The Goodness of Minor Goodbyes
Pictured: Rembrandt, “Return of the Prodigal Son”
St. Luke’s Gospel has in its fifteenth chapter one of the Bible’s best-known parables: Jesus, frustrated by the self-righteous entitlement of his rabbinical peers, tells of a son who spends his father’s “substance in riotous living,” only to return home in a famine to beg for servant status. But the spendthrift’s dad doesn’t grant his request — instead, the father runs to meet the son on the open road, hugs him close, and calls up the whole neighborhood for a homecoming fiesta.
Obviously, this is a narrative about forgiveness, and the openness of heaven to penitent sinners. No matter what kind of dirt you have in your past, this story seems to say, it’s never too late to get right. But that’s not where its punch comes from. The reason an audience can connect to the prodigal’s heavenly predicament is because his journey isn’t heavenly at all. Rather, we’re seeing heaven through the lens of the land of the living and the hopes we entertain when we claim to say goodbye.
Most people know what it’s like to bury someone: Our sendoffs to the dead are propped up by full-functioning skeletons of procedure and protocol. We weep, sometimes openly, sometimes loudly. We gather friends, family, and acquaintances, so that we can mourn and remember them together before their bodies disappear into the ground. And, after all that, we still grieve — sometimes for days, sometimes weeks, sometimes years, and sometimes for the rest of our lives. At best, our grief isn’t just a part of living in a world of pain; it’s a way for us to move into the world that sits just beyond it.
Ceremonies seem appropriate when we’re dealing with the dead and the close. But what about everyone else?
Our more casual friends, colleagues, and acquaintances still have the power to move us in ways that aren’t casual at all. When job switches, difficulties or relocations make them distant or disengaged, their departures can still bore a hole in our souls; it still might hurt to say goodbye. Yet it’s inappropriate to mourn them the way we’d mourn the dead — as it should be — or to process their departure the way we’d bid farewell to a close friend. Even more embarrassing, to them as well as us, would be the revelation that a casual, compulsory relationship took on so much meaning, when the idea of such importance had never crossed their minds.
Maybe I have no sense of scale. (Mourning the living? Not even the close living? Really?) But the world has its share of mercenaries, especially in ecosystems of profit and professionalism. Because I know this — and I think you do, too — it always cuts me like a dagger to see someone step outside of decorum to go above and beyond the demands of mere business. It’s rare to find yourself in a world with someone whose soul compels you to risk indifference or discomfort, rarer still in a work or school setting. Maybe it’s the difficulty of replacing those connections that makes me want to grieve when they go away.
The catch to this kind of grief, of course, is what makes it feel the silliest: We’re almost never certain we’ve said goodbye for good. We might share a slightly confused glance while crossing 60th and Sansom, my wave of confirmation thwarted by a slippery slice of pizza. It’s possible we cross paths on a dang-near-runaway train, or see each other across a crowded restaurant on Mother’s Day. Or, seven Christmas Eve-Eves from now, in some grocery store at the edge of a community that’s currently classed as a food desert, I might pull the McCormick Table Grind Black Pepper off the top shelf of Aisle 9 and look slightly forwards, and slightly down, to see you choosing between Kraft and Sweet Baby Ray’s as Nat King Cole serenades Aisle 8. And, if I do, I might feel silly for having ever written this column.
But perhaps that’s the glory of saying goodbye — of the prodigal son’s father’s exclamation that “This, my son, was dead, and is alive again.” We don’t downplay the pain of minor goodbyes to schedule a rendezvous with reality. No, we do it to feast on a sweet little fiction, one that’s never more beautiful than when it’s battered: That somehow, we’ll never care enough to cry again.