During our stay in California, we made a brief stop 27 years into our past. We had lived in four places during our four and a half years stationed at Camp Pendleton, but there was only one place we considered home. Our lives changed in major ways in that little four room house. It’s the house we brought our first child home to. The house where Pat left for war. The house I decorated for his return. When I think about it, I probably did as much growing up in two years on Ditmar Street as I did at my childhood home. It’s where I learned joy. And cold fear. Most important, it’s where I learned gratitude and the art of support.
As we exited the highway and neared our former home, I felt my eyes filling. So much life had passed in the twenty six years since our days with Steve and Linda, our former neighbors, and in my imagination I was going to race to their door and tell them all of it and they would somehow ease my burden, as they did 27 years ago. I would tell them and I would cry—really let things out. Just imagining that release, my eyes welled up again.
I don’t know why we thought they would be there. I hadn’t communicated with them for several years and while I never knew their ages, simple math places them into their seventies. That said, there I was, driving confidently to their house. As we pulled up our former home looked completely different. Their house looked the same, though, and I knew they were there. I quickened my pace, hurrying Pat and Jamie out of the car.
Please indulge me as I dial back time in order to introduce you Steve and Linda. They had two daughters who were teenagers during our time with them. Steve worked as a mechanic, Linda worked at the local chain drugstore. They kept their lawn nice and flew the flag every day. They loved ranch dressing—I remember they used it on pretty much everything. We were friends as soon as we moved in, but that all quickly kicked into high gear. Five months into my pregnancy we learned that Pat would be deploying for what would come to be Operation Desert Storm. He was to remain packed and would leave any day. The next day, Steve started mowing our lawn. Even bigger, he exercised our hyper one year old chocolate lab every day. With daily lab-centered visits, they began to feel like family.
Pat deployed four months later and a few days after that Ryan was born, barely alive. Steve was the person who rushed my panicked mother to the military hospital, bullying his way in by proclaiming himself the grandfather and demanding to see me. Once Ryan healed and was able to come home, I pretty much became their third daughter. They would bring over a paper plate with a serving of whatever they were having for dinner that night, complete with ranch dressing. Steve continued mowing and dog care. Linda was a pillar of strength; she is one of those people who intrinsically knows what you need. They were both excellent listeners. Today, when I think about the trauma that I experienced during that pregnancy, botched cesarean and medi-vac’d newborn, I realize that I had PTSD and was hyper vigilant in the months that followed. I had experienced trauma and was parenting alone and yet I came through it all fairly smoothly. I know with great certainty that this was the result of Steve and Linda and the care that they gave and showed me on a daily basis. They got me through, just by being themselves.
It may make more sense, now, when I say that just seeing their house, I felt loved and home and vulnerable in a way that I don’t often indulge in. We walked—slowly, of course, since Pat moves slowly—up their walkway. The door opened and Linda said, “See, I told you that was Jackie.” No real sound of surprise or excitement—just that confident, strong voice. I hugged her and also her daughter—now forty years old but to me still looking like the teenage girl I remember. My eyes brimmed as I saw Linda watching Pat walk toward her. Then I looked over her shoulder into the house.
There was Steve, sitting at that familiar table, looking the same, but not the same. He was trying to stand up, but not succeeding. My eyes shifted back to Linda. “He’s having a very hard time. The cancer has really got him this time.” She looked again at Pat. “He had a stroke a few years ago,” I explained. And that was all. My tears vanished. This was no time to indulge in self-pity. We are now peers. I had my turn with receiving their intense support, and I hope I have succeeded in being there for others in their times of challenge. Now they are struggling, and I am far away—decades and miles between us. Yet sitting in their house for those few minutes felt like a homecoming. We are intimate strangers, having been through so much together but living so much life apart since then.
We visited for a short while. Steve indicated to his daughter to fetch the candy bowl and he offered some to Jamie. I saw him sparkle and heard his laugh and was grateful for both. Then I loaded my family into the car and pressed forward in our journey, leaving them to theirs. We are all adults now.