Monday, September 10, 2012

The Funny Thing about Saying Goodbye

I'm big on goodbyes.

When we part, I want a hug and a kiss, even if it's an awkward hug and an in-the-air, aiming-for-my-cheek kiss.

I don't want to part badly.

I don't want to think later about what I said, rightly or wrongly, angrily or stridently or stupidly or thoughtlessly.

I don't want to be haunted by the thousands of things I should have said, the words that run through my mind incessantly when I'm doing the laundry or running on the treadmill or stopped at a red light.

But worse than a bad goodbye is what I've been experiencing lately. Let's call it The No Goodbye -- one minute you're here, and the next, you're gone. It's like, if we pretend really hard, maybe we can come to believe that we never knew each other in the first place.

In the file cabinet of my mind, these people would have their own manila folder, labeled with my shaky handwriting: People I Used to Know. The subtitle would be more complicated: The People I Never Got to Say Goodbye To, and Now It's Probably Too Late.

* * *

Maybe it's easier this way, my husband says, consoling me. It's like ripping off a Band-Aid.

I see his point, sort of. It's true that, like ripping off a Band-Aid, there's no prolonged sense of pain, no dreaded anticipation of the moment. In life this means there's no chance to argue or trip over my words or work myself up into a bundle of emotions. The pain is instantaneous, and in theory, fleeting.

But a Band-Aid is not a friend. There is no love or commitment or caring between a person and a skinny strip of adhesive. And this is where the analogy falls apart.

* * *

I've tried to understand The No Goodbye over the years, and I've come to the conclusion that maybe I'm just too sensitive. I know other people who feel the same way as me; they hug hello and goodbye. They would never pass me on the street without calling out my name, or flagging me down, or dragging me into a coffee shop.

But I know other people who can just walk away, content to leaving our next meeting to a random encounter in line at a Costco, or years from now at the funeral of someone we both knew. "Oh, hello," we will say to each other, awkwardly. "It's been a long time! How are you?"

* * *

When I was nine years old, my family moved from Napoleon, Ohio to California. We'd been packing and saying goodbyes for weeks, but that last night I spent with a friend from down the street. I didn't know her that well, but we had grown closer in the last few months -- a closeness no doubt born by proximity. We hung out all day, and when it was time to say goodbye, she walked me home. We talked for a bit on the doorstep, swatting mosquitoes on our arms. My mother, consumed with hundreds of last-minute details, didn't notice that we were back. So I offered to walk my friend home, and we set out again, walking slowly back down the street, kicking stray pebbles out of the road, talking about everything and nothing. At her house, we stood awkwardly on the front porch. Unwilling to part so soon, she offered to walk me home. We did this, the slow back-and-forth down Graceway Drive, at least a dozen times, always reaching our destination before we had run out of things to say.

In the morning, I took my seat in our wood-paneled station wagon and we drove away.

I've never seen this friend again, and we've never written so much as a letter. I suppose I could find her on Facebook, where everyone in the world will probably be at some point. But what we've become since feels almost beside the point. I'm satisfied with the memory of our long, meandering goodbye.

* * *

This message isn't a goodbye from me, not yet. We have more to say to and learn from each other, more cups of coffee to consume, more paths to wander back and forth.

But maybe the time will come, and if it does, I'm fully expecting a hug. And I'm ready to offer one in return.