Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
Though I'm past one hundred thousand miles, I'm feeling very still and I think my spaceship knows which way to go. Tell my wife I love her very much (she knows!) Ground Control to Major Tom, your circuit's dead, there's something wrong. Can you hear me, Major Tom? Can you hear me, Major Tom? -- lyrics by David Bowie
On the opposite arc of 3,000 nights is an ivy covered cottage illuminated like a holiday menorah -- with motion and brightness coursing through the veins of every room. A person could find 16 Camelot Close after exiting the Wimbledon Park tube station and walking up a steep, tree-lined hill of silent uneven pavement. After a quarter mile, you take a left down a tiny, well manicured cul de sac to the cottage whose energy heat signature was brighter than Chernobyl. "The lights are on in every room of that house every night. Only Yanks can waste that much electricity!" a British neighbor once joked.
I close my eyes and walk through that door over and over, shouting over a din of activity: "I'm home!" A thunderous stampeding of bare feet would be followed by the screams, "Daaaaaaaady!!!" I smile as I reminisce about a young family living abroad, balancing moments like spinning plates.
Each week, I orbited across countries and continents, but my favorite aspect of travel was my homecoming -- a hero's welcome from toddlers who would tumble down stairs like tennis balls sometimes wet and lathered with soap. I was a shining star hanging in a firmament that sparkled with a million possibilities. After a week of being separated from my family, I would transform into Peter Pan derailing their evening routines, leaving my pirates wide eyed where only an impromptu story of Frog and Toad from "The Wind in the Willows" might sail my crewman off to the Land of Nigh.
At times, I would surprise my wife and arrive home early. She would disappear for a moment, returning in running attire, holding a filthy child at arm's length as if he were a drum of toxic waste -- which he was. "I'm going out for a run" she chirped. She would tap on the front door after an hour having found her happy place somewhere along the riding paths lined with horse chestnut trees on Wimbledon Common. The novelty of my arrival would eventually disintegrate as I was expected to resume my role as an adult and partner assuming my fair share of domestic duties. I preferred to be an accomplice and partner in mischief. Each Monday, I would pack my bags only to return to plunge back into their lives, a father and a husband.
The years moved forward with the determination of a great blue glacier. We left behind our innocence and our cottage, returning to America. In time, the tendrils of teenage body snatchers invaded our home, turning my adoring confederates into irritable changelings that would chafe at the sound of my breathing. I went from indispensable deity and storyteller to annoying traffic cop and money dispenser.
I now open the front door and fall back into my domestic life with a roller bag pregnant with a week's worth of travel. "I'm home!" echoes and falls to the ground of an empty foyer. As I lament the dying light of my paternal star, I hear a bark of unrestrained joy as the dog sprints around the corner to greet me. He cannot arrest his momentum and comically slides right past me on an area rug and crashes into the wall.
"He's home! He's home!" he announces as he grabs a shoe in his mouth and performs a twisting double axel jump. The family room is occupied by two teen boys hunched over a tangle of electronics and white entrails. The dog seems incredulous at the indifferent reaction to my homecoming. He barks frantically trying to rouse them from their social media stupors. "It's him. He's back. The silver haired alpha dog -- the one who walks on two legs and offers food under the table when the she master is distracted. Don't you guys see? He's here!"
One of my boys reproaches the dog. "Shut up, Brody!" He glances up and sees me, momentarily breaking away from a text message sent from some slow moving adolescent whose corrupted grammar and syntax, by comparison, could make a village idiot pass for Wallace Stegner. "Oh, hey, Dad. How's work?" He clearly has not noticed that I have been gone for four days.
My professional life of travel has grayed my temples, herniated an L5 disc and precipitated a predictable transformation where my broad mind and narrow waist have changed places. But absence also made my heart grow fonder and I came to value every moment I could share with my family. I became keenly aware of the passage of time. I learned to celebrate quality over quantity. I learned personal premeditation to be sure that each minute together had the potential to become a memory. A marriage also benefits from travel. It's a little-known fact that most women marry men for breakfast and dinner but not for lunch. Familiarity breeds contempt and while our presence is always welcome, we have a way of mucking things up when we are around too much.
My life of travel is now winding down and I am delighted to be waking up in my own bed. Sadly, I have observed with a degree of Harry Chapin irony that I am now coming home to a larger home with fewer people. Everyone's lives seem laid out like fiber optic lines. My one-time nuclear family has splintered into a closed social network where I act as a sort of financial server. My teenage tenants now return home primarily to recharge batteries, ask for money or seek medical attention. I find myself like Brody, the family dog, craving their attention. I want someone to play catch, go for a jog and roughhouse.
Brody senses my restless ambition and watches me, trying to anticipate my next move. My wife seems genuinely excited that I am now entering a phase of my career where I will spend less time on the road. However, it's clear that, in my absence, everyone has grown up. I am a mere steward and my job is now to prepare them to forge lives of their own. It all happened so fast.
As I exit my time capsule, an ancient Major Tom, I am arriving back on Earth just in time to watch everyone getting ready to leave -- out for the night with friends, away for months to college and into the distant cosmos of adulthood forever.
At this moment, I just want to be on the ground with those toddlers again wrestling and breaking bedtime curfews. I can't help but feel like a discarded toy. I can relate to Brody. If someone were to hold up a tennis ball and yell "fetch!" -- I swear to God, I would chase it.