A Long Way Home Essay

I fell across a chair, my teenagers whirled into the night, and, a few hours later, they jumped on a freight train and headed off to who knows where. Amanda returned home three months later, wasted by drugs. Stephanie was missing for a year.

Then she came back, miraculously, and all of us — the two younger sisters, the older girls, me — began the long effort to try to find one another again. Instead of clinging to each other in relief, we found the talking hard, the touching harder — so much harder than I thought it would be, rife with old tensions, unpredictable land mines and calcified pain.

Stephanie settled on a boarding high school in Colorado to work through the aftermath of her time on the streets, but Amanda stayed in Oregon. She assured us that she was finished with rehab efforts, promised she was over boozing and drugs, done with the scrappy living of the road. It also felt like she was done with me — the slightest provocation set either of us off against the other, a sour heat, a sorry tirade erupting from all the hurt we had suffered for too long.

That Monday night after Mother’s Day, I called Amanda to thank her for the flower, too afraid of being rebuffed to ask about getting together. And then, a week later, she called me.

I was in my office, and I admit my first reaction to hearing her voice was to take an old “Now what?” breath, another gulp in a long string of hyperventilations over my daughters’ arrests, overdoses, fights, trouble.

I plopped heavily in my chair. But Amanda explained that she was calling from a pay phone, that she and her boyfriend had spent the night in front of a box office that would, in a few minutes, begin selling tickets to a Tom Waits concert. Seeing how she was first in line, she could promise me one of the best seats in the house if I could get her money for my ticket, fast.

I stood up, trembling, shaking off any reluctance or fear about our troubled relationship. Avoiding, for a moment, the maw of anger and regret I so often fell into. Of course, I said, I would be there soon — I’d make excuses to my boss, race to my car, stop at the A.T.M. and drive to wherever she was. So what if I hadn’t bought a ticket to a concert since I was 13 and had a chance to see a new group called the Carpenters in the town’s high school auditorium. I would go to this one. I would joyfully go to this one.

Perhaps Amanda remembered me listening to Tom Waits through that awful period of divorce, when I was consumed by pain and the prickly defense of my choice to leave my marriage and terrified about the new life I was trying to build. Waits’s raw music boomed through our house, loud and snake-bite potent. In the car I’d turn up the volume so that the percussion would beat hard under my sternum.

Soon enough the four girls would clamor, “Turn it off!” They wanted Madonna, Billy Joel, Joan Jett, any singer but Waits, whose raspy voice seemed to frighten them even as it lulled me.

By the time Amanda and Stephanie had acquired the punked-out gumption to jump a freight train to San Francisco, to New Orleans — anywhere that wasn’t the boiling ground between their parents — Tom Waits had become their troubadour, their piper. His songs, the way he sang them, allowed the girls to make some kind of crazy sense of the misfit life they had entered, an existence that was to me dirty, forlorn, dangerous and hideously far away — a life my girls considered at the time an endless adventure.

STEPHANIE tells the story of climbing atop a freight car and singing “You’re Innocent When You Dream” at the top of her lungs as the sun rose and the train underneath her screamed its way across the Cascade Range, past snowcapped and shimmering Mount Shasta, the pure vibrancy of being alive coursing through her 14-year-old body. It’s a tale I can hardly bear to this day.

In fact, that story and many others caused me to despise Tom Waits for a while; I came to loathe his position with my daughters, he the only adult who could possibly understand why they had hit the road. At least that’s how they thought of it. Tom Waits knew what it was like to be torn apart by people who claim to love you; Tom Waits knew why they chose to abandon their home, their sisters, their town, their mother.

The night of the concert, Amanda appeared at my door. It was summer and the younger girls were with their father for several weeks. Amanda had brought along a black dress, high heels and curlers. I poured us each a glass of wine and helped her get ready.

She had given up the eggplant purples and the snow-cone reds of Manic Panic dye and had recently let her hair return to its white blond color. I wrapped hot curlers through thick strands and watched as they turned to soft ringlets that set off her blushing cheeks.

We called Stephanie, who had seen his Denver concert the night before, and the girls talked about how long they had waited for this moment, a real-life encounter with the balladeer who had so aptly interpreted their journey. They spoke giddily, tearfully, with full knowledge that I was on the other phone listening. I took in this conversation to which I’d been invited — wise enough for once not to talk — with a mix of happiness and remorse: a Tom Waits concert was all it took to break through our terrible strain with each other? That’s all that had to happen for my daughters to let me step near again? Why hadn’t I seen how easy it could be if I’d only had the wherewithal, the courage, to give in to them?

At the concert an hour later, Amanda handed me my ticket out of a thick pile she had stored in her purse. I had thought I’d be sitting by her, close to her, but my lone seat was a good six rows in front of where she would take in the show with her friends.

Of course. How foolish of me to think otherwise. She wanted me there in the hall, yes, but a decent distance from the life she was trying to build for herself, a new existence rising from the cold ashesof her nuclear family.

