Some things are easier written than said. “I’m sorry.” “I love you.” “I know what you did last summer.” You know, all that little deep-seated emotional stuff with far-reaching ramifications.
Oh, and “goodbye.”
I have a problem. See, when I left Minnesota, I never said goodbye. First, there was simply no time. With three weeks to sell our house, buy a new one, finish the school year and truck my family and cat hell-bent on getting herself lost across four state lines, I had no time for anything. But the real answer is I simply didn’t want to say goodbye. I couldn’t. I couldn’t deal with my own pain of leaving and I definitely couldn’t deal with all the pain I saw in my friends’ eyes when I told them I was leaving. So I refused to let anyone tell me goodbye. When they tried – and oh they did! – I kept telling them, “I’ll see you later! I will! I promise!” What I didn’t say out loud: “I hope. But maybe not. Life’s like that sometimes.”
I didn’t want to cry and I didn’t want to let them cry. Even up to the very last minute, the day before we actually drove away, I refused to say goodbye. I went to the gym that day. I worked out with the Gym Buddies. We talked as if nothing was different, as if this was any of the other myriad mornings we’d met, checked our kids in to the childcare to bond like the siblings they practically were, sweated a little, laughed a lot. But as we walked out to the parking lot, it was time for a real goodbye. I hugged them all. And I said, fervently, I’ll see you soon. I will.
It was cowardly. It was understandable and heartbreaking and all I could have done in that moment. But it was still cowardly.
But my friends were braver than I. Before I left, they handed me a book they made me with pictures of so many of our adventures together and – bound up in a little string like a packet of old-timey love letters – a stack of cards and letters from everyone. Here’s my dirty little secret: I looked at the pictures. I didn’t read any of the letters.
At the time I couldn’t. I felt like one more thing would break my heart for real and so I left them all unopened. Reading them would have meant accepting the immense loss goodbye represented and I wasn’t accepting anything. I was still fighting it – the move, the change, the passage of time, the resurgence of skinny jeans and mullet haircuts. Everything. So I told myself that it would be easiest if I faced forward and didn’t look back. I knew I owed them a goodbye but I’ve done other crappy things to them before and they’ve always forgiven me. (Is that the definition of true friendship? That you can trust them to still love you even when you’re treating them like a total jerk? Or did I just turn myself into the Edward to their Bella?? Ack.)
It was time to focus on my new life. Except that I couldn’t. The harder I tried not to think about everyone, the more I did. I started avoiding anything in my new life that would remind me of them – the gym, church, parks, grocery stores, Facebook… And they wouldn’t let themselves be forgotten. They’ve kept e-mailing me and calling. Texting me pictures. Sending me packages. Remember when the mean girls at the gym made fun of my super awkward Zumba-ing? My sweet friends sent me a care package with all my favorite things in it. And I could barely bring myself to open it. I didn’t want to face the flood of emotion when I did. All that sadness stuffed inward and suppressed is, I think, what triggered this latest round of depression.
The tears will out themselves.
This past week, for Operation Give a Little, I decided to take the opportunity to do this item on my list of little acts of service I can do for others: “Write someone a hand-written note.” Sure, e-mail is great and texting is immediate (if spelling challenged) social media is entertaining and Kim and Kanye showed us the eternal value of video but I think all that makes a hand-written note even more precious. It shows you took the time to write something, stick it in an envelope, find a stamp and mail it, yes. But even more so, I think handwriting shows vulnerability. It’s a physical manifestation of your thoughts and there’s an honesty to it. It also makes you vulnerable. You show your mistakes, especially if you write in pen. Tears show up on the paper. Anxiety manifests in bent corners. No emoticon is needed to show happiness if your script is large and loopy. But my favorite part is that it’s something that you held in your hands that they now hold in theirs. (Plus, you’ve got envelope licking which is as good for DNA evidence as it is intimacy!)
At first I thought I would write the letter to my mom and dad. Or perhaps an old high-school friend. But as I sat down and spread out my jumbo pack of stationary (another good reason to write letters!), I realized what I needed to do. I needed to say goodbye. It was time.
