No One Wants to Die in the Desert

By the time I was eight, my father’s oceanography career, combined with his relentless wanderlust, had taken us from coast to coast: Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf Coast, the beaches of San Diego.  

My memories of these places are faint and far away: an orange Creamsicle melting on my tongue from the ice cream truck, sun sinking into Chesapeake Bay; Mrs. Diaz teaching us how to count to ten in Spanish at Miami preschool; tremors from the Southern California earthquake that rattled the pictures on the wall and my parents enough to want to move back to the island in Maine where they’d first met.

The island was where my childhood began.

My mother stayed on that island for fifty years, in that old farmhouse where I’d grown up. Long after my father left for another family, long after I left to feed my own wanderlust, pursuing various careers from coast to coast, long after her second husband passed away.

And after dementia planted its tangled roots in our lives, I returned to care for her in that house until her own restless wanderings took over and I moved her out west, closer to me. She may have been confused over the cacti and stucco, but she was aware enough to realize that here, this place, this desert, was not home.

And when she asked, when everyone’s dead, can we go home? I took her home, this time to another old house, on the water, not far from the island, with a handful of friends like her and caregivers she often thought were me and she may not have known exactly where she was but I think she felt the same peace I did each time I visited her there.

And as she faded from this life, I was with her, whispering: welcome home, mummy, it’s time to come home. And when she passed, two months ago today, I knew that I couldn’t bring her back, but I could bring her home.

Home. That house, that place, is home and the island is my mother’s love. Where the spindly branches of the backyard crabapple trees hold me in their embrace. Where the sea, like her soul, surrounds me. The house has a heartbeat: it is hers.

I am forever destined to be Dorothy, lost in my Oz-like existence, until I return to the island for good, the imperceptible click of my heels a final echo in the hollow space of the desert. Here is not home, only the fading dreams of a life that existed so long ago—before my career ended; before my step-daughter’s suicide; before my mother’s death; before I realized my true home was somewhere else.