What is it, exactly, that makes this so hard?
I am 44 years old, married, two kids, and I boast a cholesterol level just high enough for me to feel both mature and appropriately worried. I traded in my station wagon this year for an extremely practical and and probably even less sexy Kia Rondo, complete with a third row of seats so there’s room now for my wife, my kids, their friends and my dog. I go to work fairly regularly, I often lose my keys, and I occasionally forget to turn the water off when the weather gets too cold.
Sometimes I remember to unload the dishes before I go to bed.
In short, I am a grown man (in both age and girth, I fear) and yet I really, really hate saying goodbye. The “farewells” of the holidays painfully accentuate the gaping divide between my idealized self and my true self.
My ideal self would wink and say “so-long.” This fantasy self would slowly walk away with easy confidence and at least the appearance of self-assured resolve. But the true self? Hell, it barely makes it out the front door.
Every December we brave airports and stomach bugs; we wrestle with the lethargy of days that shed all of their light well before supper. We embrace with open arms the necessary frenzy of visiting my parents, of staying in the house where I was reared, of watching my parents parent my children in that odd and strange circle of generational connection.
We complete the same ritual as millions of others, grown people sleeping as best they can in the rooms where they grew up, their kids tossing about on blow-up mattresses, wrapping paper scattered like ruins throughout the house, the inevitable barfing cat who tries, each year, to ingest the shiny ribbons that we forgot to stuff soundly into the recycling bin or the trash.
These visits, these ever-changing reconnections, are as memorable for what we experience as they are for the ghosts of what we leave behind. The fading electric guitar in my closet, the way the stairs creak differently now when I ascend them, the photo albums that always emerge a day or two before we leave. My parents move just a little more slowly. For goodness sakes, I myself bend just a little bit less whenever I get up too fast.
On and on it goes, one big circle it seems. You see your own kids in the reflection of your hanging prom photos, you thumb through your vinyl record collection, you notice with amusement and a wisp of sadness that the McDonalds where you hung out with your buddies is now a sushi establishment with valet parking.
A reservation number, fed to an on-line check-in site that is called up on a desktop computer. Boarding passes emerge from the printer, their bland and official barcodes daring me to challenge their inarguable gospel. We will, the next day, reverse the whole thing, leave one familiar realm and move to another, traipse back onto the highway, and find ourselves eventually on the sidewalk next to the big sliding doors at the airport from which we will soon depart.
Goodbye number four or five will attempt to take place, filled with heartfelt hugs and reminders of when the next visit will happen. (These dates have been confirmed over and over, calendars checked, smart phones made appropriately aware.) Backs are patted, cheeks kissed, and my youngest daughter is now old enough to cry that she is leaving and young enough that she doesn’t care who see’s her do it.
And I pace, bite my nails, contemplate frequent and clearly unnecessary trips to the bathroom.
So, this year, I tried something different. I tried thinking of Westerns.
Go watch The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Watch Silverado. Treat yourself to Jeff Bridges in True Grit. This time, though, while you sit there and revel in all the wide-open country, study, as well, the way they say “farewell”.
There’s a tip of the hat, a slight tug on the reigns, a look that starts square in the eyes of companions or family but then, almost like vapor, floats beyond that person to the space beyond. Hell, there’s no way to say it all, no way those cowboys can possibly get into words the sweet melancholy of shared experience, of passing time, of aging, of pride, of shared suffering. So, just barely, they nod their heads in recognition of the vastness of it all, and then before anyone else can so much as blink you’re staring at the back of a cowboy and the butt of a horse, evening settling in just over the horizon.
Maybe I could rent me a horse at the airport gate. I’m sure Homeland Security would understand the equine necessities of simple farewells. I’d nod at my parents, the bags tied to either side of my steed, my wife sittin’ all lady-like behind me and the kids gripping the horn of the saddle with forthright resolve.
Until I get me a horse, though, or maybe a Harley, I fear I am condemned to my neurosis. Goodbye, 2010. The plane is about to land.