In books and the movies, goodbyes are often an extended process. The main character gets the chance to sit by their ill-fated loved one's bedside and hold their hand, looking deep into their eyes before saying all of the words they had always longed to say, before they drift off forevermore. The hero gets the chance to pause and deliver a smooth catchphrase before finishing the villain off with a final blow or shot. But in real life, that's not the case. When someone dies in real life, we very rarely have the chance to say all of the things we meant to say, let alone goodbye, before they're gone. When someone leaves our life - whether through a break-up, getting onto a plane never to come back - we're lucky if we have the chance to say all of the things that long been left unsaid, like how we really felt about them, or those three little words that are often the hardest to utter when we really mean them: "I love you." When you come to the end of a chapter, it doesn't always have a beautifully composed, neat ending.
No, in real life, goodbyes don't happen like they do in the movies. When my dad died, I didn't get to hold his hand by his bedside while he took his last breath. I knew he was unwell, and that he had mere days left, so I did have the chance to tell him I loved him - if he even still understood me anymore by that point, though I like to think that he did, and his eyes told me so - but I still remember when The Moment came as clear as day. I was at my sister's apartment, then at Al Majara Tower in Dubai Marina, where we'd spent the afternoon trying our best to watch silly movies to take our minds off what we knew was inevitably coming. The sun was strong - that deep, intense type of yellow sunlight that makes the world feel so bright that it almost turns bleak, like it was making a mockery of the concept of fresh, illuminating sunshine. It wasn't working, of course, but that was why we had gone there - after having spent days on end moving between my mum's house and the hospital, where the sorrow, anxiety, and pain were so thick in the air that it was almost palpable, and we had been instructed to get out to try and clear the air; to feel "normal". When you feel like you're standing on the edge of a precipice, just waiting for a gust of wind to make you feel as though you'll blow away at any moment, doing something mundane and ordinary, be that folding your laundry or making breakfast, can make you feel a little more grounded, like an assurance that your feet are still on the ground somewhere.
In real life, goodbyes are often sudden, like a train veering off the tracks. When my friend Bory died while I was in university, it was much the same. I had seen her on the "Joey", the university shuttle that had been affectionately named that after the man who owned the company, which took us from our campus to the nearest T (that's what we call the metro in Boston) station in Davis Square. It was winter, so we were bundled up, and even that 20-minute walk would leave you feeling like the wind was biting your face. I was with my friend Priscilla, and we were on our way to see Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, at the Loews Cinema at the Boston Common. We tried to convince Bory to come with us. She almost did - but just before we could sway her, she insisted that she'd better not since she had to go and pick up some gifts for her boyfriend in Canada, who she was flying over to visit for the holidays the next day. It was the eve of Thanksgiving. On the way home, full of popcorn and dreams of magic, Pri and I took the Joey again. At the last roundabout just before getting back to campus, just a few blocks away from the public laundromat and tiny Japanese restaurant that boasted an amazing all-you-can-eat deal and wicked mochi ice cream, the bus ground to a halt. We couldn't figure out the cause of the traffic ahead; "There's been an accident, a bad one," the driver said, continuing: "Sorry guys, we'll just have to ride it out - it looks serious." We could just about see the blue lights of the police cars flickering off in the distance. The next day, Pri and I hopped into a cab to Logan Airport, heading off to the Dominican Republic. We were sitting in Puerto Rico's San Juan airport waiting to board our connecting flight when the call came; I'll never forget that moment. My friend Dan called me; I thought it was unusual since he didn't call me that often, so I picked up immediately: "Did you hear the news? A student died last night - hit by a car near the campus," he said. I didn't think to put two and two together, until he said the next sentence: "It was a Korean girl I think, her name was Nory or Dory or something like that." It hit me like a ton of bricks. It was like someone had sucker-punched me in the gut and everything went dark. "Oh my God... she's not Korean, she's Bulgarian, and her name is Bory. It's short for Boryana, she's my friend, and I just saw her last night," I said. After that, it was all a blur. I vaguely remember pausing while my ears felt like they were closing in with deafening silence. I don't know if I hung up the phone or just dropped it, and Pri took care of the rest. I burst into tears, sobbing just as they announced that it was time to board. Pri led me onto the flight, explaining to those around us staring at me like I was crazy. I didn't care. I couldn't think. In my head, I kept repeating: "It can't be Bory, it can't be Bory - I just saw her. What if I'd convinced her to come with us? What if, what if, what if? What if that could have saved her?" I cried the whole flight there.
