26 Ways to Say Goodbye
An Essay by Denise Duhamel & Julie Marie Wade
My mother often spoke French with me when I was small. She had majored in the language, traveled to France, corresponded still with a great aunt who sent thick sheaves of accented script for deciphering at the dining room table. In grocery stores, my mother and I impressed strangers with our pitched-to-earshot exchanges: floating-balloon vowels, “r”s that tapered like tight pant legs. Sometimes, when she left me at school, my mother called “Au revoir!” from the closing car window. The phrase means “until next time,” though I am not fluent. I falter each time I pronounce a more lasting goodbye.
My father’s first language was French, the Quebecoise kind. My mother didn’t want my father to speak French to my sister and me, as Canucks were a “low class” group in Woonsocket, RI in the 60s and 70s. “He has a thick head, just like a Frenchman,” she’d say when she was angry with him. Still, my mother learned to bake beans and salt pork in a pot and became famous for her tourtiers. None of us thought to say any kind of formal bye-bye when my father went in for that operation, the operation from which he’d never wake.
My friend says Scandinavians give reluctant hugs but wave from their windows until they can’t see you anymore. So it was in my family: the hugs stiff, formal, even when the feelings were genuine. On holidays, my aunt and grandmother huddled at the door, the porchlight winking. Though we lived just over the crest of the hill, they flapped their wrists like they would never see us again. I wanted to be different, perhaps because I was. From the back seat, I blew kisses. I turned my palm inward and patted the air. “Ciao bellas!” I exhaled in the dark.
I came of age when peace signs were popular. One cousin back from Vietnam. Another, more of a hippie, banged his bongos in a furnished basement. I had peace sign necklaces and drew peace signs on my sneakers with ballpoint pens. The war was over. Women smoked Virginia Slims. When I was fourteen, I was sure I was living in the best era possible. Space travel and equal rights. Now I worry about the fate of Millennials, corporations controlling their lives. So I take heart when, after class, a student flashes me a retro peace sign, saying “deuce out.”
In middle school, we read a father’s memoir, Death Be Not Proud. His son dies at seventeen from a brain tumor the size of an orange. “Elegies are not only poems,” our teacher said. “They are any art we make to commemorate a loss.” For days, I fumed. Who wants to be commemorated? What good does that do? I read the Holy Sonnet of the same name and chucked John Donne across the room. Was death not “mighty and dreadful”? Who had proved we’d “wake eternally”? For years, I could not bear the sweetness of a single slice of orange.
Ernest Hemingway also titled his famous novel after a poem—George Peele’s “A Farewell to Arms.” Peele’s poem is written in the voice of a knight who wants to serve Queen Elizabeth I, even though he is now old, even though war is no longer being waged. Hemingway’s appropriation of the title is ironic—the main character Henry’s bitter farewell to weapons and the folly of World War I, his numb farewell to his Catherine and their stillborn. Hemingway didn’t like the film version. In another irony, the novel’s pessimism about romance was turned to “a testament to eternal love.”
God be with you
At the close of each Sunday’s service, the pastor descended from the pulpit and stood among us. There, in his sand-colored robe with the purple sash draped across his shoulders, I marveled at my first, unwitting glimpse of drag. “Why does Pastor Hoiland wear a dress over his pants?” I persisted in asking. My mother shushed, and my father clasped his Bible tighter. As he drew a large cross in the air, the pastor proclaimed, “God be with you.” I watched the pleats ripple across his chest, the gold necklace rise and fall. Our canned response: “And also with you.”
Hasta la vista
When I parted ways with the Catholic Church, the priest in charge of CYO said, “Hasta la vista.” He told my mother not to worry—that I would surely return when a life crisis hit me, when I’d “matured” beyond my confirmation years. The priest thought I was a rebel, which I was, but he didn’t understand. Unlike James Dean, I had a cause. If only he’d have let me be an altar girl, light the candles and ring the gold bell, maybe I would have gone soft. Instead, I’ve gone through deaths, divorce, and menopause, all without the host.
