The Impossible Goodbye

Melissa and Lavinia

Moments ago, my wife Melissa pulled out from our home to begin a 12-hour road trip to Santa Rosa, California. She’s traveling with her good friend Karin Taylor, who graciously agreed to accompany Melissa on the journey because I cannot.

In the backseat sits Lavinia, 20 months old. She’s been with us for the past 18 months as a service dog in training. The purpose of Melissa’s trip is to return Lavinia to Canine Companions International in Santa Rosa where Lavinia will complete her training and be placed with someone in need. The odds that we will see Lavinia again are nearly zero. This is a moment we knew would come. That doesn’t make it easier.

I’m reminded in spades of a project I undertook a few years ago called Earning the Impossible Goodbye. I share it now in italics, as I wrote it up back then:

Earning The Impossible Goodbye

Tim McGraw’s song Live Like You Were Dying inspired me back in the day to live more in the moment. But try as I might, routines and responsibilities got in the way. Then, I stumbled on a practice called Earning the Impossible Goodbye, simple in concept but not so easy in practice. It’s not about completing a bucket list the way the song suggests. Rather, it’s about the relationship that’s right in front of me.

Philosopher and monk Thomas Merton suggested that we discover our true nature once we realize our efforts achieve nothing. In other words, there is no bucket list to complete. Instead, as Merton wrote, “in the end, it’s the reality of our personal relationships that saves everything.”

So what is it about saying goodbye to a relationship that holds as much promise as heartbreak? Anyone who’s been involved in a personal relationship knows that relationships aren’t rocket science. They’re harder. Rocket science is at least measurable and predictable. Relationships, not so much. And as hard as it is to have a meaningful relationship, saying goodbye to one is even harder. Like everything, relationships don’t last forever.

Spiritual author John Shelby Spong suggested that humanity created religion because our awareness of life’s impermanence was too much for the early human imagination to handle. We needed to believe that we and our loved ones would go on forever. But for purposes of earning the impossible goodbye, we go in the other direction by exercising our awareness of impermanence.

I’ll bring this back to earth. Goodbyes are hard. For purposes of the practice, we want to explore making those goodbyes feel impossibly hard. A goodbye doesn’t mean much unless the relationship means something. Here, we reverse engineer that. We practice saying goodbye, and as best we can, infuse each goodbye with a little more meaning, aiming to “earn” a depth of feeling that makes the goodbye seem impossible. Here’s my best example.

My family has a 9-year old dog, Nash. I’ve loved several dogs since childhood, but until recently, I would not have included Nash in that category. He’s untrainable, incontinent, neurotic and afraid of the dark, so he keeps me awake at night. But my wife loves Nash, and I love my wife, so I’ve put up with him. Then, it occurred to me that Nash could help me with this practice. So, one day in a private moment with him, I knelt down. Looked him in the eye. And whispered, “goodbye.”

I felt like an idiot. It was silly, awkward and superficial. But I kept doing it. Before long, without me realizing it at first, I started to experience Nash a little differently. These days, I’m the first one up every morning. And when I walk into the kitchen to make coffee, the first thing I hear is Nash’s tail thumping the floor. He is the first living thing I see every day. I don’t want to imagine starting my day any other way.

Consider making your next glance at someone, your next kid’s recital or soccer game, even your next look in the mirror your “last one.” Say goodbye. Practice it. Don’t’ force it or over dramatize it. Don’t talk to anyone about it. But each time you do it, try to up the stakes. We’re going to have to say goodbye eventually. We might as well earn the impossible goodbye now.

In 36 hours after her arrival in Santa Rosa followed by a Canine Companions ceremony, Melissa will live the Impossible Goodbye for real when she turns Lavinia over to her future handler. My own grief, and my compassion for Melissa, is easily matched by the pride I feel for what Melissa and Lavinia accomplished at the local junior high working with special needs students. Perhaps more important, I’m reminded (because I so often forget) that it is a privilege to feel that deeply about another living thing.

I encourage you to consider the exercise. And if our paths ever cross, I’ll do my best to earn an impossible goodbye with you. Godspeed. MM