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Almost home

| Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008

Three weeks ago, I felt certain that this year that wouldn't feel a lot like Christmas.

After 18 months of political road trips, press buses, press planes, hotels, motels, bad food, good food, two back-to-back conventions and the constant, sometimes desperate search for an electrical outlet to juice up my laptop computer, nothing thrilled me more than finally being back home.

Call it fate, an act of God or really old electrical wiring, but "being home" wasn't in the cards.

The day after the election, I made one more road trip: a 10-hour drive from Pittsburgh to St. Louis to watch my daughter in the Atlantic Ten playoffs, her final college soccer game.

This is the kid I've watched tear up the field since she was 2 (I fudged her age so she could play on the 3-year-olds' team). Even though she was the runt, I knew I was on to something when she pushed and shoved her way downfield, knocking over all the boys and scoring the game's only goal.

Twenty years, hundreds of games, one state high school championship, four regional cup championships, 14 states, two Europe trips and a scholarship to a Division I university later, I was not about to miss her final game.

What I returned home to was a house choking in smoke, on the verge of going up in flames.

I can still see my practical-engineer father's horrified look when I bought the century-old place. The windows were original and rattled, the hardwood floors covered with a ghastly black varnish, tacky wallpaper splashed every room, the kitchen was an obscene green and yellow, and the entire house had an odd slant to it.

I don't remember seeing any of that. Instead, I saw potential.

It was where I taught Shannon and Glenn how to hit a baseball, kick a soccer ball, throw a football - and broke countless windows learning to do all three. (I remember a hockey puck sailing through the front door's stained-glass window when the kids were playing roller-hockey in the driveway.)

It was where the entire girl's high school soccer team came before practice because pasta was always waiting for them. It is where my son's football teammates inhaled boxes of pizza and watched the movie "Braveheart" after three-a-days.

It was the place to sleep-over after homecoming dances and proms.

And it was where my extended family celebrated the Italian Christmas tradition of eating seven different fish for good luck in the next year.

And now, it would never be the same.

In the hours and days following the fire, I didn't say much but I did cry - a lot. Not bawling-like-a-baby crying, but random tears just fell when a memory crossed my mind.

What saddened me most was that Christmas was coming fast, and gone were all of our ornaments, many that the kids made over the years and many that were my grandfather's.

No live tree, no decorating the mantle, no placing candles in all 32 windows, no luminaries dotting the driveway.

The week after Thanksgiving was particularly tough. Sitting in the loft apartment rented for me by the insurance company (State Farm really is there when you need it) with the kids still away at college, I indulged in feeling really bad for me.

Never mind that no one was hurt, not even the cats, and that the house eventually will be restored to better-than-before: I still wasn't home.

Then an email from an old high school classmate popped up, letting me know that he had heard about the fire and asking if he could help. I thanked him and said that unless he had a magical way to bring Christmas to my house, I would be OK.

Apparently, he took me literally: 12 hours later, Damon Blankenship, a buddy from high-school, and Lorraine "Ray-Ray" Gumble dropped off a huge Christmas tree with lights and ornaments, a snowglobe, and a dozen Christmas candles.

And, just like that, I realized all the things I thought were missing never really were gone in the first place.

Home may where things happen, but home also is the space within you. It is who you are, how you treat people, what you give with no thought of getting something in return.

Home is a state of mind and, just like Christmas, you never really lose it - unless you never really had it to begin with.

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