I’ll be right back
say the pert young women in horror films just before they disappear forever. Their rebellions are small in the scheme of things. They’ve broken curfew. They’ve had a few swigs from a glass bottle in a paper bag. They’ve let a good boy or a bad boy—it hardly matters which—grope them in the back of a car. Later, they might turn up shot or stabbed, drowned and washed ashore. But it won’t be them, not really: sleek bodies mangled beyond recognition, save for a telltale blond curl. To be a girl is always to be taught a lesson.
I gotta jet
say the young women who don’t get killed, who assess a situation and bolt. There’s no time for long goodbyes or hurt feelings when you follow your gut, when you see danger for what it is. The guy who lived in the abandoned building next to me in the East Village always had a rooster on his shoulder. He wanted the luxury of a hot shower—who wouldn’t? I was a bleeding heart back then, but something about this guy made me say, “Sorry, I gotta jet.” Then, the yellow police tape and the dead young women who’d said yes.
Keep me in your thoughts
says someone you know, who always brought bagels to share and smiled at everyone without distinction. You say, “Yes, of course,” because now this someone is struggling: no time for bagels, the smile reduced to a wince. Soon, though, you realize you don’t know how to keep anyone—not in your thoughts, your heart, or your prayers. Quakers speak of “holding someone in the light.” You picture a balloon attached to your wrist, bobbing along. But like every balloon you’ve ever had, this one also pops or deflates. Even when you clutch the string tightly, it still somehow floats away.
were the last words I said to Grammy. I was thirteen, in love with the freedom of my ten-speed. I pedaled up and down the hills of Woonsocket, past a nursing home that looked like a house. My grandmother lived in Kennedy Manor, a subsidized high rise for the elderly that smelled faintly like an incinerator. Local politicians loved to pose with the seniors there and even sponsored free chicken dinners. I loved Grammy, but my next steps included boys, curling irons, store-bought jeans. I thought that I had forever to sit with her again at her aqua sewing machine.
May you be in Heaven a half an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead
was the blessing curled in gold-leaf on Marguerite Colliton’s mug. I was thirteen, earning money cleaning houses and weeding neighborhood yards. Marguerite kept the mug in a cabinet with silver spoons and China plates—items reserved only for display. Once, while I stood on a high stool dusting, I heard her tell my mother: “Imagine this doctor, asking me if I’d ever been pregnant. I’ve never even been married!” Marguerite was eighty-eight—a widow, I assumed, with a slew of grandkids lurking somewhere. Forget Heaven. I trembled to think: Who would be with her, in this life, when she died?
It didn’t dawn on me to be afraid of my bedtime prayer, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” As an asthmatic child, I was sure I would die awake, that my lack of air would propel me to sit up and gasp. I was sure there would be adrenaline shots that made my heart race triple speed, perhaps for the last time. In the children’s hospital, my friends had leukemia, pneumonia, and cystic fibrosis. Though I couldn’t yet spell our ailments, they sounded to me like flowers that bloomed at night.
Over and out
My friends and I watched Dragnet on Nick at Nite and shouted “Do you copy?” and “Roger that!” into our Spy Tech walkie-talkies. Once, a policeman named Robert Shell broke down driving past our neighborhood. He hiked the hill and asked my father, out mowing the grass, if he could use our telephone. No one asked what happened to his patrol car, why he couldn’t radio the station from there. We trusted everyone in uniform. We were white like good cops in every movie. Later, Officer Shell sent me a picture of his German shepherd along with an honorary badge.
Parting is such sweet sorrow
Juliet first said it to Romeo, but I think of it now as something parents say to their black sons as they leave for work or school or a run. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Terence Crutcher. Tamir Rice. Freddy Gray. Nothing sweet about these deaths. A cop pulls me over because I’ve mistakenly put on my high beams. What’s wrong with you, lady? he says. Don’t you know how to drive? No ticket though because I am white. Colin Kaepernick on one knee—a proposal, a prayer. Oh, Intolerant neighbors, oh, men in blue, we beseech you—please don’t shoot
Quitters never win and winners never quit
Famed football coach Vince Lombardi was known for sayings like this. But what if you’re in the wrong game altogether? What if the doctor-father demands his son take up the stethoscope, yet the son knows he should be building houses or playing jazz? My grandmother, born left-handed, was struck day after day by the teacher’s ruler, angry, futile. What did she have to win by writing with her right hand? And I, after years of fumbling at straight romance, finally threw up my hands. “There’s no right man for me,” I told my mother. When I quit heterosexuality, I won.