And what can I say? Tom Waits, perhaps the finest performer of his time, with his glitter and smoke and foghorn voice. There I was, in the second row, close enough to reach out and touch his shoe. But through his songs of trains and heartache, all I wanted to do — all I did do — was crane my neck backward to look for a head of brilliant white curls. I gazed at her from where I sat, Amanda among her pals. She bounced, but only slightly, to the music she believed most defined her.

Her time on the streets had been outrageous and heartbreaking, terrifying to those she left behind, yet she was still the quiet and self-conscious child I’d known since she was born. Now she moved shyly, with a passion that was sweetly contained. No floating arm-waves like those around her, not a single “woo-hoo” leaving her lips.

I watched my beautiful daughter, my graceful child. She was like the flowerleft on my porch some weeks before, bothfragile and strong, and hoping — I wanted to believe — that I would hover nearby, past my own bout of self-absorption, over the competition with her father. Finally I was learning how to protect my child as best I could as she edged toward the end of what had been a storm inside her.

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More than 25 years ago, Saroo Brierley was one of many poor children in rural India. At 4 years old, he couldn't read: He didn't even know the name of his hometown. His mother was raising four children on her own, and they were constantly hungry. Brierley's older brothers would hop trains to nearby towns to search for scraps to eat.

One day, Brierley tagged along to the next city down the rail line. He took a nap in the station, and when he woke up, he couldn't see his brother. Finding himself alone, the 4-year-old decided his brother might be on the train he saw in front of him — so he hopped on.

"It was just an impulse decision," Brierley says, "that, in fact, changed my destiny for life."

That train took him across the country to Kolkata (then called Calcutta), where he spent five harrowing months. He was more than a thousand miles from his home, in a city where he did not speak the language.

He lived on the streets, then in a juvenile home and, finally, in an orphanage. There, he was adopted by an Australian family and flown to Tasmania.

As he recounts in his new book, A Long Way Home, Brierley couldn't help but wonder about his hometown back in India. He remembered landmarks, but since he didn't know his town's name, finding a small neighborhood in a vast country proved to be impossible.

Then he found Google Earth. He spent years searching for his hometown in the program's satellite images, zooming in and out of the map, exploring the web of railway lines criss-crossing India. Then, in 2011, he came across something familiar.

Brierley tells NPR's Arun Rath about his years-long search for his family and their emotional reunion.

Interview Highlights

On what he was looking for, and eventually found, in Google Earth

I thought to myself, "Well, the first thing you're gonna see before you come to your hometown is the river where you used to play with your brothers, and the waterfall, and the architecture of this particular place where you used to visit quite a lot." It has to be exactly the same, otherwise, if it's not, I'd just fly over and go somewhere else.

Google MapsYouTube

So I studied it very carefully — extremely carefully — and this architecture of this particular place where I used to play with my brothers in the water was exactly the same. And I questioned myself: "Well, that's a bit unusual, but there could be other places that look exactly the same too, you never know." So I thought, well, why don't we just scroll a little bit more. ... Before you know it, I was looking from a birds-eye view at the town's central business district. ...

I thought, "On the right-hand side you should see the three-platform train station" — and there it was. "And on the left-hand side you should see a big fountain" — and there it was. Everything just started to match. ... So I traced a road back that I would follow back as a child, and before I knew it I was looking at the suburb where I had grown up, and just on the right of it was the house I had grown up in. ...

I couldn't sleep for that whole night.

On what happened months later, when he took a trip back to that house and found it empty

I had come all the way to find something I'd found on Google Earth. And now I'm standing there, here's the house where I grew up as a child, and the door's shut, and it's locked, and there's no one there. And I can't believe how small it is.

Saroo Brierley was born in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, India, and currently lives in Hobart, Tasmania. Richard Malone/ Courtesy of G. P. Putnam's Sons hide caption

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Richard Malone/ Courtesy of G. P. Putnam's Sons

Saroo Brierley was born in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, India, and currently lives in Hobart, Tasmania.

Richard Malone/ Courtesy of G. P. Putnam's Sons

And I just thought the worst, I thought perhaps everyone's gone, my whole family's died, they've passed away. But lucky for me this lady came out of a doorway holding a baby, and she said, "Can I help you?" ... And I said to her, my name is Saroo and these are my family members' names. ... Another person comes in and I sort of spill my mantra to them as well.

That went on quite a few times with other people that kept wanting to know this person that's a foreigner that's coming to a town that's never seen a foreigner ... And by the time the fourth person had come, they said, "Just stay here for a sec," and within 10 minutes they came back around and they said, "Now I'm going to take you to your mother."

And I couldn't believe it, because when I went around the corner, which was only 10, 15 meters around the corner, there [were] three ladies standing in front of an entrance to a house. And I looked at the second one and I thought, "There's something about you" — and it took me a few seconds but I decrypted what she used to looked like. ...

She looked so much shorter than I remembered when I was a 4 1/2-year-old child. But she came forth and walked forward, and I walked forward, and my emotions and tears and the chemical in my brain, you know, it was like a nuclear fusion. I just didn't know, really, what to say, because I never thought this point in time or ever seeing my mother would ever come true. And here I am, standing in front of her.

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