To my readers, thank you for staying with me this week as I’ve written tributes after tribute to my sister, trying to cope with the inevitable. Trying to hold onto the memories, and the good feelings.
We said goodbye to her yesterday and these are the words that come to me today. It’s another story that speaks to me … and maybe to you.
Saying Goodbye Shakes Me Up
Traveling has always been the easy part for me to do. But saying goodbye is the other side of the coin–I’m UNeasy. I still remember a very poignant farewell with my nieces.
The girls were pretty young. Rachel was seven, Emily, six. It was the end of August, 1988 after their first day back to school. I had come back to Pennsylvania for a high school reunion earlier, had a short visit, and was heading back to Indonesia the following day.
I had spent the day with my nieces and two little kids that my sister also babysat, Christina and Jeremiah. The three children and I were seated on the living room floor. I recall we had just finished coloring.
“Emily, you always color so nicely in the lines,” I complimented.
I smiled. I love how kids acknowledge their talents with that supreme confidence.
“Who taught you how to do that?” I asked.
Emily lay on her belly, with her legs crossed in the air. She was very focused. “My daddy.”
I sat watching her. “What do you do with your pictures when you finish?”
“I give them to my mommy. She puts ’em on the wall.”
“Good mom, huh?’
She nodded. “Yep, she likes all the pictures I color–and she likes Rachel’s too,” she added.
I stood up. “Hey, everyone! how about a book? If we pick up this stuff, you can choose a book for me to read.”
“Yay! Hurry up!” the girls cried.
“You pick all the broken crayons, and you pick the books ” That was Emily, the little organizer, trying to tidy it as quickly as possible. After a flurry of activity, the kids were ready.
“Aunt Amy, sit here!” Rachel called out.
Emily plopped down on the other side of me. She peered into the book…
Christina stood up, her hands on her hips. “I want Aunt Amy to sit by me, too!”
Emily narrowed her eyes and placed a possessive hand on the book I was holding, “She’s our Aunt Amy, not yours.”
“Hey, hey, hey! None of that,” I chided. “Let’s sit in a circle so we can all be together and see the pictures. Besides, I am everybody’s Aunt Amy.”
We got on with the business of reading. I had a captive audience and really let my storytelling skills go wild. It was a fun, exciting time. I even recall that Jeremiah, an adorable, chubby toddler, wore a big wide grin. He looked from person to person and began to clap his hands as he picked up on the excitement in the room. Maybe my sister had brought him in to share in part of the fun. She always wanted to capitalize on positive experiences. I don’t remember what book I read but I remember thinking it was a perfect end to an excellent afternoon.
Soon after, Christina and Jeremiah went home for the day. I stayed on with Rachel and Emily as it was almost dinnertime. We ate dinner and the girls had their baths. Soon it was time for them to go bed.
“Can I tuck them into bed, and say goodnight–and I guess, goodbye?” I asked her.
“Sure,” she responded.
I sat down with Rachel and tucked her in. Rachel burst into big, noisy sobs. She just didn’t understand why I had to leave. I sat next to the bed and held her. I didn’t have any words this time, no pat hotel plan. I teared up myself. It was all I could do not to cry in front of her. When I left her, she was sleepy and finally calm.
Next, I checked in on Emily, who had been waiting. She lay very, very quietly in her bed and didn’t say much. But when I kissed her goodnight, I felt the hot tears that covered her face. She had been crying silently for some time and the hurt seemed to go even deeper.
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
She struggled to get the words out, “How come you like them better than us?”
Bewildered, I asked her, “How come I like who better?”
“Those IN-DO-NEE-SIANS!” The words burst out with a torrent of feeling.
“Oh honey, I don’t. I don’t. I promise you.”
“But you keep on going there.”
How does a little girl grapple with such emotions? Emily reasoning abilities surprised me.
“I just work there.”
“You’re not even going to be here for my BIRTHday!” She, too, sobbed.
“Oh, Emily! When is your birthday?”
“I don’t know. Ask my mommy!”
I wanted to laugh, but this little girl was so intense that I had to hide it.
We talked for a bit more until she felt better. I promised to write her a lot.
When I finally closed the door, I was an emotional wreck. This goodbye stuff had really taken its toll on me.
I told my sister about what happened, and she sighed. “They’re over emotional. Remember it was the first day of school for them. You’ve been with them ever since. Emily rarely shows her emotions. And both of them really miss you when you’re gone.”
I was still pretty shaken. In fact, so much so that I canceled a date with an old friend I had planned to meet up with. I just wanted to go to bed and wake up early to catch my flight out.
I found that I couldn’t enjoy my flight back as I normally did. All I could think of was the little girls I had left behind. Of course, they woke up and went to school. Life was back to normal for them already. And it would be for me when I settled back into my job. I had so much to learn.
I have never forgotten my encounter with their tears. Children innocently shower us with honest emotion, in a way that adults rarely do. We keep it inside. Like my mom did for so many years each time I left.
I think it got harder for my mother to hide it, though. I recall once after I had checked in at the airport, I found a seat near the window. There, I watched my mother hobble away from the building and slowly make her way to the car, leaning heavily on her cane. The sight of her stooped over form seemed so lonely that I was at once reminded of that long ago farewell scene with my nieces. I decided then that I would have to come home soon to live.
Farewells had begun to hurt too much.
And this one does, too.
The girls have spent as much time as possible with their mother – until it was time for her to go to sleep. Again, they’re overemotional. But they’ve got a right to be. This is the end of their first day at real life school and this the biggest test they’ve taken. As they grieve in their own ways, I’m sure they still have questions but now it’s time for them to give their own children answers at a level they can cope with.
When I think of our last day with my sister, I smile at a final memory. The girls put their mother on the phone with Grandma. She said goodbye, and that she loved her daughter. “It’s all right to go to heaven,” she said softly.
And my sister did. She flew out of bed and into the arms of Jesus.
Somehow, my mother, bent with age, must have sat up straight. When she said goodbye this time, she wasn’t sending a daughter off into a scary foreign land. She was sending a daughter off to the most secure place of all.
I want to reassure my nieces and their dad as well as the rest of us that like I did, their mom, too, will write us lots of letters. But hers won’t come in an envelope. For now, they may come in tears. But later, they will come on the wings of love, in our thoughts and memories, and laughter. In moments of celebration. Her writing will be there.
I remember how much stock I put in my travels. One day there will be no more hotels and no more traveling.
We will all get together again when we go home
It’s a promise highlighted in a letter God sent us.
Sealed with His son.
But for now, please know I miss you, Carolyn. And I’m waiting for your first letter back.
As I recall the many pictures my nieces used to color, the ones their momma loved to tape on the wall, I feel a flutter of joy. I think the girls are going to continue this tradition and show her lots of pictures of her grandkids as they grow up. Their mom is going to be hanging the new ones just as proudly on the stars for all her family and friends in heaven to see.