Andrew Keith


There’s something odd about returning home to find that it no longer feels like home. Like the place I’ve lived for a decade and a half no longer feels like it’s mine. Yet this feeling isn’t overwhelming, it’s quite subtle. It’s in the construction sites I didn’t know existed. It’s in the new apartment complex that magically popped up beside the movie theatre. It’s in the smoothie place I used to frequent that closed its door for the last time before I got a proper chance to say goodbye. It’s in all the little things.

I don’t really mind the feeling—it’s more surprising than it is shocking. I, like most people I would argue, just don’t like the feeling of losing control. In this case, my control was basically useless (like trivia nerds who know all the sports facts) but still, I regret feeling it slowly slip away. I used to know where all the speed traps were, where (and when) traffic got congested, the most efficient route to Target. Now, I use an app on my phone to check when the mall opens and to help me decide where I should get lunch. Who knew Dick’s has such a low rating on Yelp?

Another thing I find weird about coming home to another home is the strange cravings I have. I started a list a few weeks ago with things I wanted to do when I got home (most of them were food-related, of course). But my list was the most peculiar thing. Why did I suddenly want a Popeye’s chicken sandwich even though I’ve only ever had it once in my life? And since when did I want that German restaurant downtown? Dairy Queen was at the top of the list, but that came as no real shock to me. I can’t say no to an Oreo Blizzard.

Perhaps this bizarre list was my way of naturally wanting to rediscover my home, to forge a new home in place of the old. It has certainly been a process to get where I am today, so I think it might also be a byproduct of maturity. Did I naturally wake up and run errands before seven-thirty this morning? Yes, I did. If you would’ve told me a year ago, or even six months ago, that I would do that on my first day back home from military training which had me waking up most mornings before four, I would’ve laughed in your face. Don’t be mistaken, I’m not saying Look how mature I am waking up at a normal adult time because truthfully, I still feel like a child at heart (I meandered down the Lego aisle of Target this morning, grinning ear-to-ear at all the different sets I would buy if only I were twelve and had someone else’s credit card).

I’ve regularly lived away from home for the past two years, one at the University of South Carolina and the other at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The transition from my nascent home in Carolina to a brand new one in New York was significant and I’m not sure I fully comprehended what it would entail. This was a life-altering change in my life’s trajectory. I was a train conductor approaching a railway junction who decided to flip the switch which ever-so-slightly led the train onto another track—a small change reaping repercussions beyond my understanding. There is no right answer in these moments, these junctions (though a real conductor would strongly disagree with me on this one—don’t think about the analogy that deeply, please). I made the decision I did because it felt like the best decision I could make at that point in my life. And I don’t regret it whatsoever. 

People—students and parents alike—make huge deals out of college decisions. It is absolutely an important decision that should be taken seriously, but at the same time, it can get downright insane what people choose to lose their minds over. People will have a mental breakdown from trying to style their dorm room (God forbid there not be LED lights lining the ceiling) or from choosing their dining plans (draconian by design) or from rushing a sorority (or the last-minute decision not to). The way I see it, you can make the most out of wherever you go, regardless of the menial short-term decisions. These decisions might impact your quality of life but there are far more important things in life to worry about.

Which brings me back to my being home but not really being home.

As I was driving back from running errands earlier this morning, I was reminded of the route I took to get to school two or more times per day every weekday in high school. First, I take a left out of my neighborhood then down the road and through a short tunnel that opens to a small farm on my right, cows grazing in an open field. I follow this road as my car rolls easily downhill past a farmhouse and a beautiful classic-style church (white exterior and a one-roomed interior) with a tall and elegant steeple, its spire adorned with a cross pointing toward God. Then I go through three red lights (careful not to rear-end the hospital workers turning into work at the third light) and accelerate to forty, going uphill by a second larger church (its spire pointing less dramatically toward God since it lacked a cross).

Then I arch around the bend of doctors’ offices, coasting until I pass another church (smaller than the last and it’s now under a new name than what I remember). After the third church, I arrive at a red light directly in front of a Dunkin Donuts. From here I go straight for about a mile until I reach the Indian Head statue (recently remodeled while I was away—his facial features are now sharp and defined) where I turn left and drive past the tennis courts where I took my first lessons, though now they are left rotted and cracked by negligence. I take another left at the next stop sign and pass a baseball field followed by a skate park where no one is skating this morning (no one skates at 8 a.m.). I turn right at the bottom of the hill onto the Strip where I parked for school every morning—in the exact same spot beside a fire lane, no later than an hour before the first bell rang (I wanted my spot).

This morning, however, I didn’t take this same route. Instead of going straight for a mile at the Dunkin light, I turned left onto Sunset, headed toward the shopping mall. I pass my dentist’s office on my right (he’s also my next-door neighbor, and every Christmas he brings my family the most delicious smoked meat). Directly after this but before the gravel spot where cops like to set up their radar guns (it’s too easy to go forty-five on the thirty here and they know it), the meek Hosanna Fellowship sits about a quarter mile off the road, the kind of place that’s only visible when you’re looking for it. It doesn’t look much like a church. Its pyramid shape is topped by a protruding brick column, a perfect place for a cross. Except, there is no cross atop this column. I wonder if there ever was one since taken down for some reason or another. Maybe lightning struck.