In real life, when you go through a heart-wrenching breakup, it often comes out of nowhere. Once you've reached a certain age, we all know too well that it's not always a mutual decision - if you manage to come to a grown-up agreement then you're lucky, but it is rare. And even before a "conscious uncoupling" the moment where someone you've loved and been sharing an intimate part of yourself with tells you that they don't love you anymore, always feels like someone has pulled the rug out from under you. They don't make these decisions lightly - and you thought everything was fine. Even if things weren't great, you don't always know when it would come to this. And even if you know it wasn't right, nobody likes to hear that someone doesn't love you anymore; or at least doesn't love you enough to stay. I was lucky in this respect, once. After months of denying it, I tried to work up the courage to tell one of the only people who I have truly loved how I felt before they left. I still couldn't do it vocally, but even putting it into a letter - the first and only time I'd ever done that - was liberating. I don't like to live with regrets if I can help it, and I knew all too well by that point of my life that if you do have the chance to say goodbye, it's a blessing. Take it. Even if it's scary, have courage and take it.
Growing up as an expat kid in a place that's as transient as the UAE, I've lived a life of getting used to goodbyes. As a child, my family had a running joke that every time I made a new best friend, they'd leave shortly after, usually because their parents had gotten a job in a new country and it was time to move on. I still remember when my best friend from first to fourth grade had left - Helene was half English and, like me, half Lebanese. We both wore glasses, had mushroom bowl-cut hair with a fringe, adored animals, and loved to read. When her family moved to Lebanon, we tried to stay in touch. It was the age before social media. We tried to write, but with the constant warfare happening in the area, I had no warning when they picked up and left, and we lost each other's addresses. One day, the letters stopped coming. The ones I'd written were piling up, stacked neatly, just waiting for an address so they could be sent. It all felt so sudden that I could still almost taste the Orangina her mum would serve us in cups with colourful straws that swirled up at the top, a treat that I was never allowed in my own home. It wasn't until I was in my late 20's that we reconnected through the incredible network of Facebook. It was a harsh introduction into the melancholy of goodbyes, but it was a pattern that I'd keep repeating throughout my entire life until the day it was my turn to pick up and leave, when I went off to college overseas.
Learning all of this made me develop a different philosophy towards my personal relationships and the way I've faced endings from an early age. I hate saying goodbye - instead, I prefer thinking, "If it's meant to be, we'll find each other again someday." It's always been one of my favourite ways to say farewell to someone in Arabic too: "Illaliqa," i.e. "Until we meet again." But in order to be able to be comfortable doing that, you have to treat each moment that might possibly lead up to that point - which often comes out of the blue - with a certain attitude. You have to always, always, say how you really feel - to yourself, if nobody else. And to do that, you have to check in with yourself, on a regular basis. Acknowledge it. Tell yourself how you feel. Respect it, honour it. Even if they never know, at least that way you can decide if you want them to, or if it's worth it. It's how you'll know if your truly ready to finish this chapter and move on, or if you still have more words left to write in that part of your story.
Some could say that that's slightly depressing, but it all depends on how you look at it. I firmly believe in the power of positive thinking (but that's another post for another day!). You know what they say - change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change. Life is a journey, with awesome new things ahead of us just waiting to be experienced - so when your instincts tell you it's time, accept it and go forth with a smile.
It's the same with any job - we learn, we experience, and we take in everything we can - but there comes a point where we need to move on. In order to evolve, in anything in life, we need to grow. So if you feel like you've been stagnant or just keepin' on keepin' on, and consumed all there is from this land that might no longer be fertile for you personally, it might be time to spread your wings and migrate to find new pastures. Sure, you'll feel sad at times, but I promise over time, the pain will burn away like the embers in a dying fire, and all that will be left is stellar memories and the incredible lessons you picked up along the way, like fresh coal that's ready to be ignited for its next fire. As French poet Jean de la Fontaine put it, "Death never takes the wise man by surprise; He is always ready to go."
Photograph by Nadine du Toit, at Mulkirigala Rock Temple, Tangalle, Sri Lanka