Not Good at Goodbyes

Over the years, I have had to say many goodbyes.

My family first moved when I was 4, then again when I was 6. At age 8 my first brother moved to college, and the second left was I was 9. At 12 we moved again. My high school years were fairly stable until age 16 when my dad decided he was going to leave our church (where he was a pastor), but he announced it nearly a year before he would actually leave. By 18, I’d moved to college and at 20 my parents moved again. Just freshly 22, I graduated from college and took my first job. I quit two months in. I got a different job but moved to Nashville for a fellowship a year later before only staying there for 10 months. 18 months into living in Kent, I’d lose a nephew, quit another job, and bury my grandpa. You’d think with all this practicing of goodbyes—of moving, of changing jobs, of losing loved ones—that’d I’d be good at goodbyes. Turns out, I’m not.

In a couple of weeks, my parents will move away from their house in the suburbs of Pittsburgh to New Wilmington, about 90 minutes north. It’s not too far from where I spent a majority of my childhood years, and it is a gorgeous, rural part of Pennsylvania. On the phone the other night, my mom was talking about packing up the Pittsburgh house. She named off some things she was selling, stuff she wanted me to look through when I came for my final visit this upcoming week. As she talked, I unexpectedly began to cry. “This is hard!” I blurted into the phone.

On paper, my parents’ house in Pittsburgh shouldn’t matter to me much. I didn’t spend significant years in my childhood there, and the surroundings weren’t exactly my favorite of all the places we’d lived. It was the suburbs—not the prettiest, not the most interesting or peaceful, not the most memorable in terms of sights and landscapes. It was a noisy neighborhood that often smelled like chemicals due to the nearby manufacturing facility in the valley nearby. The neighbors had loud parties and played trashy music and someone always seemed to be mowing the lawn or power washing just when we wanted to eat outside on the patio. It was hot and lacking in shade in the summer and unattractively gray and dull in the winter. It was a place I wasn’t eager for them to move why does it feel so hard to say goodbye now? 

Over the years, I’ve come to see that time does not always work how I think it will. Time, like most things people measure, has a precise and scientific means of measurement. But time always carries qualities that distance, mass, and volume do not. Time may be measured by minutes, but more often I measure it with memories.

In my parents’ house in Pittsburgh, I have memories of some of the most impactful moments of my life. I look at the steep, carpeted steps to the upstairs where I remember sitting after receiving an email saying I’d been rejected from a fellows’ program I had been banking on for my post-grad plans. I look at the light-filled foyer and remember coming through the French doors the day my parents brought Tess home and she waited on the landing: a tiny, 7-pound ball of fluff. I look at the kitchen table and remember the post-dinner discussions about whether to quit a job or stay, share my feelings or keep them to myself, go for something that scared me or play it safe. Every room carries with it a significant memory and meaning, a moment in time it will take me many years to forget.

Maybe this why it’s so hard to say goodbye.

It seems like there should be some kind of chart to establish that the longer I live somewhere or know someone determines the amount of grief I experience when I move or lose them, how much space is taken in my story, and how the next chapter of my life is shaped. But that’s not really how time, memory, love, and grief work. Nor is it how goodbyes work, either. Goodbyes, I’m learning, are sometimes no easier when it’s been 10 months versus 10 years. In some ways, a short turnaround feels even harder; I think about all the memories that could have been but realize that what has passed is all I had, and nothing more. The memories of one place are added to the memories of another, together making up a chapter of my story that’s done before I wanted it to be.

Right now, I’m reading a book by Wendell Berry titled Jayber Crow. In it, the narrator tells the reader this:

“I don’t believe that grief passes away. It has its time and place forever. More time is added to it; it becomes a story within a story. But grief and griever alike endure.”

Every time my parents move, I think the grief of days gone by is stirred up in me once again. I think about the goodbyes that I’ve said in the past and ones I’ve yet to face in the future. The goodbyes remind me of the good times and the hard ones, the heartbreaking and the downright miraculous. It is hard to say goodbye to a place where you felt loved, even if it the next place will be good.

Saying goodbye to a place or to a person is an action that confirms one of life’s greatest mysteries: that all things we see now will end. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around, which is probably why I’m not good at goodbyes. But I also feel something more in those goodbyes, something that helps me drive away, quit the job, make the phone call, let go—I feel endurance.

Another character of Wendell Berry’s, Hannah Coulter, speaks of this endurance. Hannah says this:

“But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

Goodbyes and the grief that come with them seem to be an ever-present part of my story, but so has love. Love is what makes it hard to say goodbye. Love is what gives me hope for what is to come. Love is what binds the memories together. Love lives alongside the grief of goodbyes. It mixes with grace and with hope, the forces that help us to bear it and endure it as our stories carry on.

More goodbyes are to come, but so are beginnings. In my parents’ new home we will laugh and cry and sit around the table in the kitchen overlooking the backyard. We will talk about things that have passed and things that are to come. We will grieve and celebrate. One day, we say goodbye to that house, too. But in the meantime, we have a new place to enjoy this part of our story: a place to spend the time we have been given, however long that may be.

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