Goodbye: A Prelude

“Don’t break my red plate.”

“Don’t get attached to inanimate objects.”

“I have to; the animate ones keep leaving.”

Never before has that six year-old exchange held more meaning that in the past few months, especially in the past two weeks. Just a few days ago, eldest son, his partner, and their daughter (yep, my granddaughter) moved to Hawaii. Just today middle son left for summer adventure in Seattle and LA, along with participation in a dance intensive in North Carolina. Youngest son is taking driver’s ed: a definitive step toward many more goodbyes. He is also starting high school in the fall – yet another milestone that heralds more farewells.

We are in a culture that doesn’t like to say goodbye. Saying that word has fallen out of fashion. If you type in “it’s not goodbye, it’s see you later” into YouTube, you get over seven million hits: original songs, movie clips, poetic tributes, and inspirational talks. Move that search out to Google, and you’ll get 39 million hits.

We don’t want to say goodbye. This is prevalent in modern dating culture. It seems to be (and I ran this by people in several different age brackets) standard to ghost a person you don’t want to see any more. For example, you have a first date – maybe even a couple of dates – and then: Nothing. No texts, calls, emails…no returned correspondence either. If this happens to you, you have been ghosted. The person in question is disappearing; they don’t want to say, “Hey, I’m not really that interested” or “This isn’t working out” or the old standby, “It’s not you; it’s me.” No one wants to say goodbye in any form.

We can also see this reticence in the funeral industry. Like all industries, the funeral industry evolves to stay relevant. And, in the end, we all use some part of that industry. However, a desire to avoid the finality of a goodbye caused by death plays a role. A number of factors, including rising costs; creating new traditions; and a move away from traditional organized religion, encourage families not to view a funeral or other life-end memorial as a goodbye, but as a celebration of life. If we meditate then party, we don’t have to say goodbye.

Why? Are we trying to keep our options open? Are we thinking: if I don’t say goodbye, then the person isn’t really dead? Or my friend hasn’t really moved away?  Or she might still date me if I want to re-up later? What’s happening here?

Farewells are hard. I have divorced twice; I have had close contemporaries and young students, as well as beloved elders, die; I have been ghosted; I have moved. I have sent two sons to college and into life. Goodbyes are a part of all of life.

Goodbye is a contraction from the 16th century “God be with ye.” Seems appropriate. Child going to college? God be with ye. Not interested in dating him any more? God be with him. Dear friend passed away? God be with her. Yes, totally appropriate. And needed.

We need to be able to say goodbye to people. It’s an important skill. Saying goodbye well teaches resilience. It draws a line, and it allows those being left behind to adjust to an absence. Being able to say goodbye means that we can leave someone and move forward. When goodbye doesn’t involve the finality of death, it’s easier; but even when it is funereal, it’s a prelude to the days where we have to go on living.

I’m not saying goodbyes are easy. But, I’m afraid that the lack of sincere, sometimes heart-wrenching goodbyes are rendering us incapable of moving on in a healthy way. Sure, I cry when a son leaves to move 3915 miles away. I have cried when my loved ones have died. I cry with others when their loved ones die. I cried when I got seriously ghosted earlier this year. Shoot, I cry when a contestant gets eliminated on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

In their various forms, these goodbyes help me into the next act.

Yes, goodbyes are tough to swallow. And, yes, sometimes the next act totally sucks.

However, goodbyes are not the end of a song; they are  the entr’acte.

Goodbyes are the prelude to what comes next.

 

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At A Loss

Twelve years ago, December 2,  my middle sister died the day before her 35th birthday. From injuries sustained in a single car wreck outside of Atlanta.

amy-johnson1That’s the nice way to put it. That’s what people want to hear. And, generally, they don’t want to hear details or see tears. Their I’m-so-sorrys are meant well but salve nothing. But 144 months after the fact, I have some perspective. Of course, that doesn’t make things easier; I can still occasionally hear a news story or think a funny thought and want to share it with her – and, then, catch myself with a “Well, damn.”

Still, middle sister would be proud to know that her niece and nephews (two of whom she never met) occasionally call me by her name. And that my sons remember the international fiend fests they had with her – including her cursing of the tofu when it popped in the wok and burned her. And that youngest sister and I send each other Young Ones quotes or Seinfeld references at will.

The past two weeks, though, have been more than hard on some of my friends. Daughters, sisters, wives died. Specifically, three people whom I knew or knew tangentially lost their lives in separate events. Their relatives cannot laugh yet; they are sitting in the fire of grief. Those flames bite at you: when you wake up in the morning and the thought you have is, “something isn’t quite right” and then you remember and the tears come. Those flames scorch when you feel anger at someone who is alive while your person has died. Those flames burn and burn when you can’t stop yourself from thinking, “but, what if…”

I have no advice on how to get through grief. There is no magic spell; no easy way; it’s a road with sharp turns, glass and tacks strewn everywhere, and lots and lots of fog. And even if it never really ends, the fog eventually lifts.

joan-didion-quotes-14436I have advice, though, for those of us who surround those who are sitting in that fire. Don’t try to put it out. The searing pain of grief must be experienced by those whose loved one has died. Sit with them. Avoid platitudes and preaching. Hold their hand. Make sure they eat – or at least drink some tea. Admit you don’t know why. Don’t be embarrassed by tears – those tears will eventually calm the flames. Cry with them.

