When I was little we went to visit my grandmother every summer in the small town of Gilby, North Dakota. We bought penny candy and played on the teeter-totters at the playground in the one block main street that consisted of a bank, post office, grocery store, hardware store, and bar. What else does a town even need?
I have a million fond memories of that place, and even more of my grandmother. My grandma was a strong, playful, extremely hardworking woman. And she hated to say goodbye.
When it was time for our family to leave my grandmother found it of utmost importance to begin trimming her hollyhocks. Or hanging the laundry to dry. Or cleaning out the pantry.
It was an ongoing joke in our family to talk about where we might find Grandma when it came time to leave. But it is also an inheritance. One shared by my mother, and then me; a deeply-seated avoidance of goodbye.
Today is my last day at school and I would much rather talk to you about dropping my dog off at the vet this morning, or going to Starbucks to get an iced tea than I would like to process how I feel about leaving. It’s the last day of school and I am hiding in my room writing a blog instead of going to say goodbye to the hundred students I have taught over the last four years.
But I also remember that this time of year is never what I expect.
The endings, the goodbyes, are rarely the celebrations or rituals or pomp and circumstance that I think they will be, want them to be. Instead of the meaningful goodbye ritual I create in my head, the last day of school is usually spent cramming the trunk of my car full to bursting with the “last few items” from my classroom that I swore was only one armful, and turns out to be a car-full.
I forget that trying to get nine-year-olds to sit in a circle and tell stories they remember about the year is about as easy as trying to run a cat circus. So the last day of school often looks like me popping DVD after DVD into the computer, projected onto the scrubbed-clean white board, telling my students, “SHHHHHH! We can’t hear the movie!!!!”
I forget the frustration of trying to hunt down the people necessary to sign off my checklist, showing I’ve completed all the necessary documentation to end the year. I forget that there is always, always, always more paperwork thrown at me that needs to be completed before I can sign out of the building.
I forget that last day of school is usually punctuated with a staff event that is cheesy, with the teachers sitting exhausted, hair pulled up in messy ponytails, barely present to eat a hot dog or luke-warm pasta. I forget that sometimes teachers forgo the party altogether, opting instead to start the summer vacation early, sitting in front of their TV to binge watch the television shows they’ve missed for the last ten months.
I forget that goodbyes are hard for everyone, including my students, and therefore it’s so easy to leave on the wrong terms, saying “Sit down!” and “Stop talking” instead of saying all the things you meant to say, like “I love you” and “I’m going to miss you.”
I forget how quickly I turn into my grandmother, more concerned with the work of cleaning and emptying a classroom than with saying goodbye.
And I forget that the goodbye is one moment, only one moment, but the time before the goodbye is full of thousands and thousands of moments and memories. I forget that we don’t build toward a goodbye. We live. We live. We live.
When I got the call that my grandmother had had a stroke, ten years ago, everything stopped. The family flew in and gathered by her bedside to sing her songs and brush her hair. We told her stories and kissed her head. I had to leave to go back home before she passed away, and so I said my final goodbye to her on a gray Easter Sunday, and then drove the seven hours home to Saint Paul to catch a flight back to my home in Philadelphia.
I cannot for the life of me remember saying goodbye to her.
But I remember sitting with her on the porch and laughing with her as she told stories of the past. I remember the spicy cinnamon gum she chewed, which over the years changed to doublemint. I remember riding bikes around her town, bikes she spent weeks scrounging up for our visit. I remember the smell of the bread she made, “Grandma’s buns”, just out of the oven. If Grandma was to be believed, they were always her worst batch yet. I remember the cards she sent on every birthday and every milestone, telling me how proud she was of me.
And I think my grandma is okay with me not remembering our goodbye. I think she probably prefers it that way. Maybe she somehow managed to arrange it.
Maybe it’s okay to be bad at goodbyes. Maybe it’s okay to not get them right, to say the wrong things, to not say enough, to not say all that needs to be said. Maybe all the good things before the goodbye is enough. Maybe it has to be, even when it isn’t enough.
I’m gonna miss this place, I’m gonna miss these people, I’m going to miss this time.
If you need me, I’ll be hiding in my room.