Thursday, September 6, 2007

The long goodbye

The act of saying goodbye, or despedida, has been constantly present in my life. As the child of divorced parents who lived thousands of miles apart, I spent my childhood saying goodbye to one in order to be able to greet the other. I lived with my mother, and when the moment came to get on a plane to see my father, I knew I'd miss her. And I did indeed miss her, but I was also happy to see my dad. When it came time to go back home, leaving someone whom I managed to see only for a few days a year, I dealt with the conflicting emotions of being sad to leave one and happy to see the other.

Given this childhood game of Pong, it would have been natural to not want to experience despedidas again as long as I could help it. But even through this I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to travel -- and not just travel, but live in different places. Spending a week somewhere just didn't seem like enough to me; how would I know how life really was in other places if I didn't commit to the experience and see a city through the eyes of someone who lives through the good, the bad, and the ugly of a place? So when I went to college, I went off to New York.

By then I also had a younger sister who was young enough to have a hard time understanding these comings and goings. Goodbyes at this stage were no longer bittersweet, but heartwrenching affairs with tears and assurances that we would see each other again soon. Which we did -- it's not like New York is a world away -- but extended absences were nonetheless difficult.

By the time I graduated from college, I was fairly certain that I'd be making my life in the US. Then I got happy feet, and decided I wanted to leave New York. Rather than choosing another East Coast city, which would be as close to PR as I could get within the US, I headed off to the West Coast. In other words, a longer flight and much more expensive plane ticket away.

It's not that I was making these decisions on a whim. Well, to be honest, it's a lot easier to be nomadic when you're still relatively responsibilty-free, and the world has yet to put the fear of God in you. But I had at least some actual reasons other than wanderlust: having been accepted to a great school, the knowledge that my job prospects back home were not the same as in the mainland, a general feeling that being on my own was starting to become integral to who I was becoming. I say "general feeling" on that last one because I certainly wasn't thinking in those terms when I was 22 years old, but I had that idea knocking around inside my brain and driving my choices.

I moved to Florida in 2004 as a way to get back to that middle ground I had in NY, where I was still on my own but close to home. I said goodbye to a town I loved in order to try to recapture something I had in the past, and probably took for granted. When that didn't work out, saying goodbye to that hope was a blow, but I was also looking forward to coming back to Portland; there I had a settled life, with a job and good friends.

Nowadays I try -- and so far have succeeded -- to get back home once a year. In my NY and FL days it was more often than that, but I suppose it's much better than other people get. Very often I make these trips home by myself because it's cost-prohibitive for Dave and I to both go. Much like when I was a kid, traveling between my mom and dad, saying goodbye to Dave is bittersweet. And even more so is the despedida when I come back to Portland.

But something new has been happening in the last few years that has started to change the dynamic of my now-familiar hello-goodbye ritual. Through no fault of my own, and without my permission, the life I have come to expect to step into when I go back home has been changing with every visit. Children get older and get actual lives. The landscape changes with every new road and neighborhood that is built in areas that had nothing before. My once-vivacious and unstoppable grandmother aged and became ill. Other family members have real-life problems to contend with. That is not how it used to be, back when I came home every few months and everything was the same as when I lived there. So now the question is not just how will I deal with the despedida, but also what will I find upon my arrival?


A year has not gone by in which I have not seen the inside of an airport. Between the shuttle flights of my childhood and the bouncing around of my adulthood, I've seen my fair share. One of my favorite things to do while I sit at a gate, or wait at a security checkpoint, is watch people as they say goodbye to each other. How they stay chat casually but somewhat tensely, close together until the last possible minute, until only the traveler is allowed to move on. If others are allowed into the gate, how they furtively watch the clock as it moves towards boarding time. How they hug, sometimes cry, sometimes remain dry-eyed and making a visible effort to remain so. Some people will hold their loved one's face and wish them a safe flight, but it's clear that they probably want to say so much more than that. Hell, sometimes you can tell they actually want to say goodbye. But no matter what, it's never an every-day affair. And during the never-ending wait for my luggage when I arrive, watching people find each other and squeal with happiness, or watching those who are alone step out into the street and look around hesitantly, the different aspects of arrivals carry their own stories too.

It all reminds me that despedidas are not just the story of my life, but a plain old fact of life. You can't get away without saying goodbye to something or someone in your life at least once. That traveler, the one in the middle who knows what they're leaving and may or may not know what they're heading towards, will one day be you. But it's the greeting, whether it be of people on the other side, or a new city, or a new stage in your life, that puts those goodbyes in perspective. I have never been able to say goodbye without also eagerly expecting what's on the other side. If I didn't, I suspect I would have given up a long time ago.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jenny, aqui estoy plegá, pensando que pronto me tocará despedirme de mis adorados Vanessa y Jimmy. De tan solo pensarlo el corazón se me quiere salir....
Annie

Anonymous said...

Cuan cierto todo lo que acabo de leer, recuerdo que muchas veces lloraba cuando eras pequeña y viajabas solita a visitar a Billy. Contábamos los días para tu regreso.
Annie

Olga said...

I wish I had the ability to write as well as you do. So many words and thoughts come to my mind now. All I can say is that I am so very proud of having a daughter like you.
Mamita Olguie

Anonymous said...

No pudiste haber escrito ésto en un mejor momento! En unos cuantos meses me tocará a mí "la gran despedida" de todo lo que he conocido y es familiar para mí. Aunque sé que todos (bueno, no TODOS) estarán no más lejos que una trillita de una hora en avión, no dejo de pensar en cuánto cambiarán las cosas con cada visita. It's finally starting to sink in!!!!

Te quiero!!!
--Vane

JUAN CARLOS SALAS said...

Creo que pocas personas logran captar mi atencion al escribir, no por que yo sea un gran lector ni nada por el estilo, creo que expresaste cosas que sentia en esos,en momentos de despedidas digo y logras captar la dualidad del ser humano cuando esta forzado a vivr dor vidas. Que trajico verdad jejeje nada me encanto tu blog y quize escribir lo que pensaba nice to meet u

Jen said...

Thank you for the comments, and thanks, Juan Carlos, for writing!

Anonymous said...

Jenny, me encanto! Tienes mucha razon en todo lo que escribiste. Me recuerda a mi cuando me tengo que despedir de la familia cuando regreso a FL despues de estar como 2 meses en PR.
Cuando regrese para FL con mami el 9 de enero, no me queria ir PARA NADA. Pero, tambien queria volver a la escuela para ver a mis amistades, y ver que cosas nuevas me esperaban.

Pero de verdad que me encanto!

Natalia**