Words by Chris DeMellier
Illustration by Alicia DeMellier
In a recent conversation with my mother and sister they reminded me that I essentially left home at the age of 16. This surprised me, but as the conversation evolved, I realized that they were right. I had missed many significant family events, particularly events related to my younger sister. Five years later, at the age of 21, I officially left, moving 3500 miles from home to Portland. I was 21 years old, living in a new city with only one friend, no other emotional support or community belonging.
During this time my family and I had drifted apart. Communication was infrequent; often there was no communication for months at a time. I saw my family only once a year at first, and then not even that. It wasn’t a lack of love or a specific event, it was more that I did not really get along with my family, except for my sister. My sister was 11 when I moved away from home so I had never really gotten to know her. During holiday visits with the family and a few visits over the years we became friends. She became someone whom I could turn to and count on to be there if I needed her. At the time, I didn’t realize how significant that would be.
In Portland, I had a great job, a decent apartment, one friend, and for the first time I felt pangs of homesickness. This was unexpected, as I had traveled frequently before, but in retrospect, not surprising. A colleague at work recognized this and put me on a flight home to surprise my family. Ironically, the visit didn’t provide me with relief but increased my anxiety. After the trip, work really picked up. I spent time with my work colleague and my anxiety level decreased. I began to meet more people and soon had a group of friends that over the next 7 years became my family; one of whom I married. I felt whole, I felt happy and I was part of a wonderful and loving community that recognized me as a person and appreciated the contributions that I could offer.
Concurrently, my sister graduated from high school, went to college, and had developed into an amazing young woman. She came out to visit and ended up staying with me for a week. This was the first time outside of typical family gatherings that we spent together. Over that week I began to see what an amazingly intelligent and wonderful person she was. I was truly taken aback by this person I loved but was just getting to know.
Eventually my life began to turn. My job, which I loved with all my heart became an abusive and unhealthy place for me. The changes in the company destroyed some very close relationships, including my fifteen-year friendship with the person I had first moved to Portland with. It was devastating. I left the job, and my wife and I moved out of town; in fact, we moved to four different cities over the next nine years, never staying anywhere much longer than three years. Each move left behind new and old friends. The intention was always to stay in touch but that rarely happened. I thought that as long as I had my wife, I had all of the family and friends that I needed; I was content and happy.
Throughout all of the moves and all of the friends that were left behind, I still had my sister. After that first visit years before, she started coming out to visit me more often. I truly enjoyed her visits and the fact that we were getting closer. I didn’t really understand that what was really happening was a true friendship and bond with her.
When my wife and I separated, I was at a loss as to what to do with myself and my old anxieties were resurfacing. My closest friend from childhood gave me the option to come live with him for a time and I accepted. I moved to the Washington DC area to live with my best friend, his wife, and their five kids. It was just what I needed. It reaffirmed the basics of family and community and allowed me to realize that I wanted to be closer to my family again. I wanted to be closer to my sister so I decided to reach out to her with a proposition.
My sister’s husband had passed away and she was living on her own in a very small Southern community on the beach. I thought that this could be a win, win, win situation. I would be closer to my family, helping my sister through some difficult changes, and I could live on the beach. She jumped at the idea and a few short months later I moved in with her. Amazingly, this simple move gave me a new sense of family and a feeling of belonging that had been missing in my life for a while.
This, however, is not the end of the story. After three weeks, my sister looked at me one evening and said, “I’ve got to get out of here. You have to help me get out of here.” I had just moved in and thought I was on the beach for the long haul but after that conversation the wheels started turning. I was now with my sister and feeling that sense of belonging but I knew that there was something missing. I realized that she was right. Deep down, I knew that the community we were in was not the right fit for either of us. We began discussing our options and places we might like to live. Through these discussions one city kept resurfacing – Portland, a city that I knew and loved, and where I still had a great group of friends that I consider family.
Two months after having moved back to Portland, my sister and I have been enveloped into the community with open arms from old friends, family, and new acquaintances. I had never truly understood the concept of community until now because it took having my sister, my cousin, and all of the friends that became my family within one city for me to feel at home.