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How Do You Say Goodbye, When You Can’t Say Goodbye?

Ward Reservation in Andover (Patrick Cheetham for Bay Circuit Trail)
Ward Reservation in Andover (Patrick Cheetham for Bay Circuit Trail)

Last September I accepted a position at a private high school in Beverly Hills, set to begin in the autumn of 2020. It was a surprisingly easy sell, despite my enduring New England roots.

Seldom do those of us nearing the end of our professional careers get wooed so fervently. The promise of days filled with sun and surf didn’t hurt either. But more than anything, I was excited to reimagine how my life might evolve on the opposite coast. Aging has only increased my thirst for adventure, not tamed it.

Shortly after announcing my impending departure to my current employer, the leaves on the apple tree outside my bedroom window began to drop. As if on cue, I too began unraveling the tapestry of my life. I stopped jotting down ideas for future work projects. I deleted emails touting nearby concerts and shows. I unburdened my closets of winter jackets — I thought I was ready for my break up with Boston.

But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

Coming to terms with saying goodbye has never been one of my strong suits. In fact, if given the chance, I’d rather disappear into the night before enduring the awkward farewells most departures inspire. Leaving who and what I love is just awful and God help the person who forces me to talk about it.

[W]hen we avoid saying goodbye ... we cheat ourselves out of the one ingredient ... we need to say a proper farewell -- the intimacy provided by our physical presence.

In my pre-coronavirus existence, the social distance restrictions our current situation now requires would have felt like a “get out of jail free” card to my skittish and introverted soul. But no more. Indeed, I find myself craving the chance to say a real goodbye before heading westward, including the hugs and tears I have always so deftly avoided.

For weeks I tried to find a solution to this quandary. How could I make peace with leaving my home of 30-plus years while sequestered in isolation? How could I cross any sort of emotional finish line if Zoom were the only gadget in my therapeutic toolbox? How could I say goodbye if I couldn’t say goodbye?

Harvard professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot speaks of the liminal space between what is and what will be as the “agony of exits.” We’re far more comfortable celebrating the promise of beginnings than recognizing the inevitability of endings. We proudly pat the backs of children heading off to their first day of school. We shower newly married couples with rice in the hopes of their fertile future. We cheer the entrepreneur, building a career out of sheer willpower and wit.

It was time to take my beloved Boston out for a spin. I just needed to find the right dance floor.

In contrast, Lawrence-Lightfoot notes that exits are “often ignored or invisible,” too often seen as “negative spaces.” It’s not surprising then that when we avoid saying goodbye, but in doing so, we cheat ourselves out of the one ingredient Lawrence-Lightfoot contends we need to say a proper farewell — the intimacy provided by our physical presence.

Stuck in quarantine, I couldn’t imagine how to create such a situation. Strangely enough, it was an old rerun of “Grey’s Anatomy” that showed me the way.

Back in the early seasons, my favorite gal pals Meredith and Christina would often find themselves at some sort of relational crossroad. And when they couldn’t figure out how to move forward, they simply “danced it out.” When all else failed, they bounced and swayed and churned their limbs until the pieces of their hearts fell back together. It was time to take my beloved Boston out for a spin. I just needed to find the right dance floor.

Ever since I was a young girl, walking has been the magic elixir for anything that ailed me. Ambulation has soothed my heart, brought peace to my mind, and rid my body of undue anxiety and worry. If I couldn’t be with who I loved, I could still be with what I loved. The land.

In 1929, the idea for an “outer Emerald Necklace” was first hatched, a set of trails that would ring the city of Boston, starting on the beaches of Plum Island and ending on the shores of Kingston Bay. Nearly 100 years passed before the Bay Circuit Trail was fully realized, an arc of some 230 miles that winds its way through 37 neighboring communities. The BCT felt like the perfect vehicle for my Beantown swan song. Step by step, I would have one last tango with the place I called home.

With map in hand, I began by breaking the journey into bite-sized pieces. Every few days my wife and I would set out for a different segment of the trail. I would leave my car where I planned to finish; she would then drop me at my chosen starting point. Chunk by chunk, the miles disappeared behind me.

Photographs from the author's walks on the BCT, from left to right: solstice stones on Andover Hill in Andover; mills on the Merrimack River in Lowell; trail wisdom in Ipswich. (Courtesy)
Photographs from the author's walks on the BCT, from left to right: solstice stones on Andover Hill in Andover; mills on the Merrimack River in Lowell; trail wisdom in Ipswich. (Courtesy)

I walked for months, letting my hands graze the tops of cattails, strolling across colonial battlefields and sitting breathless beneath creaking canopies of pine. I avoided the weekends, fearful that others would encroach on my solitary amble. I wanted it to be just the two of us.

Me and the trail.

As with every leave-taking, there were some rocky moments. I contracted a raging case of poison ivy. I had a heart-stopping interaction with a snake that was as big around as my forearm. On more than one occasion, the mosquitos got the best of me. But through it all, I kept on walking.

Maybe by summer’s end I will have the chance to say a real goodbye to the people I love. But if not, at least I had the chance to bounce and sway and churn my limbs until the pieces of my heart fell back together.

Goodbye Boston. Oh, how I will miss you.

Off of Rt. 1 on the Bay Circuit Trail in Ipswich. (Courtesy)
Off of Rt. 1 on the Bay Circuit Trail in Ipswich. (Courtesy)

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Anne Gardner Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Anne Gardner serves as the director of spiritual and religious life at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

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