On a warm day in June of 1997, a guy in a gold Taurus followed a girl in a burgundy Probe to the exit for one last goodbye until they met again.
The guy was Mike Rice. The girl was me. We had just packed up most of my belongings and stuffed them into a vehicle far too small to hold them, and I was returning home. In that moment, I didn't know where the friendship would go. I had faith that the relationships we'd built during our time together at EIU would continue, but there was no knowledge. On faith we moved forward with our lives, trusting each other to sustain the friendship that, for me, mattered as much as any degree.
On a cold day in January of 2009, a girl in a black Jeep followed a family in a black (or was it dark plum?) Mazda to the exit for another goodbye, to be followed closely by another hello. And so it goes.
The girl was me. The family was Mike, Racheal and Kaylee. The trip to the exit ended our celebration of Christmas and began a new year filled with hope, anticipation and celebration.
I am a complete jumble of emotions after the time I spent in Jacksonville. Sitting in the living room, I thought back to the first time I visited 125 Caldwell. Back in the mid-90's, I was a guest, meeting the family, relocating James so I could sleep in his room, and feeling a little uncomfortable when Mike would leave the room. I didn't know these people, and being left alone with them was a little scary!
Fast-forward to now. I'd had every intention of making the trip to Jacksonville, thinking that Mike, Racheal and Kaylee weren't even going to be there. I spent a good portion of my time last week with an assortment of Rices or Carlsons who were neither Mike, Rae or Kaylee. Somewhere along the way, when I wasn't paying attention, the Rice family accepted me as their own. When Charlie married Cindy (or as Ryan would say, "after the merger,") the Carlsons followed suit. These are my people. I could not love them more if their blood were in my veins.
So the girl in the Jeep followed the Mazda to the exit, we waved our goodbyes and returned to our respective homes. Sort of. While we were getting ready to leave on Sunday morning, something Ryan said to me really struck a chord. "Every time this family gets together," he said, "it turns into a vacation, even though we're really just coming home." I will come home to this place, these people, every time I am invited. Maybe even when I'm not invited. They fill my heart. And in those moments when my insecurities don't allow me to believe I'm one of them, one of them always seems to remind me that wherever they are, I belong.