I wrote. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. I wrote until my hand cramped so badly I literally couldn’t hold the pen anymore. And then I woke up in the morning and kept going. I wrote dozens of letters and filled cards back and front. I’d decided that on one side I’d tell them how much I loved them and what I loved about them and on the other side I’d share one of my favorite memories of them. After I was done, I sat on my bed surrounded by stacks of goodbyes and I finally got out the packet of letters they’d written me. I read them. Laughed. Cried. Smiled. Sobbed. Read them again. Those letters mean everything to me.
For all of you wondering by this point why on earth this was such a huge deal (and I’ll admit to wondering it myself a few times during the process) it’s because: These girls saved my life. It is no less and no more than that.
When I moved to Minnesota it was on the heels of sending my ex-boyfriend to prison for sexually assaulting me. I’d had a stillborn daughter and then two sons in quick succession. I was eight months pregnant with the third. My husband was out of a job. The only job I had was grading SAT essays which was… well, it was 500 essays on the Scarlet Letter or the Kardashians and not even in an analytical interesting way (because now that I think about it, there is a lot to be said for comparing the two). My husband was deep in the throes of a serious mental illness and my eating disorder was making a raging comeback. And we had no health insurance.
I came there under the weight of a lot of trauma. It took years but the friends I made there slowly helped me unravel all of that. All of you know me as speaking openly about all those issues but at that time in my life I spoke of those things to no one. I could count on one hand the people I’d told about my sexual assault. I hadn’t yet even admitted I’d ever had an eating disorder much less might have one then. I didn’t talk about how hard being a mom was for me or the wracking anxiety that kept me up nights until I vomited or my fear that I’d never be good at anything meaningful or how I can’t stand to listen to people chew or that I think I have a hoarding problem with vintage dresses. This freedom to talk, that helped me heal from so many wounds: They gave that to me.
The debt of gratitude I have for those women is immense. They shared their lives with me, picked me up when I fell down (both literally and metaphorically), cared enough about me to correct me, worried over me, sweated with me, brought me meals, listened and laughed. They cuddled my babies and let me cuddle theirs (and sniff their wee baby heads!). They weren’t just Gym Buddies and Turbo Buddies and Church Buddies – they were true sisters. The girl who arrived in Colorado was sad, yes, but far less broken than the girl who’d showed up in Minnesota. And I have them to thank for that.
I’ve been putting this off for a long time. But it’s time. I’m finally in a place where I can say goodbye – and even that is a gift from my friends as they’ve shown me over the past months that they’ll love me no matter what I do or where I go. And really – how blessed am I to have friends that make saying goodbye so difficult? So.
Goodbye. I love you. Everything else is extraneous.
When I think about the power of reading their letters and the healing of writing the letters, I almost wonder if this was the whole point of my Operation Give a Little. To get me to this point where saying goodbye felt okay. One of the hardest parts was worrying that I wouldn’t be able to say what was in my heart, to write something good enough to do justice to how I felt. And you know what? I couldn’t! The letters I wrote are terribly imperfect. Even as I sealed them I knew it wasn’t enough. But sometimes it’s okay to not be enough. I finally realized that saying anything is better than nothing.
At any rate, I know that this post has nothing to do with fitness and really nothing to do with anyone but me and I’m sorry for that. And you’re probably beyond tired of hearing me talk about this stuff. (Again, sorry.) But I hope that you will try this one little act of service with me because I think it can be just as powerful for you. I didn’t know until I actually sat down with paper and pen in hand who I was going to write to but it was worth taking the time and the risk. So, please, write someone (anyone!) a real hand-written note today. Tell them how much you love them. Tell them a favorite memory you have about them. Or just tell them a joke to make them smile. Doesn’t have to be much.
And then mail it or slip it under their pillow or slide it under their door or burn it and watch the ashes float to heaven. Feel the words written on your heart. And if they hurt? It just means you’re alive.
Now I’m curious: what is the most meaningful letter(s) you have ever received? When is the last time you wrote a card and mailed it? (And I don’t mean the mass-printed holiday letter – although those are cool too and I do enjoy reading them!). Anyone else just rotten at goodbyes??