Simple Life

Saying Goodbye, for Now

By Jim Dodson

Reprinted with permission by PineStraw Magazine.

When I was young, the only thing harder than the coming of Christmas was saying goodbye to it.

After weeks of anticipation and suspense, savoring the agonizing build-up to the big morning and everything that went with it — food, carols, festive lights, crowded stores, nights that held the prospect of snow — everything seemed to wind up in the twinkling of an ancient elfin eye, literally overnight.

Suddenly, Christmas magic was over: There were no presents left to unwrap, a fine dinner was reduced to tin-foiled leftovers in the fridge, favorite cousins were heading home, leaving behind a kind of postpartum lethargy that carried through the week to New Year’s, a finale that felt anticlimactic compared to the assorted glories of Christmas. As the ball was dropping on New Year’s Eve, it was the rare first night when I was even awake.

My parents, of course, were probably to blame for this phenomenon, for I was merely the product of their own unbounded enthusiasm for everything about the Christmas season.

Beginning with Thanksgiving, my mom became a baking fool and commenced decorating the house at the crack of the first December dawn. My dad, meanwhile, spent hours untangling and repairing strings of outdoor Christmas lights and lived for our annual trip down to the abandoned family home place deep in the woods near Hillsborough to shoot mistletoe out of the towering oaks that grew there. Our December trek to Ashe County to cut a live Christmas tree was a given, as was his Christmas office party, a lively afternoon affair conducted in the spirit of Dickens’ Fezziwig, a man whose love of commerce was only topped by his personal generosity to the people around him. In its own way, our mom’s annual open house before church service on Christmas Eve — the finale of her cooking and baking season — was equally festive, and something friends and neighbors counted upon every year to seal their own holiday spirit in a nimbus of love.

It was the goodbye part that always got to me.

The most exciting time of year — something I waited eagerly for eleven months of the year, a small eternity to a 10-year-old — seemed to suddenly arrive and disappear like the Christmas goose on the Cratchit family table.

To compound matters, in our neighborhood, several folks actually took down their Christmas trees the day after Christmas and hustled them out to the curb for collection like a disreputable uncle who’d overstayed his welcome.

I remember once taking a spin on a new Christmas bike and being startled to discover several of these sadly discarded Christmas trees, stripped bare save for a few straggling pieces of tinsel, discarded symbols of the season awaiting the coming of the trash man. To this day, that sight always saddens me.

Looking back, though I didn’t begin to comprehend it at the time, I learned a valuable life lesson from the slow coming and quick going of such happy Christmas seasons, this seductive blending of Christian tradition and Father Christmas — namely, that saying goodbye to people and things you love is, indeed, all about the wise use of time and simply one of life’s bittersweet inevitabilities, a fact of life that varies only by degrees of intensity and one’s own perception of what’s really important.

In the spirit of Old Fezziwig, human generosity never goes out of season.

Leavetaking of one kind or another happens every day in our lives, so commonplace and cordial it’s easy not to notice because such moments are so tightly woven into the fabric of the ordinary.

The perfect evening ends. Guests say goodnight. You kiss your spouse goodbye in the morning without a passing concern about the day ahead. We operate on an unseen principle that goodbye is never really goodbye — just a temporary parting.

And yet, in ancient times, given the brevity of ordinary life, goodbye really meant something. Roads were perilous and dangers rampant. The word “goodbye” was simply shorthand for “God be with you,” an acknowledgement of life’s fragile impermanence. By the same token, the word “farewell” comes from middle English and meant quite literally “fare thee well” on your onward journey, wherever it leads you and whatever rises up to meet you. Fare thee well on the road of this uncertain life.

Daily rituals aside, sometimes the act of saying goodbye does penetrate to the heart muscle and strikes a deeper chord, causing us to pause and think, the throat to constrict, the eyes to burn.

It happens unexpectedly when your child goes off to college or your favorite neighbors move. The job changes. Your daughter gets married. Illness comes. The dog must be put down.

