As the plane descended over the familiar lush landscape that is my hometown, several emotions reacquainted themselves with me. Feelings of joy, sadness, fear and optimism alternated dance steps in my brain.
"Where has all the time gone?"
"What will the future hold?"
"What happened to all the people I loved who have passed?"
"How can I keep moving forward?"
These are questions I don't ask myself anymore. They're only questions raised when provoked by the sight of my past, which is something that happens irregularly since I moved away from my home and family eight years ago.
In our attempt to live a fulfilling adult life, it's often easy to get caught up in the minutia and forget what you're thinking, feeling. To forget where you came from.
This last trip home wouldn't let me walk past the flowers without perking my senses.
I was picked up by my beautiful and cheerful mother at the Syracuse airport, whose presence always fills my heart with joy. With her was my equally beautiful — sometimes not as cheerful — grandmother. The three of us are like peas in a pod: We laugh, we nag, we bicker and we love the living heck out of one another.
For the first time, I saw my grandmother as an old woman. This does not seem possible, for my grandmother has barely aged a day in the past 40 years — but now her walk is feeble, her logic often nonsensical, her temperament short and her optimism sometimes lost.
In our refusal to accept her aging, my mom and I regularly gang up on her, trying to encourage her to think positively and to keep her mind spry. Sometimes she pretends she doesn't hear us.
As does her boyfriend, Lionel, who we visited on our way from the airport. He now lives in a home for people who no longer think about the present or future, but only the past. Though he is the middle stage of Alzheimer's, he has difficulty remembering details and we and his children have surrounded his room with pictures of his loved ones, his friends and mementos from the past.
Sometimes he is his normal self and sometime he drifts off into his head, becoming quiet like the rest of the inhabitants of the facility.
While dropping my grandmother off at her home (she lives on the next street over from my mother), I glanced over to her neighbor's house. The quaint 1950s-era two bedroom house cared for Pat, Joe and their two children through the past seven decades.
The house looks as though it's been preserved in time, which contributes to the sadness that lingers over the property since no one lives there anymore. Pat died seven years ago (six years after her husband) and her dear children have been too heartbroken to sell the house. So there it sits: a perfectly framed photograph into the past.
So I spent every day of my visit home experiencing everything as if it were for the first time: I wanted to take nothing for granted.
My knees achy from the flight, I decided to walk my mother's Jack Russell terrier, Lucy, through the cemetery where Pat and Joe are buried. It is the same cemetery I spent many of my childhood days walking through and playing in the field above.
This would could suggest that I grew up somewhat accustomed to death, but as I walked Lucy past Pat and Joe's grave — and then the stranger sitting in his lawn chair with a book, blanket and snacks next to his wife's grave — the emotions that were bubbling on my flight and upon seeing Grandma, Lionel and Pat's house finally came to a head.
I broke down on the grass, and laid my body down to watch the clouds slowly charge through the sky. I realized that this is something I hadn't done in years, just as I hadn't let myself think about my past, the present or my future. All I've done for the past several years is keep barreling forward. That's what adults do, right?
I hadn't taken a moment to look at my life for a very long time.
So I spent every day of my visit home experiencing everything as if it were for the first time: I wanted to take nothing for granted. I fell asleep on the L-shaped couch next to my mother at night. I painted my grandmother's toenails. I watched the way Lucy analyzed her life. I hung out with friends I hadn't seen for years.
This may not seem like a particularly special accomplishment, but having felt disconnected from my hometown and friends from my youth the longer I live away from New York, this was unbelievably moving to me. To see them as husbands, wives, moms and dads for the first time.
I visited my great aunt's grave — the woman who helped raise me, the woman who helped me to be where I am today. I wore a locket of Pat's. I wore a pin of my recently deceased cousin.
I stared at the terrain that is Central New York. I walked through the waterfalls of Ithaca. I spent as much time taking it all in.
And on my 29th birthday, I stood in the doorway of my childhood bedroom and thought about the little girl who had big dreams and goals. The little girl I feel so far away from.
They say that to live a fulfilling life in the present, you can not live in the past.
But is remembering your past the only way to truly appreciate the present?