It was a trip nearly 38 years in the making, but I finally took it.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I made a hastily planned trip to Illinois — the state where we both were born — in response to a health emergency in her family.

The trip was emotionally and physically draining, but it was rewarding in many ways as well.

More about that later.

After moving to Texas in 1979, I never had returned to my home state, largely because all of my immediate family had settled here and I didn’t have any close friends up there.

As the years went by, I considered visiting a few times, but I always talked myself out of going.

Nearly 15 years after I moved to Killeen, a mutual friend introduced me to the woman who would become my wife. Amazingly, she was from Illinois, too, and grew up 40 miles from me. In fact, her high school played mine in sports every year, and I worked with her cousin for a few years at a grocery store in my hometown.

Over the years, we occasionally discussed going back and visiting our old haunts, but we’d never done it — until this month.

I have to admit that when we crossed the state line into Illinois north of St. Louis, I had a feeling of elation. We stopped at a tourism center and picked up some brochures and a map — which really came in handy that week — and I told the lady at the counter how this was my first trip back in 37 years. She seemed both surprised and pleased.

As we drove farther into the state, the familiar town names jogged my memory, and later that night we checked into our hotel, just 20 miles from the town where I grew up.

Over the next few days, we spent time with her family in the little farm town where her sister and brother-in-law had moved in retirement. We quickly learned how to navigate the county roads and narrow blacktops that connected the tiny burgs in the area.

In between visits with the family, we managed to squeeze in some time for ourselves. We took one afternoon and drove around my wife’s hometown of Bloomington, visiting the neighborhood where she grew up, going by her grade school and high school and admiring some of the town’s stately old homes.

The next day, we drove to my hometown of Champaign — a town I hadn’t seen in nearly four decades.

It was amazing how it had changed in some ways, but how in other ways, it was exactly as I had remembered it, especially the neighborhood where I grew up, and my old elementary school. I got some twinges of nostalgia as we drove down the familiar streets and later cruised around the University of Illinois campus, where I earned my journalism degree 40 years ago.

But surprisingly, the town no longer felt like home, and my wife said the same about her old hometown as well.

Sadly, our trip had taken on a somber tone almost before it began. As we prepared to hit the road on our second day, we got a call from my wife’s brother-in-law, tearfully informing her that her sister had passed away that morning.

We continued our trip, knowing that we would be planning and attending her sister’s funeral, as well as grieving along with her sister’s husband and family.

Ultimately, the memorial service was uplifting and filled with love. My wife’s family was welcoming and grateful for our support. And what could have been a maudlin visit turned out to be inspiring.

We left Illinois as different people than when we arrived — and  mostly in positive ways.

It was good to go back, but it was even better to get back to Texas.

For these two Illinois natives, this adopted state really is home.

Dave Miller is deputy managing editor for opinion of the Killeen Daily Herald and editor of the Harker Heights Herald. Contact him at dmiller@kdhnews.com or 254-501-7543.

dmiller@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7543

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