I feel it everywhere. In my feet. My hands. My head.
I feel it in places I didn’t know existed in my body. My brain hurts. My breaths sting. My bones ache.
I watch another car pass outside the window.
A whole world going about the day. All the while, one is ending.
I once took a survey and was asked the question if I’d ever seen someone die. I thought, in the moment I answered, how happy I was to have never been witness to that. Watching the passing cars, that stupid survey flashed back in my head. That’s one box I’d rather have stayed unchecked for the rest of time.
“You know,” the man with glasses nervously cleared his throat, “letting someone go is the most selfless thing we can do for a loved one.”
Selfless. Mom taught me that as a little girl. I was good at selfless. I shared my dolls. I played nicely with others. I let my sister borrow clothes.
What I wasn’t good at, was letting my grandfather die right in front of my eyes.
No one ever told me this was the kind of lesson selfless would bring along with it. Being selfless means putting others before you. The true definition of selflessness though, is giving someone else exactly what they need when they can’t decide for themselves. It means letting your heart break and having to force it to let go. At some point in life, you realize more than ever about taking self out of the equation altogether. At some awful point in life, you realize being selfless means telling a doctor they can pull a plug. At that point, you’ll want to be selfish. Every fiber of your being will say to hold on. Your lips will quiver and your chin will shake and your nose will run as you fight yourself – as you choose for a person who no longer has a choice. As you speak for a person who no longer has a voice.
“It’s time.” The blue-pant-wearing man with the stethoscope around his neck will say.
You’ll never wish for more of it than in that moment.
To sit across from the wrinkling man at his favorite diner and get hit with one more spitball. To split one more chocolate chip pancake. To play one more hand in cards. To watch one more game, hear one more laugh or corny joke or football score. To see that blue Chevy Impala pull in the drive to pick you up again. To answer your phone just once more, to plan one more vacation and one more family dinner and request an extra bowl of popcorn at 99.
To just say, “I love you.” And hear him say it back.
The yellow walls of a waiting room will blur all around you. Deep breaths – you’ll gasp for them. The hand of your dad will grab onto your shoulder as he lifts his chin to the sky, biting his lower lip and closing his eyes as he fights back tears.
“It won’t be long now.” You wonder how many times the doc’s said this to other families. But even for him, you can tell it’s hard to be here.
For families that love hard, saying goodbye is the hardest. I think you learn a lot from death. To watch a family react in catastrophe – to handle the most critical news and manage the most chaotic moments. To witness how they comfort and care for one another. To cry into cousins’ chests and hug brothers’ necks and snot all over each other’s clothes. To just be there beside them in the quiet, packing out waiting rooms, leaning against walls and sprawling out on floors – all hanging on with the slightest hope to receive good news.
News that will never come.
Only news that leaves you clinging to the bedside of your sweet old grandfather. You’ll look into glossy brown eyes, no vision left. You’ll hold a swollen hand in yours, no grip left. You’ll hear a machine beep less and less, no fight left.
You’ll hold tighter to the bruised and swollen hand, the hand of a man you’ve loved your whole life, a man who welcomed you into the world on his birthday and was always the first to call every year to wish you the happiest. A man who watched you grow from clumsy toddler feet to the driver’s seat of his car. A man who cheered you on from sidelines and believed in you with his whole heart. A man who tried with everything he had to love you as best he could.
You’ll hold that hand, kiss his cheek and run your fingers through the grey hairs on his head. You’ll whisper, “you can let go now, Pepere,” hating the words as you speak them. For the last time, you’ll tell him, “I love you so much,” tears pouring onto stiff white hospital sheets. They’ll meet there soaking onto that bed falling from all the other sets of eyes in the room. You’ll hold each other up, rallying around the bed of the man who made this family, who loved these hearts, who would die knowing that his most favorite people were there with him to see him off from a journey they were honored to be part of.
Breaths will slow.
You’ll watch your dad lean over to shut the eyelids of his dad, closing them to the earth for the last time.
You’ll exit a hospital room, pass a desk full of nurses who don’t know what to say, walk down an ICU hallway and feel like you don’t know where you are. You’ll feel sunshine hit your face as you push through the hospital’s doors, time will feel void.
Months will pass. The pain will stay. It’ll stare you in the face. Stab you in the heart. Shock you in your worst places and shut you down in your best. It’ll hit you in the middle of a random workday. In the 7th season of your favorite TV show. On a sunny afternoon and a rainy morning. It’ll hit you while you’re sitting at your desk and driving in your car and lying in your bed. It’ll hit you in moments you don’t want it to hit you, and in every other minute, it’ll linger in the background.
Years from now, little eyes will look to me and ask their mommy how to say goodbye. How to make the hurt stop. How to let someone go. I won’t know the answer. I’ll have lived through many more and still, there will be no real answer. I don’t think we get to tell people what goodbye sounds like or looks like, because everyone feels it differently.
Goodbye for me has been a lot of games of Tetris. A lot of music on full blast. A lot of weeping into pillows and staring into ceilings. A lot of second glances at sunsets and talks with God. A few 6PM bedtimes and breakdowns in the middle of a workday.
You’ll get a text from your 14-year-old cousin. “My heart is broken,” she’ll say. “Mine too,” you’ll respond ‘cause you got nothing else. There are no words to make it better or advice to heal the parts that ache.
To never hear a voice, feel a hug, see a pair of eyes or share a laugh. To never get another call or another moment – it’s crippling. It digs a hole inside you that you know will never fill. Claws a cut you know will never heal. Tears a rip that can’t be mended and creates a broken that’s unrepairable.
It’ll bring you to moments when nothing makes sense, no place feels right and no person feels adequate. Sometimes you’re strong and won’t cry for a month, and some days you won’t even be able to catch your breath in the middle of the night. The only thing you can do is just wake up, open your eyes and take a new breath. One step, then another.
People say it gets easier as time goes on. I sure don’t believe that. I think you just get used to the different. Hear their faded laugh in a distant memory, recall their their goofy grin from a framed photo.
I don’t think time is what heals at all. I think hope offers the best remedy. Hope that we’ll be reunited with our loved ones one day. Hope in the promise of Heaven.
Because the real answer is that until we meet our Maker, we’ll never be able to know how great a goodbye truly is. That this life we’re living will be so much fuller on the other side. That the eternity that awaits is far greater and more beautiful than anything we can ever imagine. The real answer is that our mortal minds will never grasp goodbye the way it’s meant. That as we say goodbye on earth, Jesus is waiting to give a welcome in eternity.
And as I navigate through the rest of my life without my person, that’s the hope I will continue to cleave to, as challenging and heart breaking as it will continue to be.
Because while I might be terrible with goodbyes, I know there’s a Savior who’s great at hellos.