After moving twelve times in twenty-four years, I sometimes find it hard to define "home". But if it's defined it as the place you go for the holidays, then I never really liked my home. My parents live in Tampa with my four younger siblings, where I also lived for ten years. Every year, I dread returning. I don't like the city and the strange coming-of-age memories I have of it. I always wish the family could meet somewhere else for the holidays. Maui would be nice.
Despite my ever-enduring love for Christmas, holidays scare me. They bring out a dirty part of me that's full of rage and resentment over things that happened years ago. I'm always terrified for our gatherings, knowing that I can easily snap and say something I don't mean. Typically when I come home, I try to stay quiet and stay out of the way, so as to muffle my inner Grinch.
Until this year. The Year of Cancer.
I got off the plane on Christmas Eve and into Dad's car and I actually felt good. I thanked the city for its weather, a serious departure from that I left in Chicago. I rejoiced at the fact that there's a Chick-fil-a around every corner. I asked Papa how people I knew years ago were doing and I actually cared.
Back inside the house I lived in for years, dreaming of escaping to college and the world beyond, I felt a deep sadness for the time I had wasted hating this place. The time I had wasted being anything but happy.
This year is just different. Christmas Eve we sat around the table and had a casual meal as a family. We laughed at my mom's hoarse voice from playing with the kids and my uncle's clumsiness after two glasses of wine. We talked about changes coming up in the new year like my brother moving to Chicago and my parents adopting my younger siblings.
Mom's food has always been top-of-the-line, but tonight it felt magical. I savored every bite. When I laughed, I really laughed. Afterwards, resting on the couch, my cousin told me in a broken mix of Portuguese and English that she was "so, so scared" for me. And when I cried later in my room thinking about this, I really cried.
You see, when you have cancer, everything changes. When you're told there's something inside of you that's eating away at your life and that you have no control over it – you change. And everything else changes too.
I tried to breathe in everything. I wore Dad's sweater to dinner, a huge, warm, knit thing that engulfed me in his smell. I ate with my nose just millimeters from my plate, unable to take in the food fast enough. I slept on the sprawling couch that I once did high school homework on, thinking that if I sunk my body deeper into it, I could go back in time.
I wish it wasn't cancer that made me realize how much I value my time with my crazy family and this crazy place. I wish I had been wise enough to have the epiphany on my own. But hey, I'm a flawed human being.
Suddenly my childhood home doesn't signify a prison, but a place of solitude. My dad and cousin, who hadn't seen me since the diagnosis and subsequent (successful) surgery, squeezed and hugged and held onto me like I was a life raft.
Though perhaps it was me holding onto them.