saying goodbye: seeing through the rearview mirror

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“It’s the emptiest and yet the fullest of all human messages: ‘Good-bye.” – Kurt Vonnegut

The last month and a half has been one of the busiest, most unpredictable times in my life. In the past few weeks I’ve seen many endings, and beginnings.

I graduated from college. I went to senior formal with my best friends and I said goodbye to the place I’ve called home for four years. I spent one last week in our apartment giving tearful hugs to friends I don’t know when I’ll see again, finding closure, having a few last family meals and getting completely pulverized in slapcup. I ended my career as a student and looked towards what would follow.

I moved home to welcome post-grad life, I reconnected with my friends and family and I started the job search. I teared up with pride as I watched my little sister graduate from high school at the top of her class, knowing that she has an amazing four years ahead of her.

And then- a few days ago, I lost my grandmother.

It wasn’t unexpected; my family had been preparing for the news for a couple of weeks. My grandma turned 90 two days before she passed, with a group of us singing “Happy Birthday” around her bed on the hospice floor. The news came late one night, and we weren’t surprised; my family had reached another ending together, said another goodbye.

And then the stories were told, details of my grandmother’s life I wish I had thought to delve into sooner. I can’t help but think I should have asked her more about her time in the Navy and her work in D.C.. I should have talked to her about how she met my grandfather, the one I never got to meet (but that my dad assures me would have “liked my spunk”). I should have asked her what college was like when she went, and for more stories about what dad was like when he was little.

Realizations came in waves that grandma’s story is, of course, an important part of mine. That her story is something I should take pride in, and I can only do that if I know what it is.

It’s so easy to see the older people in our lives as stable constants. We’re so focused on our own stories, on the ones we carefully edit via filters and captions on Facebook and Instagram, that we forget to ask about the stories that came before us. We neglect the photos that look old because they ARE old for the ones that look old because we carefully layered ‘Walden’ over ‘1977’ and upped the contrast.

We only learn about grandma’s service in the FBI after she’s gone, and then it’s harder to picture her in her 20’s: serving her country in the war, going to college and falling in love. Meeting grandpa and moving to what became home. My home.

All the endings I’ve witnessed recently have made me pause to reflect on where I’ve been, and where I’m going.

I’m keeping the camera around to take pictures of the stories I’m still writing, and still living- because someday, maybe someone will want to hear them. But I’m putting the camera down long enough to pick up the photo albums that will show me the sides of my family, and myself, that I never knew. I want to ask about the stories that those pictures bring back before there’s no one left who can tell them.

Sometimes when we’re saying goodbye to what’s familiar and don’t know where the road is headed, it helps to glance in the rearview mirror and remember where we’ve come from.