So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodnight
Since I spend a good bit of most days answering the telephone, I have noticed something that puzzles me. I'm having a perfectly normal — even nice — conversation with someone, and then they either just hang up when the transaction is finished or there's a sort of pregnant pause where neither of us says anything at all and then they hang up. Somehow, when I wasn't looking, saying "goodbye," became optional.
Why don't we end our phone conversations with "goodbye," like we always used to? Perhaps there are those who consider it too formal for this casual, always-in-a hurry age — why say "goodbye" to someone you'll never meet and may not even talk to again? Could it be that there is a generation (or more) of Americans who never learned that "goodbye" is the way to end a phone call? Anything is possible, I suppose.
"Goodbye" is actually a contraction of an older, more formal farewell: "God be with you." That would be formal, indeed, for ending a conversation on a device that now goes everywhere we do and connects us not just to family and friends, but also to doctors, lawyers, tattoo artists, mail order companies, online acquaintances and more.
And yet "God be with you" is also a caring, yet not over-familiar way to part with someone. If it were recast as "May the goodness of creation be with you" or "The blessing of the universe surround you," it would seem almost hip, in a spiritual-not-religious sort of way.
So, are we not comfortable with the veiled reference to God in "goodbye?" Do we simply not have the energy or the compassion to care about the many strangers who touch our lives each day, even enough to extend this small courtesy?
Or is it our fear of another sort of "goodbye" that underlies our reluctance to say it in more ordinary circumstances? Is it that we can't bring ourselves to face the multiple losses that make up our lives, and so, hoping to avoid the pain, we refuse to say the word?
Alas, loss and death come to all: sooner or later everyone must say goodbye, and most of us have to say it many times, each one a rehearsal for our final leave-taking.
On Oct. 20, I said a last goodbye to my father. He was not responding to the people around him by then, but we knew he was present and I think he was aware we were there, too. "We" was my brother Peter and his wife; my mother's brother, who was a close college friend of my dad's and introduced my parents; his two daughters; and Maureen and me.
We took turns standing close to the bed, putting a hand on Dad, talking to him. We told stories — some about Dad, others stories that he had enjoyed — and shared family news, the thing Dad was hungriest for in his last years. Always when I'd visit, he'd ask for news of family near and far. Those were times I was glad for Facebook, without which I would have had little news to offer. Of course, one thing about Dad's dementia was that he enjoyed a story or a piece of news the second (or fifth) time as much as the first.
I'm glad his last afternoon was spent with loved ones around him, talking in normal voices, remembering, laughing, saying goodbye. I know several of us whispered in his ear that my mother, his beloved Jan, was waiting for him and it was time to go to her.
About 4 in the afternoon, he left: he took two breaths so deep they pushed his shoulders up, we heard the gurgling in the throat sometimes called the "death rattle," and, with a long sigh, he died.
I will be saying goodbye to my dad for a long time, probably the rest of my life. I trust that the pain will recede in time. And I know that I was lucky to have the chance to say a real and proper farewell to one who gave me everything.
Life is short. If my dad taught me anything, it's that we shouldn't miss the opportunity to offer even a particle of kindness to those we meet along the way. Don't just hang up the phone — say "goodbye."
And may God be with you.