Now, this wasn’t the church I grew up going to (mine was on the other side of town) nor did I know anyone who went there. In fact, I have only ever been inside this church once.

When I was in the seventh grade, my English teacher Mrs. Shively instructed us to take a blank piece of paper and write a note and write down what we wanted to remind our future selves ten years from then. It must have been March 6, 2014, when we wrote it because on the front of my now-creased envelope it says, “Open March 6, 2024.”

Taylor was only twelve years old when she died.

She had gone to the hospital the week before and been treated for the flu, but she quickly developed a very serious case of pneumonia that ultimately ended her life. In the span of a week, she went from being a perfectly healthy preteen to being assigned a death certificate, authenticated with the timestamp of her final breath. In the span of a week, a brother became an only child and parents became vilomahs.

This term, “vilomah” comes from the Sanskrit language (the same language where we get the term “widow”) and it means “against a natural order.” It is likely an unfamiliar term because it’s rarely used. Maybe we don’t use it because it describes every parent’s greatest fear: having to bury their own child. There can be nothing more unnatural than this, a blasphemy to our inherent purpose in life. Perhaps we believe that by using this word we encourage its manifestation into reality like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ultimately, it is a word we do not know because we do not ever wish to know it.

And yet, Taylor Smith’s parents know it, even if the term itself is unfamiliar. Even though it has been seven years since her death, they still feel the eternal pang of grief. I don’t assume to know what it feels like to have a child, let alone to lose one. It is a pain I hope I never experience. It is a pain I wish no one experienced.

When her family opened an envelope inscribed “Confidential (unless said otherwise),” they found a letter to her future self that Taylor wrote in Mrs. Shively’s seventh-grade English class. In it, she asked herself an assortment of questions about her faith, about college, about whether Dr. Who was still airing, about whether she had flown in a plane yet. She concludes it with this: “It’s been ten years since I wrote this. Stuff has happened, good and bad. That’s just how life works, and you have to go with it.”

I remember attending her memorial service at six o’clock right after a basketball game, still wearing my sweaty maroon-and-gold uniform. I was sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s Honda when she asked, Are you sure you want to go? to which I said, Yes. She turned her blinker on and slowly pulled onto the quarter-mile path that led us to Hosanna Fellowship and the bereaving family inside. That night, hundreds of people—classmates, church friends, teachers, total strangers—poured through those small church doors, their eyes damming tears, their lips curled in melancholic concern, their hands fidgeting with rings and bracelets. Each face served as a reminder of what this family had lost.

I don’t remember what I wrote in that letter to myself. I suppose as fate will have it, I’m supposed to open it the year I graduate from West Point. I have no idea what my life (or death) will look like, just as Taylor had no idea of hers. Yet she left behind a legacy of incomparable passion and love. Her legacy is honored by those who remember her, knowing who she was and what she stood for. Her legacy remains untarnished by death and upheld by the life she willingly chose to live.

A legacy is the collection of personal imprints our actions and interactions permanently stamp on others’ hearts. I realize now that legacies are constructed by the choices we make in everyday life. Every choice, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is important. There is some consolation amid enduring life’s hardships that even when “stuff happens,” you can still choose how you will respond, and how you’ll move forward. Even when home no longer feels like home, you can always choose to forge a new one on a different path, wherever you are and with whoever is by your side. Every day—without fail—you have the choice of how you will treat others. These choices are what matter most in life. These choices are personal reflections of yourself.

These choices are your Legacy Builders.

I am sitting on my back porch on a bright, warm day, watching the birds rattle the branches, listening to them call one another in their own language, and feeling my bare feet soak up the heat from the pavement like a sponge. There are a number of things that could be, perhaps should be, on my mind—more immediate things like what I will eat for breakfast or what time my grandpa is coming over for lunch.

Instead, I wonder what my legacy will be. I wonder if how I am treating others, how I am carrying myself, and how the decisions I am making are crafting a legacy worth leaving behind.

I don’t think any of us will ever fully grasp the power of our legacies. The power of a legacy can only be realized from the grave, ruefully etched into incomplete epitaphs by those not yet ready to receive the legacy we leave behind.

And yet, this power to shape and form my legacy resides in my hands today, in the unglamorous choices of monotonous daily life.

It’s in the casual conversation with a stranger.

It’s in holding the door open for an elder.

It’s in inviting an old friend to grab a coffee.

It’s in all the little things. What a terrifying and liberating power to call my own.

I can only hope that I have the courage to make the right choices at the right times. Sometimes I will. But often I won’t. Stuff happens, good and bad, and that’s just how life goes. And I have no choice but to go with it.

Andrew Keith is a junior at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY, pursuing a degree in English Literature. This is his first publication. He is a senior writing fellow in West Point’s Writing Fellows Program and leads the Creative Writing Forum, a group that enables cadets to engage their creative interests and refine their writing craft while simultaneously offering a brief distraction from an otherwise military-oriented lifestyle.

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