As far as goodbyes go, I'm of the keep-it-short variety. When we part ways, my family can usually expect a quick hug, an "I love you" and something like "See you soon!" and off you go! People have different goodbye styles … you hear them say that they're not good at goodbyes or they don't say "goodbye" they just say "see you later" or that they always like to have the next meeting planned and that helps, but generally people seem to agree that goodbyes aren't fun or easy. There is usually some element of heartache involved and so we do what we can to truncate that pain.
The worst Goodbye that I can remember is when I got on a plane one summer at age 21 to head to Maine to be a summer camp counselor. Since leaving for college at 18 I'd never come back to live at home for any stretch longer than two weeks. It's safe to say that when I left home for college I was more than ready … I had no qualms whatsoever about kicking my weeping mother and stunned father and sister out of my dorm room as they tried to help me unpack and get settled (and I need to just say that for the record it was the third time I'd ever seem my mother cry In My Life. Grandmother's Revenge is sure to get me on that one, huh Ma?). As far as goodbyes went, I was always looking ahead and never looking back.
But as my family walked me to gate O'Hare that summer, seeing me off to this far-away place called Maine to which I'd never been and where I didn't know a soul, I felt my throat clenching up. The gate was the last one on the end of the terminal and there were windows floor to ceiling and you could see the jet waiting outside and the runway behind it and the flat empty fields beyond. We posed for photos together – my sister was still in her pajamas – and stood together as we waited for my boarding call. Things had been tense in our family that year, but there we were together hugging each other and saying "I love you" like we always had and lingering over the goodbye. They called my boarding group and I put on my backpack and hugged them all again and got in line. I looked back and they were all looking at me and smiling wistfully, their arms around one another.
I found my seat on the plane, a window facing the terminal glass and immediately I saw that the three of them had walked up to look for me. I waved my hands frantically until my father spotted my window and raised his arms above his head and crossed his hands back and forth in slow motion, as if it would slow down time. As we pulled off I saw them waving frantically and I waved back until I was speeding away and I kept waving until they were tiny specks and long after they were gone. The landing gear pulled up into the plane and I burst into tears. I was afraid of what the future held. I wondered why I had spent so much of my life speeding away from my family and through goodbyes.
Tomorrow my mother is leaving the house that I will remember as the one where I grew up. I lived there from age 12-18, but it's the one I am talking about when I mention my childhood home. It is the background of most of the memories I have of my family. How many meals did we eat in that kitchen, how much did we laugh as we played games at the table or spun across the floor in our socks? When I think of the tears that have been shed there I imagine the very floor being full of them, the flood creeping up the walls. This is the purpose a home serves: shelter from the storm, a place to be naked, here's a room for quiet and rest, walls to hold in private hurricanes, a backyard stoop to sit on late at night when you cannot sleep and the world is a smaller place. This was my home. This was where we lived. It is time for us her leave it behind for other walls, new memories, new laughter and new sorrow.
In a sense she's already left. Her belongings are packed in a POD and headed across the country to their new temporary resting place in storage. The new owners have already taken possession … I wonder if they are already moving in as she watches from where she's staying only a few doors down? Her car is most likely packed and standing ready in her friend's driveway, ready to point west toward her new life. I imagine as she tucks into bed with her dog tonight she is tired and excited and maybe a little sad. I know that she feels unburdened, ready to move forward and leave the last seven years behind. I know that she is EXTREMELY TOTALLY EXCITED to spend more time with her granddaughter and to live nearer to her daughters and son-in-law.
I know these things. But the pangs of loss are still with me tonight.
Lately it has come to my attention that grieving is messy. It is not a checklist you go down point by point, completing stages until you are done. A friend of mine is a mental illness rehabilitator and she once told me that mental illness is incurable. Because it often onsets later in life, people who are mentally ill often fall into cycles where they attend counseling or take medication and then feel better, and so thinking that they are "cured" discontinue treatment. When they break off counseling or medication their illness revisits them, and they relapse into whatever destructive behavior and end up at rock bottom again and again. The bottom line is that mental illness changes you and you must learn to re-live as a person who is mentally ill. You can never go back to the way you were before.
I sometimes wonder if grief is this way. Once the initial shock and pain wears thinner and you are functional again, you try to resume "normal" life … whatever normal is to you. For a while it's ok: Your friends breathe a sigh of relief and stop giving you those sideways glances that say "I don't know what to say to you or if I should bring it up." They laugh around you again and it feels good. You go back to work and to relationships and you feel fine, you feel like you're getting on top of it. And then all of the sudden you turn a corner and there it is waiting for you. And you start all over again as the rest of the world continues to move forward as you stay behind. You realize quickly that you have changed, that the person you were before is gone and there's a new one in her place. You wonder if she's worth getting to know.
Lately grief sneaks up on me like that. One moment I'm jumping for joy because after more than a year, the house finally sold! After seven years she's finally able to move forward with no more baggage! No more sump pump breakdowns in the middle of the night, no more electric bills on a 1600 square foot home in Illinois winters, no more draining her retirement for house payments, NO MORE! And then? I realize that it's gone. That I will never visit her there again. I will never walk through our old bedrooms, never trip down the stairs and see John and my mother deep in conversation over coffee in the kitchen, I will never roll on the floor with my sister in our traditional wedgie wars, or decorate the Christmas tree or cut into a Thanksgiving turkey there again. And the worst? My daughter will never cross the threshold of the home where I grew up.
These things represent a long goodbye that I've been putting off. And it's waving to me now from the window, the choke hold is on my throat, and the wheels are pulling up. It's time to fly. It's time to let go.
But it's hard.