The early morning is dark with misty rain pattering on the quiet pavement. I roll my little red well-worn carry-on suitcase to the car my husband has already started. The lights glow in the dark, the white clouds rising from the exhaust pipe.
My heart is very full, my mind seeing images of the Ottawa airport where I’ll eventually land, and the goodbye I said yesterday to one of my oldest, dearest friends.
Yesterday, I felt quite anxious about this trip.
Not because of the destination. I’m flying to gather with a beautiful group of people I’ve gotten to know over these past 18 months who all form the Orphan Wisdom School. We are scholars, gathering to hear the wonderings of Stephen Jenkinson, author of “Die Wise” and master storyteller, historian, question-asker. We talk about death, culture, sorrow, loss, humanity, religion, love.
No, my anxiety wasn’t because I’m about to attend our final session together, although I’m aware it’s our last. The week is yet to come, and new conversations still to happen.
My anxiety came from the goodbye I just said.
My sweet friend is literally in his final days of life, and he may be gone from this world while I travel.
As I sat by his bedside yesterday, we both knew it might be our last meeting, our last goodbye.
What a strange experience to know you will likely never see someone again. I think of immigrants long ago leaving for another country. All the human death from disease (in other words not a sudden or surprise death that’s unanticipated). Moving far away in the physical world because of slavery or war. Jobs taking people half way around the world to seek their fortune. Children growing up and leaving home.
Saying goodbye and knowing you’ll never meet again.
Not physically, not in this world.
Goodbyes are sad, tragic, frightening.
Let’s question this. Because The Work is about looking at everything, anything. Including goodbyes of such magnitude.
Especially goodbyes of such magnitude.
Is it true that goodbyes are sad, or tragic, or frightening?
Yes. So very sad. I’ll never see him again. We’ll never have our deep conversations again.
I thought this about my father during his leukemia illness so many years ago. Tragic.
I thought it frightening when my daughter left for Europe and bombs were exploding there. I thought it sad when my son moved away to college. I thought it terrifying when my former husband wanted a divorce.
Missing them. Gone. Goodbye.
But can you absolutely know it’s true that saying Goodbye is wrong, or that feeling all this is too horrible to stand, or that these experiences called sadness, fear or devastation are too great to bear?
Can you know you can’t go on, despite such a deep, formidable goodbye? Can you be sure you’ll never see them again, really (even if they’ve died)?
I’ve seen my dad regularly for over 25 years, and he hasn’t been on earth in a body since 1991. I see him in my mind. I see him behind the wheel of a car as I stare at a man who looks just like my dad with his salt and pepper beard in the lane next to me.
I see my dying friend’s smiling face and hear the way he says “I’m serious!” with a smile, which means in our language “I so agree with you 100% on that point!” I see him saying how much he loved me, and everyone he loved and felt close to, when he learned he had a terminal illness five years ago. He became more expressive. He said what he thought more often.
I can’t know for sure, in absolute terms, that goodbyes are sad, tragic or frightening in and of themselves. I can see it might be my thoughts about goodbyes that produce suffering.
Goodbye seems to be a part of life. Fully and completely. We don’t only have Hello. We have Goodbye. That’s the way of it.
How do I react when I believe Goodbye is so sad, or tragic, or something to be feared?
I start to feel anxious. Pictures race through my mind of holding my friend’s thin hand, rubbing his swollen feet. Pictures of laughing so hard with him at a party a few years ago, caught on film. Pictures of our childhood neighborhood, the walk from his house to mine when the world was closer together and simpler.
When I believe Goodbye shouldn’t be happening, I feel a movement inside like drinking too much coffee. Can’t sleep. Need to get “work” done. Laundry, tasks, post office. Wondering if there’s anything else I can “do”. Hard to hold still. Wondering what it would feel like to know this might be your last day.
But who would I be without this terrible story of Goodbye?
This doesn’t mean it isn’t heart-breaking into a million pieces. It doesn’t mean I don’t cry.
I cry as I get into my car after leaving the building where my friend lies, rain still misting on the city street.
Without the thoughts it shouldn’t be so, and life shouldn’t include goodbyes and endings….
….I stop feeling frantic, conflicted.
Something very deep within stops fighting the moment. Something remembers I am not in charge, but something far greater–the movement of life and death–knows more than I do. I am not too small for this. I am a human being, I have the astonishing privilege of awareness of All This.
Turning the thought around: Goodbye’s are filled with love.Goodbyes are the awareness of love. Goodbyes are bitter and sweet and profound and life-changing. They are life-shaking, beautiful, fearless.
Believing my thoughts about goodbyes was what brought anxiety and sleeplessness, and suffering.
And it isn’t really a total and absolute “end”.
You are in my heart forever, even if you are no longer in this room, no longer in this town, no longer in this country, no longer on this planet in your human form.
The Way It Is
~by William Stafford
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
The thing is, we don’t even have to hold on to the thread. It’s with us no matter what, even if we forget it’s attached.
The word goodbye in English comes from Godby, Godby’e, Godbwye, God b’w’y, God bwy yee, God buy you, God be wi’ you, God be with you.
Infinity, vastness, mystery, and love be with you, carrying you always (it is).
God be with you. God is with you.
God be with you, dear sweet dying friend.
God be with you, father. God be with you, all the people of the world coming and going and living and dying.
God be with you, dear reader.
Thank you for being awhile here with me.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.