If I think about all the people I’ve ever said goodbye to in my life, I count two.
And I’m not talking about goodbyes like, “see you later” or “until next time.” I also am not talking about the goodbye of death, because that’s an entirely different beast to slay on a day that is not today. I’m talking about genuinely saying goodbye to someone you know you will never see again, using “goodbye” as a succinct cop-out way of saying, “thank you for coming into my life” and “I know you need to go but it still makes me sad” and “I wish you only the best.”
One of my goodbyes was a girl in college. We had two years of criminology classes together (even at a school as ridiculously large as the U, those who excitedly debate over compounding recidivism rates and the probability of everyone being capable of murder sort of keep a tight-knit circle.) She had long wavy hair I was jealous of and walked around the West Bank with an oar because she didn’t have time to head back home between class and rowing practice. She couldn’t understand our Russian stats teacher anymore than I, and so we would play a Mad Libs sort of game to keep ourselves awake. (This actually worked out so hilariously we both registered to take Social Theory with the same professor that spring despite the inevitable ding in our GPA.)
After junior year, she was off to wander Europe for the summer, an idea I was entranced with because I typically like to know here the nearest bathroom is. We exchanged contact info, but something about it just held an air of finality for me. Maybe her too, as it turned out. That fall, I never saw her on campus, although I knew that she was there. We never ended up in another class together, and we never contacted each other to catch up. It was one of the things I adored about her, her spontaneity, her go with the flow attitude-it was everything that I wanted to be more like-that made contacting her just seem wrong. And so I never did.
The other was after college; a friend from college I had lost track of senior year in the labyrinth of East Bank housing options. There had always been a definite mutual attraction, and perhaps even a high possibility of dating, if we had ever been single at the same time. Anyways, he emailed, we reconnected, and decided to do dinner. As friends. Because, well, you know. And I don’t know why it hit us that time out of any other that we didn’t really make good friends without the dating aspect. We got along fine, but it felt….like work. Maybe we were both tired of waiting, or hanging in the balance, or maybe we’d realized that if it didn’t happen in four years of living in conveniently close proximity, it never would. Maybe we liked the idea of each other more than the actual thing. Regardless, it was definitely nice to say goodbye to someone under the same terms. A long, final hug in the parking lot, kisses on the cheek. A solid goodbye on both of our parts. Then I went north, and he went south.
And yet, we never learn, do we?
I overslept recently, on a day that I had a date with an important goodbye. I jumped out of bed, sped through a shower, and raced over to this church I have started haphazardly attending to say goodbye to Jim, a ministerial intern that was giving his last sermon of his internship.
Jim was the first person that I met when I wandered into this church last fall; I barely got three feet into the door before he saw the lost look in my face and introduced himself with a warm handshake and a huge smile. Jim’s sermons were all hilarious, honest and serious in the most intriguing way. When I asked Jim a question he didn’t have an answer to, he said so. Jim welcomed me into his World Religions class, where for 8 weeks myself and about 40 other wanderers tried everyone else’s beliefs on for size.
So maybe in this last year, Jim didn’t teach me exactly what Universal Unitarianism is, but he did teach me what it wasn’t. He made me want to come back every week and learn more, and maybe that’s more important than anything else.
Except when I raced over to the church, the on-street parking was uncharacteristically ample. The doors, usually propped open in any weather warmer than 40 degrees, were closed. Closed, and as it turned out, locked. Jim’s last sermon was given the same Sunday that summer hours started, and so I-showing up for 4:30 p.m. service-was about 6 hours too late. Jim had already long gone and I, suddenly feeling an immense amount of sadness, realized for the first time just how much this goodbye had meant to me.
And I’m wondering why we do that. When most of can count on one hand the number of people we have actually said goodbye to, why do we feel incomplete when it doesn’t happen that way? Logic would tell us to never expect it, and yet we often adamantly refuse logic whenever our hearts our involved. There’s always more time, or there’s always next time. Why do we fear goodbye more than we fear leaving things left unsaid? In theory, there’s a certain grace to weaving in and out of people’s lives, but in practice it leaves us uncomfortable and unsettled.
See, without goodbyes, we leave our friendships in a precarious place. We’re often left with these weird “what exactly is this?” discrepancies, these odd things that aren’t really deep friendships anymore, but have become more of a casual acquaintance based on history. And then suddenly all that surrounds you is a loosely wound web composed mostly of strangers with stories in common.
I’m realizing I’d rather have the goodbye.