I was reading Joan Didion in the bathtub the other morning, reading the essay “Goodbye to All That” which I hadn’t read before but the title of which I was inspired by, almost four years ago, when both the calendar year and my marriage were ending and I was trying to sit in a place of intentional farewell. I sat at my desk, typing on my laptop, but in a room in my parents’ house.
There is power in that, the goodbye, but generally the reflexive kind, like tapping the base of the knee with a mallet: the leg swings forward but we didn’t really decide to kick it out. The goodbye is something we bake into ourselves in the name of manners and growing up; it is the reverse of the rote coin, the other side hello; how are you?
But as much as it can be barely anything it can be everything: “goodbye” can be the epitome of glibness or the door slam that reverberates through the entire house. And, I’m realizing now, as I consider the essay whose title inspired me those years before, perhaps goodbye can sit somewhere in the center of these, something more than reflex but less than closed door finality. Maybe it is a closed door, but one left unlocked, and behind it a room full of everything that once was, set aside, but waiting.
And that, I think, is what I was after then, and that, I think, is what I am after now, several days out from that bathtub book read and a mere 100 minutes from the end of not just a day but also a month and a year and a decade. Endings heaped upon endings. So many possible goodbyes. But the sort of goodbyes that function like Didion’s essay: goodbyes that put up—in the Midwestern idiomatic way that used to bristle me as ridiculous phrasing (why “up”? why no longer “away”?) but now heartens as its preposition lifts, elevates anything folded into the phrase. We set special things out of reach so that we might keep them safe even while we keep them away.
And so as I tidy up my brain and by extension my life (for me, the orderliness of one directly impacts the other), I put up the memories of the aforementioned spans of time. I put up the joys and the pains; I put up the heartening, the baffling, the crippling, the inspiring—I put up, so that everything is kept safe, so that I might undo the putting later, if I want. If I want to pull something down into my arms and look at it again. If I want to understand how I got here, how I find myself as the person who gets to sit in the living room of the person I love most and scribble away in a notebook while this beloved sits nearby with his own tidying up, clattering away on his laptop, cataloguing some of his own thoughts as the day, month, year, decade wind down around us.
I don’t know if the story of my day, month, year, decade, (life!) is getting to this moment. In one way, of course it is: everything that has been is what makes the present. But artifacts tell many stories, placed around the memory room for spectator viewing. We see the pieces from the lenses we can’t help but wear, built for our eyes by the events of our lives. Sentiment is fluid, and relative.
And goodbye? Goodbye can be a mechanism of preservation as much as departure, a curator’s gesture, a way to know what we couldn’t possibly say goodbye to. So: goodbye, again and again, to all the moments, as many times as we need until it is clear what we can’t live without.