Saying goodbye is difficult. Leaving can be excruciating. Throughout our lives, we face countless moments of what I call “small goodbyes”, moments when we cut a certain type of attachment, regardless of the slight sting, because we’re pretty sure we know the outcome will be better.
We leave home for college, college for a new job, a new job for a new child, etc. We say goodbye to that next episode in our Netflix binge so we can be alert the next day for those who rely on us. We say no to drinking full cans of sweetened condensed milk in order to not get diabetes today. Although, I realize that that might be a problem unique to me.
Then there are the pivotal moments, the ones we know we can’t come back from, even if we wanted and tried to. There are moments when we know that the next move, because of its gravity, is going to hurt us, to crush us one way or another. These are choices such as leaving a bad relationship, regardless of how deep you are in, or letting your adult child make the mistake that will alter their life’s course.
There is an art to that kind of leaving that I’m still woefully inept at.
I have always hated goodbyes. For as long as I can remember, I have laced almost every single goodbye with dramatic music in my head and some massive emotional significance, which I often convey by holding eye contact a bit too long for comfort.
My first sleepover was when I was ten years old. I spent the night at my friend Justin’s house, which was 8.8 miles away. I was excited and terrified. The excitement was because we were going to watch The Neverending Story; the terror was because, for all intents and purposes of a ten-year-old, it seemed like goodbye for good, like I might never return home. For all I knew, something could happen in the night and we’d never see each other again. Some bullies could come by and chase me into a book shop, where I’d be sucked into a book and, well, you get it (Falcor!!!). Needless to say, I called her at least ten times that night.
Because of this dramatic streak in me, I almost always make a point of remembering the last thing someone says to me before we part ways. For instance, when we moved away to China for two years, saying goodbye to my mum was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. I think we held our hug for about 35 minutes, drenched in tears, and I made sure that “I love you” was the last thing we said.
Goodbyes with my dad have always been a tad different. I only remember two, actually. On the day he moved out of the house after the divorce, he hugged me and told me he would always love me. That is a moment, one you remember, one that stays with you. The other was when I moved to the Caribbean for three years. He’s a roofer, so we had to meet early for breakfast at a local diner. Food was good, conversation was good, the sun was shining. As we walked out to our cars, he handed me a multi-tool he’d gotten me, which I’ve used almost every day since. Then, we got in our cars and did the Minnesota goodbye, where you each roll down your window and say one last thing. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “I love you, bud.”
And I thought, “There it is. Perfect. Now if he dies while I’m gone, then at the funeral, I can get up and say his last words were of love (silly, morbid Nic). However, true to dad form, he put the car in drive and yelled, “Today’s gonna SUCK!!!” Then he tore out of the parking lot. That’s my dad. Totally ruined the goodbye. Doesn’t he know I’m trying to manufacture memories and scenarios proactively?!?
Point being, I most often try to make the act of leaving hurt as little as possible, mostly because I’m still terrified of it. I try to keep track of last words and glimpses so that I can put myself already way into the future, where things don’t hurt like they do in the present. Otherwise, to be honest, I’d probably never let go of anything in my life.
However, that is not a full life, not a life lived to its greatest and grandest. I’m finding that real life billows and cascades out of the sting and burn and crack of leaving if we let it, if we truly say goodbye to the things we must leave behind. From the cans of Carnation to the Crucifixion, the whole spectrum, the goal is for us to glimpse the glory and goodness that lies farther along, the future that waits past cleaving our present in two.
Perhaps your cascade of severance will rival that of Mother Teresa, whose decision to leave her life and home at the age of 18 opened the doors to an endless parade of chances to leave her current life for one of more comfort. Most of us know multiple stories of her constant, unwavering commitment to God, even in the face of decades of loneliness. Her witness was, for my wife, a foundation, an encouragement, and an impetus in her path to becoming a doctor and a missionary.
Maybe you’ll be like her. Maybe you’ll learn, as the Saints did, that goodbyes can get easier, in the same way that tearing off a band-aid gets easier. There’s always pain, but you know what it’s like now. Perhaps your life will, when it’s all doled out, amount to a prolific library of witness, for the world to see and follow. Essentially, you may get really good at leaving.
Or, perhaps you will encounter one stark moment, with no guarantee of what the other side will be like. Perhaps your moment of decision will look like the terrifying and confusing choice that another Teresa faced.
Teresa is the birth mom of our three adopted miracles.
Teresa faced daily use, neglect, and disregard by many of the people, and much of the culture, around her. Teresa was struggling along in the best way she knew how, given what she knew of life and real love, or the lack thereof. She knew she couldn’t do justice, or even do the bare minimum, to the beautiful children God had given her, but she didn’t know what to do in the face of that realization. She had resigned herself to acting like the failure people said she was and the object that men had forced her to pretend to be. Teresa would break down into tears when told that she was good and lovable and loved.
Then opportunity presented itself. The opportunity to give of herself, to rise above the weakness, to purposefully choose heartbreaking pain for herself, for the good of her children.
Into her life came The Davidsons, an angel and an idiot. Into her fractured and confusing life of limited sustenance and overwhelming odds came a random couple who had said they’d help if she ever felt open to it. Suddenly in front of her stood a way out. Not a way out of responsibility for her, but a way out of unavoidable neglect and need for her children. And, faced with the choice of letting things stay the way they were or leaving that burdened life of struggle behind, this mother, Teresa, chose the way of severance and pain.
Fittingly, there were no memorable last words as we parted ways. I am sure Teresa was afraid, as was I. I didn’t know how things would work out any more than she did. But there was a giddiness in the prospect of hope. Now, when I tuck these little psychos in every night, I look into their eyes and see the grandeur of potential that she must have glimpsed, however thickly it was veiled by hunger and stress. I am sometimes bowled over by how much her one act of leaving has changed our lives forever. I’m glad I wasn’t too much of a wimp to leave free time and financial stability behind and I’m inexpressibly grateful for Teresa’s sacrifice.
In the end, my point is that it’s not for us to determine our life’s circumstances. It is for us to determine what we’ll do when we encounter them. It is also not for us to determine the outcome of our choices. We cannot make circumstances turn out in a specific, pre-determined resolution of our preference. We can, however, know that when these decisions greet us, we can cut every tie, every umbilical, every grasp, and offer ourselves to the equation, regardless of the pain.
You may be the next Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Saint and inspiration on all fronts. Or, you might currently be the mother, Teresa, scared and confused on all fronts. Either way, begin your practice of the art of leaving now, in the present, while you still have the chance.
If you pray, when you pray, pray for Teresa.
St. Teresa, pray for us.