I’ve been thinking a ton about goodbyes recently. While meditating this morning, these thoughts gripped me anew making me appreciate this part of myself even more. I think it’s a reaction to being so far away from loved ones and my brain blending memories together. Who was the last person I hugged? How did my last goodbye go to my grandma? Did I make sure to give her a second hug before leaving? I’ve always been a believer in solid goodbyes — undistracted, intentional, heartfelt goodbyes. I’m lucky to have a few friends who embrace this aspect of me and return my tight hug with the same. They let me hug them as long as I need to especially if we’re parting ways indefinitely due to living in different cities.
This belief has only grown stronger working at a distributed company where I could easily go years or, if someone leaves the company, a lifetime without seeing someone again. It seems I never outgrew the feeling of a “summer camp goodbye”. I don’t quite know if it’s something I want to outgrow either. I love that I have an appreciation for saying goodbye well because you never know when a pandemic will hit and you’ll rely on that final moment.
There are two people in my life where I knew deep within me that that would be the last time I would see them. With every step I took towards and away from them, that overwhelming reality sunk in. I cherish those goodbyes and the reasons for them being so meaningful.
Esau was the translator for our mission trip group to a tiny village in Honduras that I still can’t find on Google Maps. He was the son of the main priest of the church we were working with. I was 13 when I met him and he was around 18-19 years old. For whatever reason, we took to each other. I imagine it likely had to do with my inability to speak Spanish combined with my curiosity to know everything. It’s only natural that I would gravitate towards him to help me connect and process what I experienced. I have such fond memories playing soccer with him for hours. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone have so much fun whether we were playing with other kids or with adults. He squealed and laughed his way by players in the most good natured way possible. He moved gracefully despite his bit of a larger build and passed the ball generously. Everyone had more fun when he played myself included.
While he had this well of joy that he shared with everyone, there was great pain beneath much of it. One night we sat outside of the compound we were staying in as the rain poured down around us and lightning lit up the mountainsides. We both waded into the deepest parts of ourselves (as deep as I could for a 13 year old) and brought the other along to see. One of the things I loved most about talking with Esau was constructing sentences together whether in English or Spanish. Our conversations were inherently a collaborative effort as we each needed help with words. It made us listen carefully and patiently. Rather than getting frustrated or disengaging, we chose to engage even more in creating understanding between us.
Another time during one of our afternoons off and after a long soccer game, we snagged cokes in glass bottles and wandered over to the water. We sat on this makeshift hut of sorts and talked. I remember trying to ask him what a pet peeve of his was and us both laughing as I tried to explain what a “pet peeve” even was. He had a giant laugh that put you at ease and a quiet “hmmph” he used when thinking that did the same.
I was walking with him to our bus on the last day and, when it was time to say goodbye, we said goodbye to everyone else first. I found myself across the way from him and as I stepped towards him for a hug I burst into tears. He did too. I can’t explain why but I knew this would be the last time I would see him. It was devastating. I climbed onto the bus absolutely disoriented and made eye contact with him for as long as I could as we drove away. I begged my brain to remember and it has. I went back to Honduras during 3 more summers after that secretly hoping I would see him again.
Within weeks of graduating college, I packed up my life in Chapel Hill and drove down to Florida preparing to eventually fly to San Francisco to start my post college existence. I am amazed at my bravery looking back. At that time, my granddad was increasingly getting frail and was struggling with dementia. Months prior I remember sitting with him as he described how he couldn’t find his bike and asking me what I had done with it. Who knows how many decades it had been since he owned a bike.
I’ve always had a special bond with my grandparents. I don’t quite know why. I think I just have found them each to embody the long term and resiliency in a way that perhaps gave me hope for my own existence.
After packing up all of my belongings into the car, we headed to the nursing home before my flight. I hated being on a clock to say goodbye but I also needed it. I never would have left. I needed something to pull me away. After months of dementia and incoherent conversations, I didn’t know what to expect from this conversation. Prior to this, I convinced my dad to load up an iPod nano with my granddad’s favorite jazz music. I had read a study about how music often helped dementia patients both feel calmer and recall more memories. We tried to set him up with it during this last visit. He smiled as he listened and looked down confused at the tiny device powering the music. I don’t know if it was the music or some stroke of luck or some divine intervention but my granddad spoke clearly to me without any ounce of dementia. He told me how much he loved me, how I shouldn’t work so hard, how kind he thought I was, and how proud he was of what I had accomplished. He was suddenly and magically fully present. This very well could have been the last time anyone experienced this kind of clarity from him. As I cried and said my goodbye to him thanking him for everything, I knew it was the last time.
He had started doing this really cute thing a few years prior when saying goodbye. I would hug him, kiss him on the cheek, and begin to walk away with my parents. He would get a twinkle in his eye and open his arms again for another hug. We’d repeat the ritual without question. This last time was no different. I cried saying goodbye. I cried on the way to the airport. I cried on the plane. I cried a few weeks later listening to his last rites on the phone sitting on the sidewalk outside of yet another hipster San Francisco coffee shop. No one stopped. Deep within me, I knew I had the gift of this wonderful goodbye and thanked myself for being aware enough to cherish it.
I love that I’m just like my grandfather with the twinkle in his eye wanting one more hug. I love that I say goodbye like I’m 90.