I’ve made a lot of goodbyes in my relatively brief lifetime. Long ones, short ones; temporary ones, permanent ones. Some I saw coming for years, and others appeared out of nowhere, bumps in an unexpected turn in the road.
And I’m facing another one.
I hate goodbyes—the messy emotions, the awkward eye contact, the lingering guilt of being excited to leave while I’m folded in one last hug. I’ve avoided them, skipped out on them, brushed past them. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to do them properly.
But what makes a proper goodbye?
I’ve heard formulas and read advice—mostly checklists of things you ought to do and say and feel, places you should go, people you must see one last time.
I hate seeing an inherently emotional experience laid out like a to-do list. Goodbyes are deeply personal, painfully beautiful moments in which we pass from one world to another. They are, to me at least, too mystical for the mundanity of mnemonic reminders and check boxes.
It’s not about a formula; I think it’s about balance.
See, I’ve tried wallowing in the impending loss, and I’ve tried waltzing away without looking over my shoulder. Neither leads to satisfying transition. So I’m striving for balance, for an intentional halfway between disregarding my present and fearing my future.
I’m preparing to arrive in Kigali while preparing to leave Arizona, nurturing the anticipating and tending the grief simultaneously. I walk a fine line, noticing all the lasts while envisioning all the firsts.
I wonder if I’ll have a new pet as my dog licks my fingers, and at the moment I envision some vague, furry shape in my future, I realise my absence will be an eternity for this solid furry shape in my present.
I buy seeds to plant my favourite herbs and vegetables in my future garden, and I know I will not see the first flowers and fruits of the baby trees growing now in my present garden.
I hope my unknown host family will like me even while I’m exchanging bad puns and sarcastic banter with the family I’ve always known.
Every day, every moment, I am beginning goodbyes.
Goodbye to my books as I stack them in bins for storage. Goodbye to short shorts as I pack for a more conservative culture. Goodbye to soul-baking desert heat as I look forward to a milder climate.
Goodbye to the sunflowers we picked along the highway and planted in the backyard, and goodbye to the overgrown tomato vine that supplies my breakfast so often. Goodbye to morning cuddles when my mother flops on top of me to wake me up, and goodbye to evening scuffles when my brother tries to correct my faulty karate form.
It’s goodbye to more than that, though. It’s goodbye to effortless communication and innate cultural understanding, to time-proved friendships and subconscious patterns enforced by years of interaction. It’s goodbye to knowing how I fit into the social structure.
It’s goodbye to everything familiar.
Every day, every moment, I am beginning to grieve, to see the world through the lens of an upcoming ending.
Every hug, every wave, every “see you later” might be the last. Every flash of light against familiar walls and rooftops is the sun setting on this part of my life. Every drop of rain as the monsoon season finally wrings itself out is time washing away what I know.
Saying goodbye properly, I think, is not a matter of right or wrong, of checking every correct action off a list before you step onto a plane and into your future. Goodbye isn’t a ritual of words and hugs, a cliché of tears and tissues.
Goodbye is a perspective.
It’s noticing the moments passing and embracing them while you can. It’s acknowledging the apprehension and excitement tangled up inside you as you consider your future and knowing they are both valid, natural, healthy. It’s slowing down for the view you may never see again and still speeding up for the one you’ve never seen before.
It’s knowing that the road always curves, that goodbye is inevitable, and that, whether or not you ever loop back to this stretch, the road beyond the bend holds adventures, joys, sorrows—life.