During that time, she broached the difficult subject that, sometime down the road, I might have to face the future without Paul, and that it might be good to consider ahead of time what I would do. She knew I had deep roots in Tyler, and she respected that. But she also left the door wide open for me to move to Portland and live close to her family. Truthfully, I was deeply touched. It never occurred to me that she, after all these years away, would want to take responsibility for me during my senior years, especially since my stepson and daughter-in-law in Tyler had said repeatedly that they were more than willing. Jody insisted that the decision was completely mine, and that she hadn’t offered out of a sense of obligation, but because I was her mother and she loved me. She asked me just to think about it.
In June of 2015, Paul was diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer, and just days later had a mild heart attack. It became apparent that he could no longer function at home. My stepchildren convinced me that we needed to move him into nursing care and me into nearby assisted living so we could see each other whenever we wanted. They did that for us, and then took on the enormous task of selling our home and having an estate sale, all in less than three months!
In June of 2016, almost one year to the day of his cancer diagnosis, Paul took his last breath and went home to Jesus. After the funeral (and unbeknownst to me), our three children had a long discussion about options for my future. Jody told them how much she and Mark wanted me to live close to them and about the conversations she and I had had on the subject. Each of the kids knew the promise I’d made to myself that if Paul died first, I would not make any life-changing decisions for a year. So I decided to stay in the assisted living facility where I was currently a resident and see how I felt over the next 12 months.
During that time, Jody gave me space to grieve but never wavered in her insistence that she wanted me to live in Portland. It was her consistent enthusiasm that won me over. She began checking out assisted living facilities and found one that seemed to be a perfect fit: a Christian retirement community—and just five minutes from their house! She met with the administrator and toured the facility. She could hardly contain her enthusiasm and sent me an email with pictures and a link to the website. After I read up on it, I was ready to pack my bags. Jody told me that Mark and Selah could hardly wait for me to get there. It felt wonderful, and almost too good to be true, to feel so wanted at this stage of my life. A handicapped widow in my late 60s, it’s not as though they were getting the best part of the deal. And yet they seemed as excited as I was to start this new chapter in our lives.
Six months later, all plans were in place, and Jody and Mark flew to Tyler. For an entire week, they helped me finish packing and tie up loose ends. They stood with me as the movers drove away with all my worldly possessions. And as I, with tears and hugs, said my goodbyes to dear friends I would not see again until we meet in heaven. And finally, as I held tightly just a minute longer to my Tyler family: my stepson, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, who were happy that I had the chance to make memories with Jody’s family, but who were already feeling the void.
I took a slow, deep breath. It was time to go. I waited with Prissy, who was pacing in her carrier, as Mark picked up all the luggage and Jody grabbed my computer case and hung the strap over her shoulder and followed Mark out to the rented SUV. A minute later, Jody pushed me out to the car, I got in, and we headed for the Dallas airport. As we drove out of Tyler, I was sobered by the thought that I would not be returning until Jody brought back my ashes and buried them next to Paul.
“Mom …? Are you okay?”
Jody’s voice startled me, and I realized I had been lost in thought and we were still on the plane.
“I’m fine, honey,” I said. “There are a million thoughts competing for my attention. I can’t seem to hang on to any of them for long. I’m just anxious to see my new place.”
As the last of the passengers deplaned, and the flight crew strapped me into a special aisle wheelchair, I was never more aware of the huge leap of faith I had taken, believing the Lord was guiding my every step. More than anything, I needed Him to help me feel at home in Portland. And to help me be a blessing, and not a burden.
The rest of that day is a blur. I do remember pulling into the parking lot of the Christian retirement community where I had already rented an apartment and had been virtually arranging it with furniture for the past two months. Before they came to Tyler, Jody and Mark hung the new valances and mirror I chose, put together several new pieces of furniture, put away essential supplies I sent ahead, and set up a borrowed bed and a makeshift desk, anticipating that it would be a week before the movers arrived. That week turned into 17 days. But it really didn’t matter. I was home.
As I’m writing this, I’ve been in Portland for over four months. I’ve come to realize that home means different things to different people. But however we define it, it’s much more than just a tangible structure and how we furnish it. To be truly at home involves a choice—a willing acceptance, not only of what we’ve been given (whether little or much) but also of the people with whom we share it.
I’m feeling very much at home here at my retirement community, and my love for the residents is growing. What a blessing it is to live out my days on this earth in fellowship with followers of Jesus Christ—an unanticipated bonus the Lord had planned all along. And I couldn’t be happier or feel more at home living just five minutes from Jody, Mark and Selah, and being able to share their lives day to day. By all indications, they feel the same way.
I love how the Lord’s surprises are sometimes spiced with irony. I had always hoped that someday Jody would come home to me. But instead, the Lord, in His perfect timing, brought me home to her. I can almost feel Him smiling.
Best-selling suspense novelist Kathy Herman has published 21 novels, including her latest release, Only by Death. She loves photography and lives in the Pacific Northwest with a rescue cat named Prissy.
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