A close friend leaned in, trying to get to the root of it all. “So,” he said, followed by a long pause. “What’s changed as a result of this trip?”
He wasn’t the first person to ask.
For weeks I had stumbled for an answer, trying to absorb what we’ve experienced and what it means. I mumbled something and changed the subject. But now an answer that feels true is coming into focus.
What’s changed? Nothing. And everything.
On the night we arrived home, truly home, in our house, we entered in darkness, after the neighborhood was asleep. Nearly ten months earlier we had left in darkness, before dawn, and the symmetry struck me.
When we walked in, everything was as we left it. A few dishes drying next to the sink. The soft hum of the dryer running downstairs. The nightlight on in the hallway. It was an odd feeling, as though we’d been away for the day, and were returning home late.
In the days and weeks that followed we quickly stepped back into our old lives, answering polite questions, eager not to draw attention to ourselves. Some people were genuinely curious about what we had done, but most avoided the subject.
We set about the business of reconstructing our lives at home.
We registered the kids for public school in the fall; our one year experiment with roadschooling was over. Caroline rejoined the swim team and signed up to play field hockey. Conor booked a week at his favorite adventure camp and reunited with his friend Dana to work on movies. I found some clients and rustled up work.
And Dani, like always, handled the hard stuff: helping the kids finish their school work for the year and making it all work for the rest of us.
Soon it was clear the America we returned to was not the America we had left. Boom times were over, the economy was in a shambles, and everyone and everything felt uncertain.
Still, among our friends, there was a deep faith that things would get better. Eventually.
We returned more thankful. More tolerant and respectful of differences. More aware of the things that bring people together and drive them apart. More appreciative of other cultures and other ways to live your life.
And, perhaps most important, eager to return into The Wide Wide World.
Some days, when life feels hard or overwhelming, I think back on a conversation I had with Phannak, owner of the Fancy Guest House in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Phannak had survived Pol Pot’s horrific reign of terror and seen the worst human beings can do to each other. Still, he was optimistic about the future. His words echo in my ears:
I used to be afraid, but I am afraid no more. I have faced my fear. I know I will take care of my family because I will work harder than any man.”
As Dani had predicted, within days after we arrived home we were running in a thousand different directions.
We no longer ate every meal together, slept in the same room, shared every detail of every day. But the connection we forged remains, and I believe it will be many years before we truly understand the full impact of what we have done.
One night, a few weeks after we had been home, the four of us found ourselves in Caroline’s room, gathered round her bed, gossiping about the news of the day.
We were dishing fast and furious, swapping stories, jokes, the latest outrages and rumors.
“Look at us,” I said. “All crowded around Caroline’s bed, crammed in this one room. Just like when we were on the trip.”
We laughed and kept talking.
Soon it was 11 pm, and Dani, never a late night girl, was ready for bed. As she stood to leave the room, Conor protested.
“Mom,” he said gently, taking Dani’s hand. “Please don’t go. We’re not done yet.”