in defense of goodbye

This is not goodbye, this is just “see you later.” How many times have I heard that?

“Say goodnight,” the singer croons, “not goodbye.” But I’m beginning to realize there’s something very important in goodbye.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t like leaving, and I really, really don’t like being left. Goodbyes are not something that improves on acquaintance, and I’ve said enough of them to know. But I also know they aren’t easier done in halves.Tolkien on leaving

I don’t mean that the departure of every friend has to be some drawn-out, teary thing, where you deliver a miniature speech on the meaning they have lent to your life and the depths they have plumbed in your soul. But hey, if that’s what it comes to, why not? If not then, WHEN ELSE IN OUR LIVES WILL WE EVER SAY THOSE THINGS? Each friend lends meaning and plumbs depths in their own way, and once they’ve gone, that part of us may be gone forever.

I could say so much more about this, but a great, big (and painful when it’s not possible) part of friendship is PRESENCE. That’s why phrases like “There for me,” “Came through,” and “In your corner,” all have a prepositional quality to them. Intimacy is knowledge and proximity.

If you don’t know the next time you will see your friend in person, chances are this is the closest you’ll ever be as friends . . . no pun intended. (See how hard it is to talk about meaning something to someone without using locational words?) But nobody wants to say that. Leaving is loss. Being left is loss. And loss comes with a certain level of denial. But if you knew this was the culmination of everything you’d been through as friends, how differently would you act?

Thirty-some years ago, when my parents left their home in Southern California to move to Africa, they had to communicate back home by letters hand-carried out of the country. They sent telegrams when my brothers and I were born. And that was pretty good compared to the whole history of mankind before them. Last week, when my friend moved from Delhi, headed to Southern California herself, I got a text message “London is sunny today!” a little over 24 hours later.

That constant availability has led to a certain naïvety about distance. But availability is not presence. Once-upon-a-time our goodbyes had to be complete because they could be THE goodbye. And now we’re given this digital illusion of possibility and chance, which makes us think we’ll always have another one. Now, I’m a fan of just about every form of communication possible, from postcards to . . . what’s the name of that app I just downloaded? But I’m also a champion of having your primary friends be flesh-and-bones, in-person, humany ones, able to be hugged, and poked, and looked-in-the-eyes, and cried on. So we don’t become people marked by our absence. Where your treasure is, there your heart is.Pooh on goodbyes

There’s nothing like those friendships where you can spend time away from each other without it creating distance between you. I have friends I can be away from for six months and when we get together, we hug each other so tight it hurts, and then launch right into whatever we were talking about six months ago, without missing a beat. But those friends have been earned in departure terminals, and won at the arrivals gate, and subject to hugs that were long and wet, and letters long and messy. We said what we needed to say, and that was never “I’ll see you around,” it was “If I don’t see you around, I want to you know . . . ”

Those friendships are built on the hard goodbyes.

You see, it isn’t by making things small that we make them bearable. We are eternal creatures, with infinite capacity. The things we shrink down from their rightful size, make light of when they should carry weight, just create a void within us where something was meant to belong. Emptiness isn’t heavy — but it weighs you down.

The goodbye is just the period at the end of the sentence, not the end of the story. But the flow of your lives won’t make sense without it.

And if you’ve read this far you’ll realize this isn’t really about the goodbye. If we’re doing it right, when that moment comes a simple “goodbye” is all that should be left to say. It’s what comes before that moment that matters. This is not a defense of closing the book, but a defense against closing ourselves off. A call to open our hearts and open our mouths. In friendship: love as if you’ll have them forever, speak as if you’ll lose them today.

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