“You’re good to go,” the tall cheerful man in the blue Alaska Airlines’ uniform said. Without waiting another minute, I took off race-walking, trying to remember if, after paying the baggage fee, I had slid my credit card back into my theft-proof purse.

Before I started searching for the TSA Pre-Check sign, I heard someone shout, “Miss, Miss.” Something told me to turn around.

The man who breezily assured me I was good to go was emphatically gesturing toward my olive-green roller bag, then aiming his arm toward the counter a few feet back, where the sign read, Drop Off Bag.

I retraced my steps to where I’d left my bag, sitting next to the Alaska employee. Once I arrived, he ordered me to wheel my suitcase back to the counter. I dropped my right hand and yanked up the handle. Before I stepped away, I couldn’t resist saying, “Your good to go is very different from mine.”

Since the death of my husband, Richard eighteen months before, I had been forcing myself to be exactly what this guy claimed I was — good to go. Each week, I scrolled through offers from various travel companies, savoring details about journeys to nearly every corner of the globe. While sampling colorful photos shot in perfect light, I pictured myself kayaking in sparkling blue bays, snorkeling through transparent water filled with neon-colored fish or hiking mountain trails toward snow-covered peaks. The one thing I had managed to come up with to soothe my grief-stricken, widowed soul was immersing myself in the foreign and unfamiliar, out there somewhere in the awe-inspiring natural world.

This happened to be the fourth group trip on which I had embarked so far. Friends, as well as strangers I met on these trips, praised my courage for setting out alone, especially given my recent loss. I never confessed that before each adventure, I felt certain I shouldn’t go. Might it be better to cancel and stay safely cocooned in my grief at home?

I also didn’t share one critical point. If I failed to keep boarding planes, fastening my seatbelt, making sure my tray table was in the upright position and backpack stowed securely beneath the seat in front of me, I might lack the will and desire to go on.

Something else I left out was that as far back as I could remember, I had lived with the understanding that I should always be ready, at a moment’s notice, to go. That’s because I grew up in a military clan, led by my father Lawrence, known as Larry, a career Air Force officer and squadron commander.

Throughout my childhood, on the third Saturday in May, we would gather with other families to eat hot dogs and hamburgers, potato salad and cole slaw, and watermelon and chocolate cake, in observance of Armed Forces Day. Following lunch, we would stand and sing the Air Force Anthem, starting with the rousing, “Off we go into the wild blue yonder,” and ending loudly, in a defiant shout, with “Nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force.” Some years, we would tour an aircraft carrier. Nearly every year, I got the chance to climb into the cockpit of a plane and pretend I was preparing the aircraft for takeoff.

In my junior year of high school, my favorite teacher, Mr. DeStefano, who we students called Mr. D, had us write an essay on what we wanted to be when we were old enough to be something. Not surprisingly, I wrote that I wanted to be an airplane.

My clearest early childhood memory is of my parents, two sisters and I stepping off a plane. The airport where we’d landed was small. Instead of an enclosed tunnel, we exited onto a short flight of metal steps that led directly to the tarmac.

We had just flown from San Francisco to Honolulu, the summer before I would enter the first grade. The flight lasted way longer than the current five hours because we flew on a prop plane. Hawaii had yet to become a state.

I would later come to understand, that our stay in Hawaii – three short years — would be the longest we’d ever live anywhere. After Hawaii, my family would move nearly every year. Once I entered adulthood, ostensibly ready to make a home and settle down somewhere, I found I couldn’t. Instead of settling down, I kept myself ready to always be good to go.

In my early forties, though, I set my sights on finding a partner for marriage. One beautiful, late September afternoon when the ever-present San Francisco fog kindly remained off the coast, I met a man named Richard for lunch. That blind date began at noon and lasted until nearly midnight. Five years later, I repeated the famous sacred marriage vows, in between loud sobs, at a nondescript, temporary annex for San Francisco City Hall, filling in while the permanent offices were being remodeled.

