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THE LAST GOODBYE
Do you ever think about the last words, that final utterance you will offer to someone? I consider them a lot, too much really. We’ve all heard the phrase, never go to bed angry. But what about those times when loved ones are yanked away unexpectedly from accidents, human evil-doings, or natural disasters? Those awful goodbyes are happening as we connect through word and voice right now, in this very moment, the world over.
And what about those yanking-aways that are well planned and expected? Those goodbyes sear the soul with their own special flavor of torture, containing their own sauce of should-haves and could-haves. These, too, are happening right now in this very moment, the world over.
I imagine in those awful expected goodbyes, silence speaks the most clearly, communicating the essence of truth that swim in our hearts. For it is in silence we can most easily hear those whispers of compassion’s call.
It is not just misery to be separated from those we love, it can be extremely frightening, putting into question our sense of safety and belonging. Yet in these experiences, if we discover how to not resist what I call, temporary separation, we can siphon out our greatest capacity to engage compassion. I write this because it is often in times of searing pain that we are forced to discover who we truly are beneath our hopes and fears. And discoveries born in these soils have the power to point our compasses to our true north, guiding us to unveil our true nature.
The story I’m about to read was inspired by my husband’s great-grandmother. As a young woman, she boarded a ship from Germany to America and waved goodbye to her parents. She was to never see them again.
As I am going to end this publication with the story, I offer you my gratitude now for being here. May your mind and heart hear the whispers of compassion between every breath.
The Last Goodbye
Her shoes click-clacked on the cobblestones, and with each click, I hated those shoes more because they conspired to usher her away. I cast my eyes down to watch her tender, determined gait, worrying about her ankle turning. Soon I wouldn’t be able to assist her any longer if she hurt herself. Those tiny ankles, so delicate and strong, used to carry her in explosive bounds, full of excitement, down the wooden stairs, desperate to show us her new drawing. With those sparkling amber-brown eyes, she was always insistent that we were to exclaim her as the best artist in the village, which we did. We always meant it. My wife and I never lied to our daughter.
Now, she would draw on the leather-bound notebook I crafted for her with an etching of the giant oak tree in front of our home. She used to climb the old oak as a child and later daydreamed of love under its canopy when she realized herself as a young woman. It was those daydreams that led her to him, and because of that, I nearly didn’t etch the tree. But she loved that tree and him, so I did because she had my heart. I denied her nothing. She had a loving spirit as boundless as a blue sky and never asked for much more than our love and paper to draw on, so because of her nature she was not spoiled.
My wife clung to me in horrified silence as all four of us trod in unison our last steps together. My boots still bore the sawdust from the wooden chairs the burgermeister commissioned for his sister and her family. I was known for my craft, and men with title always came to me, desiring fine furniture for their homes. I wondered if his sister was here, too, and if those chairs brought happiness or misery for what they represented—a goodbye.
Through the slats of morning sun, I saw the burgermeister walking up the plank with a courage only the wealthy own. I kept the sighting to myself, for if I told my wife, a scene would arise, and I didn’t believe I could withstand that storm.
White feathery streaks swooped over head with a call forever tied to that day. Their shrieks echoed my soul, though they screeched for remnants of fish guts cast aside by ship hands and not broken hearts. Their calls and the wafts of rotting fish burned me from the roots of my feet to the center of my chest so never could I walk close to the docks for the rest of my days unless circumstances beyond my control forced themselves upon me.
“It’s time,” he said.
I held out my hand to him in reluctant acceptance.
He didn’t take it, instead pulling me into his young, capable arms in a hug that I well knew was remorse for taking her. His acrid sweat told of stress, not unlike my own in that moment. We both carried the weight of loving and protecting such a one as my only daughter. I didn’t say a word, didn’t want her to be made aware of my fear, or his. At least I could do that small amount.
“I will take care of her. She is my entire life,” he choked out.
Try as I might, there was no air to bring forth words. My heart was shattering, and it was closing off my throat.
My dear wife gasped, her shattering rising to the surface, too. I prayed like I’d never prayed before that God would stand her up in stoicism until they were gone. If she waited until then to break, I could accept that.
My daughter’s feet stilled, and with the etched notebook still tucked under her gentle arm, she put down her suitcase and fell into my arms, burying herself into my chest. I clung on to her with a ferocity of primal agony, memorizing her scent of lavender and moonlight and the way her voice lilted with every third word. I memorized the exact color of her blonde hair that glinted silver when the sun struck it. I drank her heartbeat into my own, telling myself time and distance existed only in the human realm. And in the end, when we leave our flesh behind, she would be in my embrace once again.
My wife and I waved until our arms lost all sensation. We were surrounded by hundreds of others left behind as they, too, died a death where the body still breathes and moves. The seekers and the ones they left behind waved frantically to each other, like branches in a gale, us all about to snap under the force of emotion. My child’s slim arm waving was the most beautiful of all, but her age did not yet grasp time and what this moment held. I was glad about that. She was spared the agony as she stood on the top deck in the middle of the ship, which loomed above like a monolith straight from hell. It cast a giant shadow to cover us—the ones standing on solid ground, bound to die where we breathed our first breath.
With ungodly moans and creaks, the ship began to slip away. It glided the surface, slowly extricating my soul from my body, neither having a home to each other any longer. My wife’s soul was drifting away, too. I felt it happen as we stood shoulder to shoulder, our silence carrying a singular thought better not uttered. But I kept on waving for my beloved girl, as did my wife, who balanced precariously on the balls of her shoes, stretching her arm up as high as possible to make certain her dear daughter saw the eternal love of a mother. I kept sturdy for both of them, yet I was terrified this loss would leave me a monster.
As my arm trembled in its reach and the uncut strands of my hair whipped in the sea’s breeze, I fell into unbearable remorse that this day never would have been if she hadn’t had met him. If only the burgermeister’s son had never delivered the order two years ago. If only America wasn’t calling his name. If only she didn’t belong to him. But they did belong to each other. And we were as poor as one can get without being city rats living on the streets, eating remnants of food flung out of restaurant back doors. We were never going to the promised land of freedom, and they were never returning to the homeland. These were truths as certain as the dance between the sun and the moon.
The last image I saw of my Lina was the silver glint of her hair caught in the strengthening morning light of a sunbeam. It was then my chest gripped with a fresh fear I hadn’t predicted. Did I say the perfect words to her, so she would know the depth of my love? And would she remember?