“All these places had their moments,~John Lennon
with lovers and friends I still can recall,
some are dead and some are living,
in my life I’ve loved them all,
In life, there is something deeply important about saying “goodbye.” It’s not the casual goodbye I’m referring to, but the goodbye said with a sincere appreciation for having shared time together. After having lived an appreciably long life thus far, I’ve learned that as much as we assume that people will always be with us, the reality is that our lives are full of moments which turn out to be the last time we are in connection with another person. Sometimes that ending comes from people passing. Other times it’s simply that the myriad vector forces of our lives lead each of us along such unique individual paths that they fail to again intersect. I find that a life lived with recognition of that potentiality becomes a far more satisfying, deeper, more spiritual life, filled with gratitude and appreciation.
While driving from my home toward the San Francisco Bay Area recently, I spontaneously started saying “goodbye” to all the people who have populated my life in the 17 years that I’ve lived in the beautiful coastal community I’ve chosen to call home. Every minor click of the odometer inspired reminders of friends and events, neighbors and beach walks, musical bonfires and tennis friends, poker buddies and kids from my years of high school tennis coaching, meditation groups and potlucks, hikes to the waterfall and hot tub soaks gazing at stars. With each recollection, I’d say “goodbye” followed by a person’s name. Starting in my neighborhood and continuing through town, name after name arose each paired with its own goodbye. After so many years in a community, I’m not sure why it surprised me to recognize the vast network of human connections that have woven their way into my life. I’m not necessarily moving away, but somehow saying goodbye as I headed toward some extended time overseas just seemed right. Over the 28 miles along Highway 1, crossing three different rivers to where my route turned inland along a fourth, I barely found pause in saying “goodbye” to my coastal people who I’ve had the privilege to come to know. Name after name, person after person, mile after mile, goodbye after goodbye.
Continuing southeast on Hwy 128 with the Pacific coast now in my rearview mirror, the goodbyes continued to accrue. Now they were in acknowledgment of former schoolmates and teachers in my life starting with a boy named David who sat next to me on the bus on my first day of pre-school, consoling my tears with a kind “it’ll be alright,” to Miss Irene, my teacher at that Puss ‘n Boots nursery school. Goodbyes ensued to my first elementary school crush Millie Helper, my 2nd grade neighbor friend Patricia Harrington with whom I played what we called the “show butt game” (yah it’s pretty much as innocent as it sounds), Vera Jovanovic, Vito Greco, Anton Scholl, Leslie Antkowiac. My friends in those early Chicago days covered a broad spectrum of my pan-European neighborhood. On I continued through my many years of suburban elementary schooling and high school, remembering and bidding goodbye to favored teachers and myriad friends, several of whom remain close to this day. And yes, let’s not forget my first girlfriend Ellen and the barrage of hormones that she inspired. Goodbye even to my babysitters Mrs. Levang and the one named Agnes (shortly to quit) who my brother literally tied to a chair and then went out to play. Each goodbye became an acknowledgment of appreciation for all of my life’s formative connections.
I continued onward, recollecting and goodbyeing my way through undergraduate college, jobs, my cross-country move to Berkeley for grad school, remembering so many people who have filled my life with laughs, reflections, love, and life lessons. I discovered in the process that there hasn’t been a relational connection that hasn’t had an impact on who I’ve become. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s obvious. But all our connections matter and are worthy of acknowledgment.
As I drove and thanked on, I figured by the time I hit Highway 101, about an hour and 50 minutes from my home, that I’d have exhausted my goodbyes, but such wasn’t the case. And so they continued: goodbyes to co-workers, employees and clients through my varied professional lives, friends and their families, my own family members, girlfriends and lovers, co-inner explorers from my spiritual and men’s groups, key friends of my parents, people from my gospel choir church days in San Francisco, children and staff from the orphanage in Nepal, on and on, on and on.
My own personal trail of goodbyes led through various states of traffic for nearly four hours until I arrived for a visit at my sister Loretta’s apartment in Oakland. We had met many years prior in a hospital where a clan of loved ones kept a collective vigil of goodbye for my dear friend, her brother Rosevelt, shortly to pass from AIDS. I was “adopted” by Rosevelt’s family after that time and ended up with another “momma,” five sisters and a brother, an aunt, cousin and more, several to whom we’ve since sadly had to say our final goodbyes. So many goodbyes in life.
Before undertaking this drive, I honestly never quite realized the extent of the many meaningful human connections I have had in my life. I also came to realize that in life, all that really matters are the connections we have, how present we have been, and how well we’ve loved. As I wrote in a personal obituary for my friend Michael after he had passed, “Life can be full of so many wonderful things and places and experiences, but in the end, it’s always the connections we cultivate that matter the most.” Even the people we may have found challenging at times can occupy a sacred place when viewed as an important part of the entirety of our lives. To reject any part of our lives would in effect be to reject the whole. We may emulate the positive attributes of some, but even goodbyes said toward those with whom we have found difficulty are imbued with appreciation for the growth they may have inspired and the depth of flavor they may have added to our lives. If we are attentive along the way, they perhaps teach us important life lessons regarding patience, generosity, forgiveness and unconditional love.
I’m not entirely certain why this practice emerged seemingly out of nowhere. The most likely piece is as I’m approaching 60, I have been processing that milestone on untold subterranean levels. With that crossing comes the responsibility of consciously choosing the life I wish to have moving forward and the kind of person I wish to be. This saying “goodbye” exercise is reflective of a recognition of how important it is to say goodbye to our past in order to make room for an ever changing future. Saying goodbye is also a way of saying thank you, thank you to all who have informed the creation of who we are today.
I try to say my in-person goodbyes while in my mind holding the possibility that it indeed may be a final goodbye. The truth of course is that we never know. This is perhaps the strongest spiritual practice of my life. It reels in the preciousness of the moment and infuses it with an appreciation. The other person of course doesn’t have to know, but perhaps they’ll catch a subtle bow in my goodbye. If you ever catch me doing that as we are parting, you can bet that I am sincerely appreciating the time we’ve had together in this lifetime.
Ultimately, this exercise of “goodbye” serves as a path of practicing for that eventual day where we’ll all have our final letting go, a culmination to the accelerating parade of final goodbyes for everyone that we’ve ever come to know and love. Saying goodbye is the price we pay for the joys and wonders that come from every meaningful connection we have in life. But is it really a price to pay? Or is it a gift? If we pay close attention, we can find that goodbyes, while they may seem challenging at times, are unequivocally infused with appreciation and thankfulness. Like rolling a boulder from the middle of the road, saying our goodbyes, even when uttered silently as we drive or sit quietly during meditation or prayer, can clear the way for new life chapters yet to be imagined.