Two weeks ago I drove my technicians back to the field after they dropped off our work trucks. I returned them to their personal vehicles at the check station and one by one they kicked up dust on our gravel road out of their summer home, on to the next adventure. I spent the night, ensuring we’d left everything as we should: clean, empty, and ready for the next technicians, biologists, or wardens who come into the place I’ve made my temporary home for four years. The next morning I said goodbye–again–to some of my landowners before leaving–again.
During my lunch with my last stop, we talked about moving on and being free. He urged me to not settle, or settle down, or stay here. Now is the time for you to get out there and see everything! I told him that was my plan…eventually…I just am always conflicted between running away on an adventure and thinking practically and settling into a job. Then, the second to the last thing he said was “I see something in your eyes, like it might not take much for you to stay here. I hope I’m wrong.”
That went all the way to my core. Am I like that? Is that true? All my life I’ve striven to get out of Georgia, and yet a native Georgian can see it in my eyes, my attachment to this state. How much would it take for me to stay here? A plea from the family? The friends? A mediocre job, or a once-in-a-lifetime job? Anything? Am I that afraid of leaving, that I would risk my grand adventures for the safe option? The last thing he said to me was “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope we never see you again.” Of course, I knew what he meant: he knows there’s more for me than what is here, and he sincerely hopes I find it.
Two weeks later, I’m still mulling over our conversation. How many times does someone need to come back to a place and say goodbye? I’d already done it twice. Was he right, that I don’t really want to leave?
No. I think part of the impetus behind him saying that to me, was to light a proverbial fire under my butt, and make me prove him wrong. Point well made, sir. There comes a time when we must say that final, final, final goodbye to a place that has shaped us; it is at a time when we know that to stay in that place would leave us stagnant, when there is no more for us to learn or absorb. So, we come back and back and back again to say goodbye and eat our last meals with the people who have helped shape us, but eventually, to keep growing, we must kick up that dust and not return to it.
But, how does one ever fit all the necessary parting words into one, or two, or five final visits? Even for someone like me who enjoys language, stories, and conversations, I cannot pick my sentences carefully enough to ever be satisfied that I have said all of my heart’s thoughts. I think that is just life, though. There’s never enough time, or the mood is never quite right, or your brain just doesn’t cooperate, to feel complete closure about a season in your life. So we keep coming back, hoping that this time when we leave we’ll feel better, or more peaceful, about leaving behind something that has shaped such a part of you. Inevitably, we never do. Some of us find excuses to keep coming back, either to relive a part of our lives that we miss, or to keep trying to find the last words to say.
Sometimes, “goodbye” doesn’t just cut it. Perhaps that’s because we are, after all, leaving a part of ourselves there. It is hard to say goodbye to yourself; we are selfish beings, we desire to keep ourselves, well, to ourselves. But inevitably…we can’t. We leave a bit of who we were in the dirt from our childhood, the trees we fell out of, the first house we left when we were young. We leave a bit of who we were in the freshman dorm during our first year at college: when our small town minds are exposed to the world at large. We leave a bit of who we were at our first job: our first chance to prove ourselves, and the first hard lessons we learned that forever altered our personalities.
Every place, or person, that irrevocably changed you keeps the old you. And more than saying goodbye to a house or a piece of land, saying goodbye to who you once were is difficult. The old you will always immediately flood back into your mind when you pass through, no matter how many years separated you are. –I think that is probably why it is so easy for us to slip back into old bad habits when returning to our hometowns, but that is a different story, for another time–
So, perhaps, instead of “goodbye,” when we are pulling up our stakes and packing our final bags, on our final final final trip back, we should say “thanks.” Thanks for what what I learned, what I didn’t learn, what you gave me, what you took from me, and how you shaped me into the new me, the one that leaves the old me in the dirt I kick up behind my truck. If I ever need to see how far I’ve come, I’ll come back, rustle the dust, see the old me there, and realize how glad I am that I was lucky enough to see it was time to go somewhere else, and change again. So goodbye, again, and thanks.