It was 1972 — winter, actually, and for this California kid, the cold was something never before experienced. I was stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, discovering snow was cold and colder, that chill winds could blow the shivers right through overcoats and into bones, that when the sun did show itself, there was no appreciable change to the blustery, frozen air swirling madly about. Fort Dix to me was thus a grey place, flat and dull, and when some friends in the Philadelphia area offered to host me for a weekend, I gladly took them up on the offer.
Coming back to the fort on Sunday evening was the worst part of it all. The weekend was over. The bright lights and happy decor of my friends’ home was soon to be replaced by the stark efficiency of a military barracks. A transit bus ran non-stop from the Greyhound station in Philadelphia to a block or two where I was living at Dix, and generally, I managed to snag a window seat. As dormant as nature was in December, there wasn’t much to see, and after a few shuttles to Philadelphia and back, there was even less to look at that wasn’t already vaguely familiar.
Part of the route involved going through a city in central New Jersey, and to this day, despite staring long and hard at an atlas, I do not remember the name of the place. It might well have been Mount Holly, but the name is not germane at this point. I remember the bus coming to a four-way intersection then making a right hand turn. A row of houses fronted the street, and one in particular always got my abbreviated attention — tied completely to the speed of the bus in traffic. This house had a huge picture window in the front, allowing a warm glow to stream out from the interior. Early in the month, the people there were having some kind of a gathering, and then just after returning to duty in January, on the return from another weekend with friends, the window displayed people gathered around a piano, singing, laughing, having a good time. Need I mention they all looked warm and comfy, too? It was at that point I felt as low as I thought I could ever get. As much as I had wanted to get out of my family home, get out on my own, get going in life, sitting on that chilly passenger bus, clad in the green of the United States Army, knowing the spare surroundings to which I was headed, at that moment, I wished I had known those people, been invited to their shindig, enjoyed some warmth of body and of soul. More, I wondered what my parents and my younger sister were doing at the time, if they were having a good day, if there was laughter and maybe a trip to a restaurant or just up to the department store.
Fast forward to today. I never moved back in to the family home; marriage followed a month after I returned from overseas, and the odyssey of life since then has given us many miles and multiple locations. Last year or so, that home, the one I saw in my mind as the bus passed the Jersey home with the piano and the happy folks, the one in which I was raised and knew for the first 18 or so years of my life, was sold to who knows who; my father had passed several years before and mom’s physical condition had deteriorated to the point she needed to be in skilled nursing care. My sister, who has power of attorney, did not want to be a landlord, and the costs of the care facility needed to be met, so the house wound up marketed and sold. This summer I will have the opportunity to be in California on church business, but one trip I won’t be taking is over to the old neighborhood. My parents are not there any more, and if I step foot on the lawn I once mowed, week after week, I would now be trespassing. Home isn’t home isn’t home anymore, to borrow a lyric from Messianic singer Sally Klein O’Connor. It’s just an address, a building in a row of other buildings. It is someone else’s home. All it is to me is memories.
There’s a part of me which often wishes for the opportunity to go back to the “old home place”, to hear my father’s gravelly voice and my mother’s fuss-budgeting over this, that and the other thing, to try not to laugh at my sister’s oft lame attempts at humor, and to marvel at how green everything looked in February. All that is just in the scrapbook of the mind, fragile pages of images, shadows and ideas of a time that once was. My heart, though, these days, is homesick more for something other than that wood and stucco place in Santa Ana.
Now that I am officially classified as a “senior citizen”, there is more sober thinking about the eventual end of days. People I know, some younger than me, some my age, are winding up featured in obituaries, a reinforcement of what the Bible teaches about the non-guarantee of tomorrow, later in the day, even the next second. Let a worship song on Sunday proclaim heaven or the presence of Jesus and my eyes typically spring a huge leak. As much as I love life, enjoy what I do, feel blessed for the wife, daughters and grandchildren gifted to me, and the joy of being with dear friends and ministry colleagues, this home — well, home isn’t home isn’t home anymore; it’s just a place where I get my mail. John 14:-3 has a much deeper, richer significance; there is a home awaiting me — and all those who love Christ — far outstripping any ancestral abode or happy place in which any of us finds ourselves. Sure, it would be interesting to keep going, to keep doing what I have been doing for about 40 years, to see my grandchildren’s grandchildren (makes me sound like an Old Testament patriarch), but the reality is I am homesick for home I have never seen, never experienced. All I know is that Jesus will be there, and where He is, that is all the home I need. Until He calls me to once again change my address, I will keep on with this life and the calling which He has placed on me.
But then the day is going to come when either my calendar runs out of days or the trumpet sounds. Either way, I am going home.
And there, for all eternity, I will never again know what it is to be homesick.