After living for two years in a tired, overpriced rental flat in the foggy Richmond District, Richard and I decided it was time to leave expensive San Francisco. On a hot August evening, we signed and initialed a stack of forms to buy a teal blue Victorian on a tree-lined street in Portland, Oregon. I lay awake the entire night, convinced we’d made a huge mistake. This ancient house, with its rounded windows and pale-yellow fish scale shingles dripping down the front, needed more help than I feared I could provide.

Having never owned a house, I couldn’t imagine that I would oversee a complete restoration, including a renovated kitchen and bathroom, an added half-bath on the second floor, and a refinished basement, which involved construction of a new staircase from the dining room, a cozy den with built-in bookshelves and a Victorian style white porcelain gas stove to keep us warm, a full bathroom with shower, and even a darkroom for my photographer husband.

I wouldn’t have anticipated that two years after buying the Victorian, a drive to a place Richard and I had never been, the Long Beach Peninsula in Southwest Washington, would convince us to buy a second home. That lovely day, we fell in love with the long, empty, dune-bordered beaches, the small towns, the turn-of-the-century houses, and tranquil Willapa Bay, where we watched Great Blue Herons peck in the mud. Several months after that visit, Richard and I signed and initialed more forms, to become the owners of a blue, batten-and-board-sided cottage, steps from a path to the beach.

A decade into our stay in the Pacific Northwest, we grew weary of the nearly constant rain. Unlike in my childhood where I did my best to forget the previous places I’d lived, I couldn’t rid myself of the grief over leaving Northern California. I scoured listings for homes in some proximity to San Francisco. As the Recession dragged on and home prices dropped, I glimpsed the possibility that we might be able to move back.

Six months later, I again became the co-owner with Richard of a second home, this one, a small ranch house in the Wine Country, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. The compact, one-story house filled with light needed as much – or more – work than the Victorian, but that fact failed to keep me awake at night now.

In the years that followed the sale of the Victorian and the move back to California, I began to experience what I’d never known. When I unlocked the front door of the house and stepped inside, I felt I had come home. For the first time since leaving Hawaii decades before, I could honestly claim that I loved my house, my neighborhood, the town, and the county in which it was a part. Yes, I still wanted to pick up and go, on day trips, weekend jaunts, and week-long stays in cabins overlooking rushing streams or ocean-view condos in Kauai. But I also loved returning home, when the day or the week came to an end.

It’s no surprise that finding lasting love, through the unlikely venue of a blind date, made all the difference in the world. Also not surprisingly, Richard’s death took away the best part of what made the little ranch house a home. And yet, he is everywhere here, in his exquisite color and black-and-white photographs that grace the walls, in his tasteful shirts, pants and sports coats still hanging in the closet, and in his collection of old cameras that fill nearly every drawer. I often imagine him sitting in his favorite spot on the wine-colored couch or at his end of the dining room table. Sadly, I sometimes think of him in his final months, across from me in the black wicker chair under the fig tree, where we met each afternoon for serious end-of-life talks.

Though his spirit remains in this house, the body he worked hard at the gym to make strong is gone. So, too, is the way he calmly listened to me, when I felt upset or afraid, and assured me that everything would be all right. While the clear and vibrant memories of him can soothe me here, I yearn to escape the sadness, which is why I spend so much time considering ways to flee.

As I fill my suitcase with waterproof hiking pants I can roll up if it gets too hot, a crushable hat to protect me from the sun, and a blank journal to record what I see on the latest journey to the unknown, I temporarily put aside the sorrow. Each time I get ready to go, I hold onto hope that the journey will transform me, giving this life alone meaning and purpose for which I’ve been searching, since losing the partner who helped me feel that wherever I landed with him would always be home.


Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been Finalists in the International Book, Best Book, National Indie Excellence, American Fiction and Reader Views Literary Awards.