The going away party was a hit–everyone was smiling and happy, and it felt, in so many ways, like a coming together and not a splitting apart. The music was loud, and people were overly generous in sloughing free drinks down our gullets. We wrote dozens of post-its and stuck them on people, first messages of friendship and connection, and then later insults and invective once we’d had enough drink. The night was hitchless, but for a surprise dance-off that included the Spice Girls, which just so happened to be Faith’s Trigger, and thus turned the dance-floor into an anger pit. It was the exact kind of mess we secretly had wanted.
It was perfect. All of my friends and loved ones in Korea gathered in one place to send me off – laughing and singing and being fools, the wonderful lot of them. I loved them. So why was I then leaving?
For all of the certainty and direction I felt about why I had to leave Korea, the actual leaving was certainly some doing. I needed to go because the job had become too easy, and because I could feel myself growing stagnant. I felt comfortable with these reasons: they felt mature, adult. I was leaving so I could continue growing. I patted myself on the back on the daily for making so grown-up a choice.
Of course, when confronted with clearing out my apartment, my highfalutin ideals of adulthood began to falter. Did you know it is hard to move out of an apartment into a backpack? I scooped my life into boxes and sent them out on the ocean, and packed a few meager remains into a bag for the road. Parceling out your life can feel pretty dire when the parceling is literal.
And still worse, I had to say the actual goodbyes to the people I loved – the people who had made Korea so worth staying for two years. I could deliver long, boring monologues on the Reasons Michael Had to Go, and I certainly did, but those things fall away faced with your closest friends. If you want to go, if you need the road, you can’t just run out the door. There are people on either end of that road, and they deserve your words, your embraces, and your tears.
I tried not to structure my goodbyes into hierarchy, to rank the coming sadnesses, but they started to form some arcane order in my brain. As I went for final dinners, last hugs, for the remaining raised glasses, I unconsciously filed each parting away amongst all the others, sure of their status and how likely they were to devastate me. Their order comforted–the supremacy of one farewell above the next brought a kind of peace. I felt certain I could predict, with scientific accuracy, the precise amount of human emotion that might be squeezed out of my miserly bastard heart, and with that knowledge I was at ease. If I knew what was coming, I could prepare. I could steel myself. They would all get single, enigmatic tears. They would get stoicism. My voice would not hitch, my fingers would not tremble. I would be sad, because my people deserved to know I was sad, but my sad would be arch and concise.
But in practice, things began to fall apart. The dinner would go well, drinks would come with our easy laughter and worn jokes, but in the moment of the actual goodbye, the dam would burst. I would suddenly realize distances, the miles and years, all of the things that would come between these people and I. How long it would take to see them again.
Ty and I had finished the process of moving our entire apartments into our backpacks, and took a cab to help Bobby shuttle the last of his crap from one apartment to the next. Bobby was supposed to come with us to travel, but had decided to stay in Korea. The weather was beautiful as fall was coming on that day, and we stood in his bright new apartment, helped him carry in his new oven, and felt excited about the change in his life, the change in our own. I had always thought of Bobby as a close friend, but not a close close friend, someone maybe in Tier 2, subtier B of my difficult and deeply convoluted social circle. I was sure that our goodbye would be a bummer, but one I could handle with aplomb, keeping my reserves of weepiness for the more shattering goodbyes to come.
And then we came to say goodbye: that night I was to have a going-away dinner with my Korean friends, while Ty and Bobby rode into Seoul for one last night on the town. It struck me suddenly that this was it, and as I said goodbye, our friendship gained a clarity. My previous rankings seemed dull statistical gerrymandering, an attempt to redraw the lines on coming grief. In those moments when I gave my friend Bobby a hug and wished him well, and thanked him for being my friend, the distinctions fell away. I was leaving, and he was my friend, and it was all heartbreak.
Because goodbyes aren’t something you can grow any better at–take that from a veteran. No matter your depth of experience, they still end up messy, with rent garments all over the place. You don’t grow more capable of handling the hurt any more than your immune system grows adept of healing wounds if you take on more of them. It still hurts, and it still sucks.
But with time, you come to appreciate the goodbyes just like the hellos. Bittersweet is still a flavour, and you can’t always appreciate a taste without the balance of the others. It can still hurt, but you learn to savour it in some way – you grow accustomed to the feeling, and to what that hurt means.
The wounds are necessary pains. Without the ache, we never know how much there is to ache for. We measure our former gains by the absolute depth of our subsequent lack, by how many stitches are needed to mend the hole. We grow more certain of what needs to be refilled to be complete again, and learn the shape of what was lost. Sometimes you need to be broken to figure out how you were kept together in the first place.
Partings are sad–they’re never not going to be. But they can show you what you’ve got, and what you’ve got to get back to. With loss you come to appreciate what you’ve gained, and with absence you learn what presence meant. Leaving can be brutal, but the road is a lot easier to walk with the right people sending you off.