I woke up this morning thinking about saying goodbye and all the ways and the times in our lives when we do so. There are the quick breezy acknowledgements of day-to-day living, the goodbyes that mark changing relationships, the goodbyes that mark passages. The longer the expected absence, the more emotion the goodbye generates.
My uncle died a week ago. Today was the funeral. The day began quite early – 6 am with a four-hour drive ahead of us. It was dark when we left, cold, a few snow flurries. My husband, sister and I talked, reminisced, listened to music. It was a good trip.
The funeral home was full. My uncle was well-loved. The minister began with Ecclesiastes 3:1… you know the one: for everything there is a season… a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance… As she recited the words, I wondered why it didn’t include a time to say hello and a time to say goodbye. No sooner did I think it than she wondered the same thing. And then she said that the ritual of saying goodbye is what we do when we don’t know what else to say. She acknowledged that for my aunt and my cousins, life had changed irrevocably. And this was our chance to gather, to mark the passage of a life and to say goodbye together.
It was a celebration of a life well lived, with stories, laughter and tears. For me and for my sister, it was also about connections. In the stories we heard parallels to our father and our childhood. We heard stories of my grandparents we’d never heard before. Later we went to my aunt’s home, caught up with cousins and other relatives. Richer for this opportunity. Then another round of goodbyes – thankful for making the trip, thankful for being there. Regret for not having been there sooner.
We knew my uncle was sick but he had begun chemotherapy and there was every reason to hope that he would have another year, maybe more. The day after his first treatment, he woke up in the night thinking he had indigestion. An hour later he was gone – heart attack. I had been planning to visit this past week but cancer decreed otherwise. The last time I saw him was two years ago at my wedding.
When my father died several years ago, my sister and I didn’t get to say goodbye. He too had cancer. Slipped into a coma before we could make it home. Died when we left the hospital to get a couple of hours of rest. I don’t know what I would have said had I been able; I just know the pain of not having that chance.
Both my dad and my uncle were pilots; my dad during World War II, my uncle a career military man. The program for today’s service contained a well-known poem, ‘High Flight‘ by John McGee. My uncle read that poem at my dad’s funeral. A circle closed.
I’ve never been good with goodbyes. Many times at a party or reception I would simply slip away rather than endure goodbyes. If I got stuck, invariably my hugs were awkward. Never knew whether a kiss on the cheek was appropriate. When I braved it, I’d miss… kiss an ear or worse, a neck, followed by a blush and uncomfortable laughter. It was easier to leave quietly. But I knew I was missing something important.
With family it’s always been easier.
It was snowing when we left my aunt’s home and getting dark once again. A storm was building, visibility got worse, the road tricky with snow. Suddenly the traffic slowed to a crawl. Ahead, a lot of flashing lights. An accident. As we passed, we saw only a convoy of fire trucks, tow trucks and ambulances. Then we saw the car down the embankment, rolled onto its side, facing the wrong direction, crumpled. We noticed the coroner’s van. We noticed the ambulance wasn’t rushing from the scene. Today life for another family changed irrevocably.
It occurred to me then that we say goodbye even for the trip to the corner store because the moment someone walks away, we can’t know for certain if we’ll see them again. That little bit of ritual is our insurance… so that we won’t be left saying, “I never got to say goodbye.” So that the image of the person we love is fixed in our memory.
Today amidst the memories, there was a photo of my uncle, black and white, posed in his flight suit in front of a jet, white clouds behind him. My sister and I called it his ‘Top Gun” photo. When I woke this morning thinking about saying goodbye, there was a song playing on the radio – “You’re not going to be forgotten” by Dr. Draw, an “extreme” violinist. I’d like to think it was for you, dear uncle. And no, it doesn’t sound like Abba.
- High Flight
- Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
- And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
- Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
- of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
- You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
- High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
- I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
- My eager craft through footless halls of air….
- Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
- I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
- Where never lark or even eagle flew —
- And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
- The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.