The effect of these goodbyes can alter your perception of everything.

Following the death of his dog, the poet Pablo Neruda had nothing shy of a spiritual awakening. “I, the materialist,” he wrote, “who never believed in any promised heaven in the sky for any human being, I believe in a heaven I’ll never enter. Yes, I believe in a heaven for all dogdom where my dog waits for my arrival waving his fan-like tail in friendship.”

Death — believed to be the ultimate leavetaking by some, a mere hidden doorway to the onward adventure by others — makes everyone a believer in something, if only the value of a saying a heartfelt goodbye, for now.

Twenty years ago, though it was quite painful at the time, the smartest thing I ever did was leave my own young family behind to come home to be my old man’s caretaker as he was slipping the bonds of this world. With the help of a kindly hospice worker, I sat with him in my boyhood bedroom and tended his daily needs, talking about things both inconsequential and profound, just being with Mr. Fezziwig through the last hours of his life.

The night before he died, he politely asked me to help him into bed with my mother just down the hall. I remember how my eyes stung at the sound of them talking quietly beneath the quilt like the old lovers they were. They were saying goodbye. He passed serenely the next night, a goodbye that enriched my life immeasurably.

Five years later, I was sitting with my mother at her favorite restaurant on the water near our house in Maine where she suddenly admitted how powerfully she missed my father — and life in North Carolina. When I apologized for moving her to the nice assisted care residence near our house, she simply smiled, patted my hand and sipped her wine. “Don’t worry, sugar. That’s just life. I’ll see your father soon.”

Less than a week later, she suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. When I took my children to see their grandmother, she was lying in bed smiling at them. They kissed her and she seemed — crazy, I know — almost radiantly happy. I came back to sit with her that night and we held hands and talked of the smallest sorts of things — her love of peonies, her growing grandchildren and the pride she felt in all of us. Nothing was left unsaid.

She passed away peacefully the next morning.

Not too long afterward came another passing.

We — well, I — said a painful goodbye to the rugged post-and-beam house I built with my own hands on a forested hilltop, the place where my own children were born and where I grew an ambitious garden in the woods.

Handing over the keys to a couple from Massachusetts who had matching Doberman Pinschers was a moment that bruised my heart more than I care to admit. The house was my so-called “dream house,” the place I’d fully planned to spend the rest of my days digging in the garden and watching the seasons pass until some thoughtful person spread my ashes among the giant hosta plants and daylilies of my Redneck Philosopher’s Garden.

But dreams have a funny way of changing shape. Instead of forever, one bright sunny May afternoon I bid the place a reluctant “fare thee well” with a lump the size of a tulip bulb in my throat, choosing to take writer Beryl Markham’s good advice on such moments:

“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.”

I closed the door and didn’t look back. I’ve never been back. Though that house still shows up in my dreams from time to time.

“To live in this world,” echoes the poet Mary Oliver, “you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

Good advice for saying goodbye, I’ve learned, to anything you love from an old dog to a favorite holiday.

A decade ago we moved home to North Carolina and brought a beloved holiday ritual that started in that house on a snowy hilltop more than twenty-five years ago.

Our annual winter solstice party invites friends and neighbors to come share great homemade soup and my bride’s amazing desserts on the longest night of the year, illuminating the darkness with bawdy skits, Medieval songs, favorite poems, magic tricks — whatever moves the spirit — providing much laughter and Fezziwigian fellowship in a world that is forever passing away, an ancient celebration of our own fragile impermanence.

For our ever-widening circle of friends and family, it must be said, the winter solstice has become a valuable part of the Christmas season, the perfect prelude to the day that always came so slowly and passed too quickly.

When all the gifts are opened and the house has fallen quiet late on Christmas Day, I confess, I will stir the fire and pour myself a glass of good aged port and drink a little toast to all that’s passed through my life, still feeling a touch of the old sadness at saying goodbye — for now — to people and things I’ve loved, a bittersweet hollowness that is only filled by the hope that things don’t really end, that goodbye is really just another kind of beginning.

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