“A person dies as he lives.” Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy
“Farewell we come to send you on the way.”
We sing these words every time a member of our family passes. The “Schneider family band”–my aunts and uncles and cousins and brother and parents–fill in all four parts and piano and guitar and violin as we gather to fill up the space with these familiar words. With this melody we’ve sent on Mildred and Ralph, Lawrence, Janet, Tom, Larry, Ron, Harold, Snapper, Lenore and Art, Susan, Adeline and Joyce, and Robert, and of course many many more before I first saw the world this side of the womb.
Years of partaking in this ritual, of gathering to sing a farewell and share stories, have taught me well that sometimes only in bidding farewell can we truly enter into the present and usher in the new.
These days for me, farewells seem to take all sorts of forms.
There’s the flying off to some new destination kind of goodbye.
And the counting of the cost kind of farewell. It’s the knowing that come November 23th I won’t be in the kitchen with Grandma baking pies, and instead will be here where November 23th is just another day.
There’s the letting go of expectation kind of farewell, which gets me day in and day out as I discover some expectation I carried here with me, or one I’ve acquired in the days since.
And there is the watching of someone else say their farewell, which is in itself a farewell for those who remain.
These goodbyes are a constant process of discovery for me, as I realize how much energy I spend day in and day out trying to manage external realities over which I have no control.
So why all the thinking about farewells? (especially since I’ve got quite a while before I board a plane bound for the states)
The most obvious answer is that tomorrow I’ll say goodbye to Erin, the SLM who’s spent the last fourteen months here, and whom I’ve been lucky enough to share my first months with. She is one of the most remarkably generous and genuine people I’ve had the pleasure of living and working with day in and day out. I’ve got no clue what the next ten-plus months will hold, but I do know that I will always be able to look back on these first six weeks with gratitude, affection, and laughter, thanks largely to Erin’s presence here.
Witnessing her leaving has been a gift for me.
Her sorrow has made me aware of my own growing affection for these girls, which sometimes I find almost inexplicable. How does one explain the way they tug at my heart even at their worst moments when they’re throwing shoes, or screaming through mass, or refusing to listen to anyone? I feel the urgency of wanting to know them more, of wanting them to know how much they are loved, of wanting them to know the beauty they radiate.
Her desire for their good moves me to live with more courage, more generosity, more freedom.
Her hope for their future, and her trust in the next steps in front of her, give me the strength to root myself in the present, confident that choosing to dig deep here will not disappoint me.
“A person dies as he lives.”
For me, the thought that has recurred again and again in these past few weeks is the necessity of our radical openness to the present, to be willing each day to say goodbye to expectations and plans and grab ahold of the opportunities in front of us (which often look like inconveniences).
At the despedida or farewell gathering that is held here in Bolivia we recall the living that has happened, we acknowledge the passing from one place to another. Too often I think we censor our experience of life, and are unwilling to take stock of the goodbyes we’ve had to say—to places and people of course, but also to old ways of living and thinking and moving through our life. To rejoice in the painful letting go we’ve done, we slowly are molded to view our lives more and more as given to us to be shared with others, as opposed to be guarded lest we give it all away. I am reminded of Mother Teresa’s words: I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.
Life does not belong to me, or at least if it does, it is only because I have been given it totally and freely each and every day. How joyful I must be, then, at every moment I am asked to let go of my plans or expectations, because this is evidence that I am using it how it is meant to be lived—without reserve, without fear of losing it in service of others. So that today or sixty years from now when the farewell ushers me from this world, I’ll have spent what I’ve been given so lavishly that I’ll arrive with empty hands.
Despedida. Bitter and sweet, these farewells should always be thus. And we ought never to let them slip by, so that we cannot rejoice in the ways we are asked to entrust every change within us and without us to the person who has such an urgent need for our happiness.
So today, and tomorrow, I’ll be saying farewell to something too, even as Erin is driving away from this place that is her home and catching a plane back to the states. What comfort there is in knowing that we are not alone in this daily work of saying farewell, and that every step we take in trust, with courage, is a hand held out to those walking beside us.