By Erica Stewart, CVN Recruiter
When we start a new phase in life, whether it is high school, college, parenthood, or for me, a year of service, we know that someday, it will come to a close. Knowing this typically does not make the transition any less painful when the day comes. An endless supply of tissues, for example, could not have prepared me enough for my college graduation day. I still have vivid memories of sitting on the floor of my friend’s empty dorm room sobbing with her. What I learned a few weeks ago, however, was that sometimes it hurts more to return home than it is to leave.
When you devote time and energy to anything, it leaves a lasting impact on your heart. For me, San Francisco became my home last year during my year of service with Dominican Volunteers USA. The excitement I had about returning there for a visit was insurmountable. I couldn’t wait to see my students at Immaculate Conception Academy (ICA), observe how they had grown over the summer, hear about their new classes, visit with my colleagues, and return to the city I learned to call home last year. Of course, with the excitement also came nerves: what if my students didn’t remember me? What if people weren’t as excited to see me? And, worst of all, what if I regretted leaving in the first place?
My first time seeing the convent and school was extremely emotional. I was walking up 24th Street with one of this year’s volunteers after a night out, joking with her about how I would cry when I saw the convent. The joke lost its humor when this actually happened. Maybe it was the darkness, maybe it was the excitement of traveling back to San Francisco or maybe it was watching Katy (the current volunteer) walk through the gate to my old home and the fleeting thought of “hey, that was me last year…but it’s not me now” that occurred as a result. Whatever it was, I cried. So many emotional memories poured out: happiness, fellowship, struggle, challenge, success, the occasional failure. It made me truly realize how much that year has made a lasting impact on my heart that I will carry with me forever. But these tears were not tears of sadness or even longing. Rather, they were the same type of tears that fell from my face during school assemblies at ICA when I saw the true side of my students: real, wacky, fun teenagers. These tears cannot even be called tears of happiness, but pure joy—what James Martin, S.J. explains as “not simply a fleeting feeling or an evanescent emotion; [but] a deep-seated result of one’s connection to God” in his book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Humor and Joy are at the Heart of Spirituality.
Now don’t worry, the whole visit was not full of tears. The next day, I made my visit to ICA. Every hint of anxiety that I had about my return was immediately shattered upon reconnecting with students and staff. I sat down and had wonderful talks with the principal and president, both of whom I had developed strong relationships with during my year. Then, of course, there were my girls, who I will always feel some type of permanent ownership for. I brilliantly decided to visit during lunchtime so that I would be able to see a lot of the girls while eating lunch. It was almost like out of a movie: one student would see me, do a double take, yell out “MS. STEWART?!,” all her friends would turn, shriek, and then run towards me in a huge group bear hug. This, for me, is the pure joy Martin talks about. I realized in those moments that my goal of making an impression on someone else’s life had been reached.
That night, I was also able to attend dinner and prayers with the sisters. Entering the chapel, I immediately felt as if I had never left. I was amazed at how easily the prayers came back. The fact that we sang my favorite canticle (Ephesians 1:3-10) didn’t hurt either. I experienced joy here once more, welcoming the warm embraces of the sisters as we shared our meal together. Now that my year of service has ended, I realize how I rely on the memories I shared with these communities to get me through times of loneliness or struggle. As I was crying on the floor of my friend’s dorm room because of graduation over a year ago, I hadn’t yet realized that we develop many different homes throughout our lives. Home is a place where you are always greeted with open arms, happy smiles, and warm memories. And even if I never again live in San Francisco, it will always be another home for me. Sometimes, beginnings and ends are more fluid than at first we may perceive.