You know, there’s no magic spell here, either, except to be there. Share happy memories. Agree a lot. Listen. Make more tea.

The holidays can be hard enough without death; add that in, and man, the holidays can take a dark, dark turn. Make space for yourself whether you’re dealing with death or standing in the gap for someone whose loved one has died. Things may not get better, but we do not stay mired. We cannot stay mired. Hope might not spring eternal, but it does spring. And, even life-altering sadness evolves.

Peace.

(For KR, GV, PH and all those who love them.)

 

 

 

Presence

Darcy grew up in the apartments of her mother’s boyfriends. Whenever a breakup was imminent, Mother would take Darcy and her brother out to Sunday afternoon open houses. They would walk through empty houses, and Mother would ask them which rooms they wanted, describe the furniture she would buy for the spacious rooms: a cozy table for the breakfast nook; beds with colorful blankets; a pillow-filled couch for watching Disney movies on a flat screen TV.  The next month would find Darcy and her brother huddled in the unfurnished corner of their latest “uncle’s” spare room.

Darcy grew up. She worked hard, bought a small cottage, and took great care in housekeeping. Years passed before she invited Mother to holidays. Delighted but bedraggled by yet another failed “relationship,” Mother arrived early and offered to help. None was needed – everything had been ready for days, including the eighteen individually and gorgeously wrapped empty boxes – each one inside of another  – that Darcy presented to Mother that evening.

empty box

A Christmas Parable

Years ago when I was a child, a package appeared in our village. A box wrapped simply: brown butcher paper and a red bow. No one
knew where it came from nor what to do with it. There were long months of talk about the package. Priests said it was a harbinger of doom and should be destroyed; commoners suggested we should open it and allow fate – bad or good – to take its course. Scholars could find no mention of such a happening in the histories of any of the villages. Tradesman thought we might sell the package to buy goods. Arguments, gossip, and schoolyard banter swirled around the mystery.

Solstice came and the decision was taken to mark the occasion by opening the package. At the midnight hour we all gathered, and the elders carefully removed the wrapping and set it aside. The most perfectly faceted gem was lifted from the box, and as the icy air hit it, a red-purple light penetrated every soul. We were, from infants to elders, mute in awe the gift lifted from its ordinary container. A warmth that surrounded every person, an invitation to acceptance and pure love. We stood in wonderment.

The reverie was broken when someone lunged at the gem, knocking it off the pedestal. A scuffle mutated into an outright fist fight among men and women alike. Children bit and clawed alongside their elders. The light began to fade as the gem was knocked about in the dust, but no one seemed to notice. It was as if the entire village had a singular goal: to get the gem for themselves only. Greed and fear obscured the light and love that had embraced us just moments earlier. The brawl continued until dawn when a man yelled out, “It’s gone!”

As if on cue, the townspeople, bedraggled, cold, tired, and defeated saw the wrapping that had been set aside so carefully. It fluttered in the wind at the edge of the well. Hands grabbed, elbows flew, eyes were blackened, and the wrapping was torn. People went home with tiny bits of ribbon while priests took shreds of the wrapping to their temples, ensconcing them in protective glass behind locked doors. The gem was gone entirely.

Many years have passed, and there are those who have never heard the story of the package; but we hear rumors that the gem is still near our village. One fisherman told us he saw such a light in a shallow at the river, and as he dove to retrieve what he thought was the gem, he felt filled with kindness and love. But, he was unable to bring back the gem. Once a child said she found the gem under some moss in the forest. She told a fantastic story of playing with and talking to it. No one believed her then, and we labeled her simple. She still wanders in the forest, gathering flowers and talking to herself.

Now, the priests retell the story of the gem and reveal the remnants of the wrapping twice a year. In homes, the story of that winter solstice has been passed down, but no one dwells upon it; to do so would be to mourn the loss of the purity of the compassion and mercy we felt in the all too brief light.

A December Blizzard

Another day, but no more dollars. Forcibly retired from the service – janitorial service at Aspen Ski & Spa – after new management took over in just before the holiday season, Herman didn’t have much to do. His wife was dead only two weeks; Jan had never even mentioned she felt bad. Just fell over dead doing the dishes. Now, Herman laid his wallet with $1702.00 in cash, as well as the note, on the bureau and walked outside.

No one would find him for months.

blizzard