Author: Michele Hiester Marcum
Somebody somewhere once said, “Home is where the heart is,” and if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that quote over the years, I could probably take a vacation - away from home.
I’m not a world-class traveler who circles the globe on a regular basis, but we do indulge in periodic family getaways. We love to visit places we’ve never been, and we enjoy planning all the details of each trip: where we eat, where we sleep, and what we see and do. And as much as we love getting away, there is never a time that we don’t arrive back home and hear one of us say, “Ah, home, sweet home!” No matter how exciting and refreshing the trip, there is just something about coming home that makes your soul smile.
In high school, I remember dedicating entire weeks to another type of homecoming. There were pep rallies and football games and contests of every sort. The alumni all returned home to see old friends and witness the crowning of the royal court. In college, it was a repeat performance but with a lot more oomph. Coming home was a reason for celebration! As a newlywed, living away from my hometown, coming home meant seeing the family I love more than anything. When I had my children, each of them experienced their first homecoming as we brought them home from the hospital to their brand new cribs.
And then there was my brother’s homecoming, and there was no reason to celebrate. He arrived home from Afghanistan, via an honor flight through Dover and arrived at the funeral home in the middle of a pitch-black March night. His widow and I welcomed him with tears and sadness at 3:00 am in a solemn room just down the street from where we grew up. For as long as I live, I will never forget that moment in time when I fully understood the cost of war. With “Angels Among Us” playing faintly in the background, and with tears streaming down my face, pride and sorrow fought for space in my heart, where joy once resided.
And then came THE homecoming I had dreaded more than anything. His comrades returned home to a crowd of overjoyed friends and family. The tears were happy, and the hugs were many. The yellow ribbons came down, and the whole town celebrated. And while I was genuinely relieved for all these soldiers who had risked it all and made it home to their loved ones, I couldn’t conjure the words, “welcome home” any more than I could think them. Happiness wasn’t part of the equation.
After successfully avoiding the town’s week-long welcoming hoopla, I was feeling a little more secure in my new life with my new companion called “Grief”. There were no more major milestones to hide from, other than day-to-day living, or at least, that’s what I thought until I walked into church that sunny spring morning. Somehow, I had forgotten that one of my brother’s battle buddies attended our church. There he was, greeting friends, receiving hugs, beaming with joy. . . full of life. For a split second, I thought it was Michael. I couldn’t reconcile the sight of this soldier… dressed in camo, standing tall, blue eyes, head shaved… with the shallow grave a few miles away. Just as quickly, my brain caught up with the memories. My heart stopped, my feet froze, and the tears gushed. And the only place I wanted to be was home.
So much has changed since that heart-breaking day eight years ago. Thanks to Facebook, I witness countless homecomings through pictures posted by friends across the nation. Service members from all branches of the military smile for the camera, arms draped around the shoulders of loved ones. Sometimes their joy is so radiant, and their pride so immense that I can’t help but smile and respond, “Welcome home," and genuinely mean the words I type. Homecomings will always hurt, I think, but it is no longer the mournful, gut-wrenching, debilitating variety. It’s more poignant, more cleansing, more sacred.
When I think about the path I have walked and all the homecomings I have encountered in my lifetime, I cannot sign off this blog without spending a minute talking about one of the most significant and life-changing homecomings I have ever experienced. A couple of years after Michael died, I attended my first TAPS function, and the only way to describe it is to say that it felt like coming home. Here were people who “got” it. They understood the words I couldn’t speak, the thoughts I couldn’t share, the hope I couldn’t find. You know how when you play in the snow for a long period of time and everything becomes numb? And you can’t feel your fingers or your nose? And then you open the front door of your home, and it just feels like a warm hug? It feels cozy, and it houses everything you love, and it just smells like home? And then you begin to thaw and the tingling starts as feeling returns? And the tingling turns to painful stinging before finally, you begin to feel like yourself again? Well, that’s what TAPS gave me. I was stuck in the stinging stage, at an obviously much deeper level, and I just needed the warmth that their homecoming provided.
Through TAPS, I have met so many thoughtful, caring, “been there” people who have become like family. Each year, I look forward to this new annual tradition of “coming home” and spending time with them: sharing their sorrow, relishing their memories, witnessing their growth. I leave with a heart overflowing and a spirit renewed. It is a safe haven – my home away from home. If you’ve never been to a TAPS event, I would strongly encourage you to plan now for your own homecoming. For siblings, parents, widows, grandparents, and children, TAPS offers something for everyone.
Home really is where the heart is.