I’ve noticed that as I grow older, as I continue to push myself to embark on challenging journeys like living in Colombia, my mind instinctively works to not let things bother me so much. For example, in the past when I’d lose something—an unfortunate pattern of mine—I would fall to pieces; feel painstakingly ashamed and disappointed in myself. Now, when I lose things, I still feel disappointed, but I calmly think, “What’s done is done.” Getting overly upset doesn’t change the situation. This reaction is helpful, in a sense, but sometimes I feel that this instinctual composure has become too much of a reflex; that tuning in to my feelings is like trying to kick in a door that stands directly before a brick wall.
I can’t remember ever having been particularly good at goodbyes. What makes someone “good at” goodbyes is probably fairly subjective, but to me it involves understanding what a given situation means, what realities are implied. Even if you’re the type who sobs at the airport, blubbering all over your boarding pass, this is still a form of an appropriate response. It means you get it.
It has been two years since I’ve seen the leaves turn in autumn. The red and gold leaves dazzle and distract from the coming cold, but they can only hold on to their branches for so long. Family trees know seasons, too. Still, knowing that these facts of nature exist and experiencing them are two different beasts. Death, like winter, is evitable, but since leaving the states I have been able to keep my distance from both of them.
I’ve known for about a year of my grandfather’s declining health, from being diagnosed with lung cancer to the chemo to the pneumonia, but it never really sank in. Though his condition was getting worse, his memory remained intact; he continued to tell stories and even to this day, at 88, he continues to send texts—in my case, an e-mail— from his smartphone every Friday night to wish his children, in-laws and grandchildren a “Shabbat Shalom.” Two months earlier when I had visited the US, he was using a cane but, in general, doing fine. Since then, I’ve received messages from my parents that his condition has been worsening, which, from afar, seemed both abstract and unreal. A few weeks ago my parents told me through the Skype call on my computer that he was being returned to his home from the hospital to be “made comfortable,” and that he was preparing to “check out.” I was given the choice to fly back in the next week or so or to come in for his funeral. I told them I’d find a way to get off work for a few days and my dad (very generously) bought me a ticket to fly in on the 9th. Between the time my dad got me a ticket and my arriving to O’Hare airport, I still hadn’t done much processing of the situation. Being given the opportunity to say goodbye to someone before they die is an incredible blessing but also confusing, especially for someone who isn’t very good at registering the weight of parting in the moment that it takes place.
Part of the incentive to move abroad was to separate myself from distractions and focus on what I want to do with my life. I felt like in the year since graduating from the university I hadn’t accomplished as much as I had hoped and that drastic measures had to be taken to not get stuck. Honestly, in many ways the move can be boiled down to a selfish act as means of pursuing more selfish endeavors. I am essentially responsible to no one. Still, prompted by no one/nothing but my “Jewish Guilt,” I often experience recurrent feelings of remorse, tell myself that if I must make my family and friends miss me that I should, at least, be making something of myself; making the distance worth it. This past June when I last said goodbye to my grandmother, the wife of the aforementioned grandfather, she began to cry into a tissue retrieved from the sleeve of her periwinkle sweater, “Why do you have to be so far away? When am I going to see you again?” Granted, in these days she could cry even if the butcher called—her words, not mine—but, realistically, her response made sense. At my grandparents’ age, time is not infinite. For the past few months, my family has been taking frequent shifts to care for or visit them. Not only do I feel as if I am missing out on spending time with them but that I am skirting a responsibility to care for two people who have done nothing but show kindness and give unconditional love for their family their entire lives. I wanted to move forward while everything back home stayed exactly as it was, like a Netflix account I could deactivate and reactivate at any given time, finding my preferences saved and waiting for me.
Last week, when my mom and I pulled into my grandparents’ driveway, I sat in the passenger seat for a moment, buckled in, looking up through the windshield at the amber leaves dangling like young legs from the seat of a swing; the former inertia of up up and away nearing complete stillness. I didn’t know what to expect inside.
My grandparents bought this special bed that is divided into two parts, each side with the ability to incline and decline by remote control. Papa Art, as he is referred to, is permanently in this bed now. A long, plastic, oxygen tube winds under his nose. Every hour, for a short period of time, he uses an oxygen mask to provide additional support. My mom and I went to visit him every day and each time the house seemed to be a revolving door of visitors. Some days he would talk a little and some days barely at all. Coming from a man who always had a response or a story for everything, this silence, this shortness of breath, was more difficult to witness than even the mask. Not wanting to tire him, I mostly just chatted about everything I could think of and took naps next to him.
At one moment I asked him if he thought he had any “unfinished business;” anything he wish he had done different. (Clearly, my experience with death has been educated by the movie, Casper.) He responded no, that he lived a good life, surrounded by family. By all intents and purposes, he did everything right: he loved his job, he married a woman who makes him happy, he traveled the world, went to glamorous parties, has a beautiful family who he has treated like treasure, gave back to the community, and brought laughter to friends and strangers alike. A few weeks ago he had my mom go into his phone and tell all of his contacts how grateful he was to have them as friends. Up until the last moments, he has been doing everything right.
When it was finally time to say goodbye, I hugged Papa Art and told him I loved him. We each made the I Love You sign language hand gesture and touched our pointer finger and pinky finger to that of the other person— our special handshake. He said he loved me and he wished me a safe trip. I looked at him for the last time, studying his face, trying to stamp the image of it into my memory the best I could… And then that was it.
On the car ride away from their house, it rained so hard that I knew even if I were to stay, the leaves on the trees would all be gone soon. When we arrived back to my parent’s house, a place of so many memories of adolescent vulnerability, I finally cried. And I remembered why I had put up that wall in the first place.
I’m still trying to figure out the implications of living where I do. What does it mean to live far away from the people I love? What does it mean to not live in a climate with seasons? What constitutes “growth?” Without springtime, it’s easy to forget that in order to begin anew, everything, in its own way, must let go.