Of all the childhood illnesses, the one that recurred the most in my life was homesickness. It was a luxurious disease of summer camp. My bouts of it were suffered at night, quietly.
It was not life-threatening, not even summer-threatening. I wanted to be at camp. Yet, sometimes the peacefulness of the country night would slip over the edge into aloneness. I felt then less like an active inhabitant of Bunk 10 and more like a child stranded from home.
My homesickness went on far beyond the age when such illnesses are normally outgrown. We are supposed to get over chicken pox, measles, mumps, homesickness and develop immunity by adolescence. But I was vulnerable to attacks through high school, in college, beyond.
Once, even in my thirties on another continent with a ticket for a charter plane that wouldn't leave for six more days, I had an unexpected relapse. Now, sometimes over the long-distance phone from her summer trip, I can hear it in my daughter's voice: "I miss you."
I know by now that I am a host for this germ. It can still break out anytime, although less virulently now. I have an antidote in roots that are close to home.
I also know what I didn't know at 10: we are all vulnerable to this homesickness. It is as universal a feeling as you can find. So universal that it permeates our children's books, movies, lives. Many of our classic stories have at their center the desire to go home. Peter Pan toys with it. The Wizard of Oz revolves around it. It is shared with creatures like Lassie and Bambi. Now, of course, it is central to our empathy with E.T., who has drawn tears out of the stoniest movie-goers this summer.
A friend of mine, who has listened to colleagues troop through the valley of "E.T." tears and into the office, swears that we've all been had by Steven Spielberg. He swears that the director of "E.T." plays our emotions like a flute. He knows where the cry button is, and the laugh button, the fear button. He pushes them with such subtle precision that we don't even notice the fingering.
I don't mind. I'm an easy cry, a pushover in a dark theater. If anyone understands our emotional scale, Spielberg does. He may be our Grimm. He knows that among the relatively few buttons that come as standard equipment on the human, one is marked Home.
His extra-terrestrial is a mythic creation of our collective fantasy life. Toddler-sized, E.T. feels as abandoned on Earth as any pre-schooler dropped at nursery school, any child at summer camp. He is now, literally, the alien.
There's not a child, not an adult who has trouble identifying with his sense of strangeness. He is the inarticulate part of us that learns the one basic word of our emotional vocabulary: "Home."
It's not a coincidence that the children of this movie are also "homesick." They are the offspring of our own suburban split-family culture. Their father has left behind a shirt in the garage and some memories. Their mother is well- meaning but distracted by this dissolution. With few exceptions the other adults they encounter are hostile and dangerous in their power and ignorance.
When the children band together to help E.T. down the homestretch, they understand his desperate need to go home. And I suppose we all do.
I wish I could define homesickness in precise, clinical terms. A psychiatrist might call it a longing for symbiosis. A sociologist might call it the yearning for our sense of place. An existentialist might call it the anxiety of discovering we're alone in the world.
But I know that it comes quite simply from our profound need to belong. It's true for a wondrous E.T. It's true for a more ordinary creature, the one singer James Taylor celebrated on his T-shirt the other night: "J.T. Justa Terrestrial."