It never happened once any time I traveled over the last 4 years, no matter how far I went from home or for how long. It never happened once while I was away at school, even though I only went back for holidays and breaks. It never happened once during the first 11 days after I moved across the country for my dream internship.
But 24 hours after my hometown of Orlando, FL, was victim to the worst mass shooting in recent U.S. history, it finally happened. Amongst the shock, disbelief, heartbreak, and horror, there was a new, unfamiliar ingredient in this powerful cocktail of pain. The others were gut-wrenching knives in my stomach, but this was a heavy, throbbing ache that poured into my chest and seeped into my heart.
For the first time in my life, I was homesick.
Me, the person who desperately wanted to get out of my hometown after high school, who never visits on weekends, who travels every chance she gets, who is the first one to make jokes about Orlando and eagerly awaits the day when I can call a new city my home for good…homesick?
Interesting how unfathomable tragedy in your hometown can make a person ache for a place that they were once so quick to leave.
Usually, when I see Orlando pop up in a headline, I think, “Hey, that’s my town!” And in the hours and days that followed the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, it happened a thousand times over with the same, instinctive reaction still occurring, brought on by 21 years of calling it home, only to be followed by an icy blast of horror as I realized and remembered why.
It hit me over and over again, tidal waves of grief, devastation, and terror slamming repeatedly against a shore without answers. I watched helplessly from 3,000 miles away as my city tried to stay afloat in uncharted waters.
And like a fish out of water, I was gasping for air.
Is the inability to breathe a symptom of homesickness? Or is it the cause?
— — — — —
In the days that followed the Pulse shooting, stories surfaced on the news and online of how the people of Orlando were coming together to show love and support, providing a little light in an unbelievably dark time for the City Beautiful. The lines to donate blood stretched on for miles as soon as the need was announced. Money poured in for funds to support the victims and their families. Photos of thousands of people that showed up for the vigil brought tears to my eyes. The city turned rainbow.
I was amazed, but not entirely surprised. After all, we’re the people who invented the concept of the hurricane party; it’s only fitting that we found solace in each other while we weathered this storm.
Seeing this all play out through a screen was bittersweet. I was grateful to technology for keeping me plugged in and connected to home at such a difficult time. But as soon as I would pick my head up and rejoin my present surroundings in California, I felt that same unfamiliar ache start to throb again — a feeling I now recognize as homesickness.
I hadn’t realized how much I loved my city until I was watching it suffer from across the country. I hadn’t realized what a beautiful bond I had with my fellow Floridians until I saw its strength from the outside looking in, but had no one to connect with on the same level. I hadn’t realized how much of my identity was deeply tied to my 21 years of calling Orlando my home until I was the only one in my immediate vicinity who could say the same, and I wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by people who I didn’t have to explain my pain to.
The concept of strangers is…strange. By definition, a stranger is anyone that you don’t know. So based on sheer mathematical probability, aren’t we almost always surrounded by strangers? Orlando is no small town, so even in the same stores I’ve been shopping at for 21 years, on the same streets I’ve been driving for 21 years, and in the same place that I’ve been calling my home for 21 years, technically speaking, most people are strangers.
But all strangers are not created equal, and I’ve never truly grasped the difference between the two until now.
Being so far from my home at a time when the entire world was focused on it called everything I thought about home into question. Home is a place where you can take for granted a few basic assumptions about nearly everyone you meet. You know that they’ve all shopped at those same stores, driven on those same streets, and called the same place home. And at a moment like this, even you’d never spoken before in your life, you knew they were all thinking the same thing, feeling the same way, and grieving the same way.
Home is where when unspeakable events rock the foundation of your world, you don’t have to explain why you’re hurting to strangers. In those moments, the concept of strangers disappears altogether, because at the end of the day, there are more common denominators than there are divisors.
The people of Orlando proved that we have no strangers. Instead, we showed that we were a family.
And I missed my family.
— — — — —
A few days ago, I stepped off a plane and set foot in Florida for the first time since before the Pulse shooting. Up until this point, the feelings that I just described were all but gone. I had very begrudgingly left San Francisco, and I audibly groaned as I felt the humidity sucker punch me in the face.
Yet as I was on the tram back to the main terminal, I heard the same recorded greeting from Mayor Buddy Dyer that I’ve heard a million times at this point and could probably recite in my sleep. In fact, I instinctively mouthed the words as I heard them. I took a deep breath of heavy, humid air. I saw the beginnings of the unparalleled nightly sunsets that I didn’t realize how much I had missed. And just like the city, so much has changed but some things still hadn’t. I teared up a bit as I realized I was finally home.
— — — — —
Home is a relative term, and hometown is an even more vague one. You can spend anywhere from the first day of your life to your entire life in the place you were born and still derive the same meaning from it. Maybe you have immense pride for it and never want to leave; maybe you’ve been waiting to leave since the day you got there. It’s still yours.
It took an unfathomable tragedy to make me homesick for the first time and to truly reclaim Orlando as my hometown, but I’ll never feel otherwise again. Not after seeing it go through such a difficult moment and still wishing I was there. Not after seeing the incredible strength, compassion, and unwavering love of the people. Not after realizing how much I missed it. Not after realizing how much I loved it. And not after realizing what an essential, integral part of me that the City Beautiful was, even if it took me 21 years to do so.
Now, I’ll always be homesick, and I hope I’m never cured.