When I retired my high heels, I lost a few inches but won oodles of comfort. “After a women reaches a certain age, she can have pretty shoes or pretty feet,” said the podiatrist who gave me a bulky blue boot that was supposed to cure my heel spur. I boxed up my orange suede pumps and platform sandals for my nieces with the caveat that they only wear them a few hours at a time, lest they wind up with shooting pains up their legs like their aunt had. I love a night out, but now I dance barefoot.
When the Von Trapp children enthrall the assembled guests with song, their reverie begins: “So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodnight!” How I loved to sing along in our kitchen, marching in place, dancing barefoot on the sticky linoleum floor. I waved and twirled and marveled, then as now, at the wonder of such a simple phrase. So long! Casual, even cavalier, yet it described precisely the hardest truth about endings. Try watching a clock waiting for morning to come, a beloved to call, a grief to ease its heavy lean on the heart. How else to say it? So long.
is the name of a third season episode of The Sopranos. Janice Melfi, Tony’s therapist, has a dream in which her Mafioso patient crashes his car to a song from The Wizard of Oz—“You’re out of the woods/You’re out of the dark/You’re out of the night.” How many times have I said a final goodbye to someone in my dream, only to wake and realize they are still alive? My ex-husband’s blue, bloated face haunted my sleep for weeks. Then at breakfast, I read the latest hostile email he’d sent. After the divorce, I was no longer his next-of-kin.
Until we meet again
is what we always mean when we say good-bye, rocking ourselves in the small cradle between this time and the next. When my grandmother was alive, I read Naomi Shihab Nye—“It is possible we may not meet again/on earth. To think this fills my throat/ with dust.” Once, when I pecked her cheek, Grandma drew me close and clasped her arms around me. Such a strange breach in her stoic way. I can still see the rivers in her hands. Years later, when the letter came, dust rose like a storm in me and sealed my mouth from speech.
Some people call it an Irish goodbye, the slinking out of crowded rooms without long farewells. A friend told me if I said a quick hello to at least five people the host of the party would know I was there. Some people call it the ghosting, the quick slip out the door. My father slipped into death, a vanishing act on an operating table. What would I have said to him if I’d had time? At his funeral, I remembered Julie Kasdorf’s lines: “I learned that whatever we say means nothing,/what anyone will remember is that we came.”
Wish you were here
Postcard cliché—though the postcard I have been writing all my life. Kierkegaard said life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. I have not found his statement true. Instead, I gaze in the rearview as the present, like a hillside sloping out of sight, gives way to an unreachable past. How often have I slipped the car into reverse or sat idling as another day’s sun dripped into darkness? I have loved all of it, even the worst parts of living, but I have understood none of it, least of all the tidal force of loss.
“Why do our sweet sentimental young misses/In love letters make little crosses for kisses?” writes an anonymous poet in 1893. Sometimes when I see XOXO I think of tic tac toe; of Ovid, the first letter of his name a hug; of Xanadu—Coleridge’s poem and the Olivia Newton John song. I remember the popular SWAK of my youth, and Bobby Vinton crooning “Sealed with a Kiss.” I drop my darling off at the airport, and the tingles from our last kiss of the trip fade as drive away. I look in my rearview mirror, cars driven by solemn strangers.
So time is a letter after all, and everyone will be called forth to sign. The clock will notarize. We had a grandfather clock in our living room that chimed each hour. My father wound it every night before bed. Sometimes he’d find me at the maple escritoire, only a candle burning. I was fond of other times, of Jo March with her parchment paper, pen nibs blackened with ink thick as tar. Of the past, poet Sharon Olds writes, “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.” Then place my X on the line.
Sleep says goodbye to your day, your problems, that pain in your lower back. ZZZ means sleep in English or French, whether or not you can read the text. Each Z’s shape is a brain wave, amplifying a comic strip character’s snoozing. Anesthesia, such lovely sleep. The best nap you’ll ever have, my doctor said. See you on the other side. She meant the recovery room, but I heard death. My mother says she’ll come back, if she can, to tell me if there’s an afterlife. I am on the lookout for a fluent ghost to avoid that final goodbye.