I ran away from home when I was five years old. I didn’t return for almost thirty years.
Upon the arrival of my little brother, our tiny house seemed to shrink, and my parents started looking for something with a bit more room for the brave little crawler. Once they’d found the new house and boxed up our belongings, they began the move. I have few memories of the day. For some reason, I felt neglected. Maybe they were more focused on getting our furniture situated. Maybe I resented the attention my brother was demanding. Maybe I’d only recently learned that running away was an option. Who knows? Regardless, at some point I decided to strike out on my own, never to return.
I think I walked around the block. I distinctly remember that, when I returned, no one had noticed I’d left. I also remember my mother’s pitying look when I told her I’d run away, a sympathetic smile that hid amusement at my dramatic ploy for attention. I was so wounded that they had forgotten about me. She could see my pain, but couldn’t help but see it in a way I couldn’t. That larger perspective made my pain funny.
We moved away a few years later. Six cities and fifteen residences later, I passed through that town on the way to a friend’s wedding. I found the little house where we’d lived at first, and I tried to find the second. The first house created absolutely no impression on me upon its rediscovery, and the second house was so lost to memory that I couldn’t even find the street.
Twenty-nine years had passed. I was almost exactly as old as my parents had been the day I ran away. They’d never lost me. Not really. But there I was, sitting in a borrowed car, looking at a little house, wondering if there was a German word for the disappointment one feels upon returning to a place after many years to find that it is not as one remembers it. They hadn’t lost me. I’d lost myself.
Now I’m struck by the symmetry. I left that day for perhaps twenty minutes, and no one noticed. Then I left for three decades, and no one noticed. I thought they’d forgotten about me, but during the longer wandering, I forgot about that part of myself. When I returned, my mother was able to see it in a broader way, to see the absurdity of it. That stung when I was five. Now it’s a comfort. Because she could look beyond my perspective; she could see me for what I was: a five-year-old drama queen.
So often, I feel unmoored, place-less, a man who repels belonging. I wonder if I can learn to stand just a few steps away, to look down at my own hackneyed melancholy and wear my mother’s smile.