For a brief moment, my past self and I are on the precipice of a single plane of existence. She can’t see me, but I can see her.
Twenty-two years old, sitting in the process group with our clinical supervisor. Today’s discussion is about endings and goodbyes. She leans in when the professor starts the meeting with a question.
“How do you do goodbyes?”
“I’ve never had to say goodbye. To anyone, really. I don’t even know what you mean…”
She is lying, of course. We have said many goodbyes; let go of many friends and loved ones. Teachers, classmates, mentors, coaches. All in the past. What she really means is she has not acknowledged those endings; has not allowed herself to feel the pain of letting go. She is young, the whole world is in front of her. All she has is time. She is surrounded by people and doesn’t have to mourn them when they leave.
The professor soaks in the answer, looks at her knowingly, skeptically.
“Let’s unpack that.”
My young self nods eagerly.
We are a year into the pandemic and I’m texting a friend, venting about my bad day. I was thinking about my dad again. This friend is good with grief; doesn’t mind the way I make every conversation, every memory about him.
We live only a few miles away from each other, but haven’t seen each other in months. It isn’t safe. Nothing we used to do together – art shows, meetups, happy hour – is safe anymore. I finally admit the truth. Not out loud, of course. That would be too hard. But in text.
I hate this. I miss my old life. I want my old life back.
With as much empathy as she can muster in text, she responds: There is no going back. Only moving forward.
This is not bad news. It’s actually comforting. A fact that continually propels me with purpose as my life oozes, changes, shapeshifts into a form I never anticipated.
Only forward, I repeat.
There I am again; now 30 years old. This self, too, I visit in memories. This is one of those stark, flashbulb moments I carve out of the dark time and time again. It’s sunny, and the last time I see my father alive.
The years following graduate school were painful but full of growth. The endings have been plentiful since the time I once believed they had no role in my life or practice. So many goodbyes, in fact, that I can no longer utter the phrase. The colloquial “Talk to you soon” has completely replaced the word from my vernacular, and inherent discomfort with saying the g-word encapsulates all of my conversations, personal and professional.
That day is no different. As we part ways, my dad talks about how well he is doing in rehab. I encourage him, and wave, and can hear the words before they even leave my mouth…
“Talk to you soon.”
Now, as I watch from afar, I ask my mind to show me if I hugged him. I think it’s in the moment between walking to my car and calling out over my shoulder. But the memory is blank. There is no answer to my desperate plea.
Please tell me I hugged him one last time.
A lone howl into a darkness that never howls back.
There is glory in letting go. There is much to be gained in saying goodbye. Perhaps, this is what the past is really calling for; what I am really missing when I refuse to say the words.
The ghosts of my old life hang around bitterly. I’m tired of trying to keep them at bay. They cling to every step forward, heralding me to return to the person I once was.. For what? The past is not as rosy as my brain would have me believe. It is not the princess, fair skinned and eternally young. It is the ruthless witch, poisonous and greedy. It keeps me trapped in the castle while my future runs free in the vast kingdom waiting to be explored.
I wake up one day and no longer recognize my life.
Too long I have been held hostage by my past selves. I prepare for psychic surgery, my hands and will moving deftly across time. The child who blamed herself for her parent’s marital discord. Blessed and released. The desperately lonely teenager who was bullied and bullied others. Blessed and released. The young woman crying in the bathroom at Christmas, completely alone in a room full of “family.” Blessed and released. The daughter who could not convince her father to stay sober. The sister who could not keep her family together. The granddaughter who could never do enough. Blessed and released.
Gingerly, I say goodbye to each. There is no going back; only moving forward.
I am back in that clinical supervision group. My young self has arrogantly proclaimed there is nothing wrong with goodbyes, no real challenge. You just let go and move on. There’s more exciting things to look forward to in life.
What keeps me anchored in this memory? Why does this spot rub so deeply in my consciousness? I realize the derision I hold for her – my younger, idyllic self- is what keeps her caught in the net of my memories; what keeps her trapped in my own time capsule of dread…
Gracefully, I grant her the compassion I locked away in resentment. She would learn, over time, just how many goodbyes life had in store for us. She would see, over time, that the future always bears challenges, the fruits of which are often sweeter and more plentiful than the feelings of the past. She would learn over time, and isn’t that what the passage of time is for?
I see her clearly, in that plane, and I see the time pass between us. She is back there, I am here now. Moving forward, I allow myself to say goodbye to her, too.
Marie Baca Villa is a queer Chicana writer and artist in California. She loves science fiction, horror, flaming hot Cheetos, and cats. You can find Marie on Twitter at @okay_its_marie.