I remember when I left Russia, I told a friend proshai – farewell. She grew angry and implored me to instead say do svidaniya – until next time. Russians use this as goodbye, like the French say au revoir, or the Italians arrivederci. Proshai carried with it a cold tone of finality that my friend didn’t quite like, though it turned out to be sadly accurate.
Goodbye is an absurd word – nothing feels “good” about it at all. Well, actually Godbwye – “God be with ye,” is the mother of this devastating term. It seems fitting that such a calamitous event be allayed by God.
Goodbyes never seem to get easier. Parting is something with which I am woefully experienced. In fact, like many other members of a more itinerant generation, I’m practically an expert. I’ve bid farewell to Winnipeg, Istanbul, Waterloo, Moscow, and Kigali over the past seven years, and Ottawa will soon be next.
As great the temptation is to euphemize a parting with “See you later,” I find that “goodbye” or the even more permanent “farewell” is usually more accurate. We say “Let’s stay in touch,” or “We’ll see each other again soon,” with absolutely no regard for the power of distance and divergence. We whimsically utter these words with no cognizance of how much effort and volition is actually required to stay in touch across distance and time in a meaningful way.
We may keep in some form of touch, at least for a while, and might even see each other again, but it won’t be the same. It’s like finishing a book – you can always read it again, but it’ll never be the same as the first time. How happy I’ve been to reunite with friends from the past, and how difficult it soon becomes to make conversation after we finish catching up, realizing that we now live separate lives.
Sure, there’s always Facebook, but the land of “BRB” and “TTYL” isn’t exactly the epicentre of heart to heart conversation. Well, to be fair to the online, one of the first times I heard “I love you” was through MSN Messenger, but even that defunct forum was positively personal compared to Facebook. Social media makes it easier to stay in touch, but renders that touch less intimate. In the past, writing letters took longer and was less convenient, but the more “lengthy” process demanded a higher calibre of dispatch. Thankfully people still take e-mail reasonably seriously, and Skype provides a face to face conversation, but even those modern tools are only small slingshots in the battle against the kilometres.
I find goodbyes awkward, often surreal experiences, and never quite know what to say. Conclusions are often the most difficult part of a story. There’s often an impulse for a group goodbye, but they usually end up contrived and impersonal, destroying all semblance of intimacy and replacing it with affectation.
The sense of loss often sets in either before or after the moment of parting. At some point in the preceding days or weeks, we realize we may never see our friends again, which rouses us to spend more time with them. This of course causes us to feel their loss even more when we finally bid adieu.
“In every parting there is an image of death,” wrote George Eliot (pen name of British novelist Mary Anne). Goodbyes are indeed a sort of death knell. Perhaps not of the friendships, but of the experience, the shared journey.
Of course there are friendships that reside far beyond geography’s lethal grasp, laughing in the face of distance. “A friendship that can be ended didn’t ever start,” wrote the French poet Mellin de Saint-Gelais. Philia, or the platonic love between friends, is perhaps not as sexy as its cousin eros – romantic love, but it’s the purest of all the loves. No sex or jealousy to muddy the waters. No mandatory filial piety. No professional incentive. Just the pure joy of voluntarily shared company, of dipping into each other’s souls every once in a while.
Shared experiences are the sea upon which friendships sail. They solidify the bonds between us as we pass through them together, especially when there’s a storm. Shared joys bring us close; shared suffering brings us closer. The harder the experience is for outsiders to comprehend, the closer the ties between those who have endured it together. When they speak of it, they speak their own language. As the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “Nothing, in truth, can replace that companionship. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions.”
But one must remember that like funerals, goodbyes are also a kind of celebration. The closer the connections we’ve made, and the more significant the experience, the sadder the farewell. I remember sending a final text to my friend Stefan from the windy deck of a Ukrainian ferry on the Bosphorus in Istanbul when I was leaving Turkey seven years ago. “Leaving isn’t easy,” I wrote. “That’s because you had such an impactful experience,” was his reply. It was true, and this thought provided some comfort. He was always wise, that one. Perhaps I’ll send him an e-mail.
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