Friday, March 30, 2012

Saying Goodbye

I knew Peace Corps would be difficult when I signed up.

I knew saying goodbye would be difficult, too.

I had no idea, however, that I would have to make the most difficult goodbye of my life not in site, but to someone at home just five days before I got there.

I had spent 26 months in Guatemala. You can imagine my shock when my parents told me the day after COS conference that my grandma had been diagnosed with late-stage melanoma, that it had metastasized in her bones and lungs and little corners where it had no business being. After the bureaucratic surprises from Peace Corps in January, and general surprises and stresses of finishing up, this seemed like a practical joke from the universe. Good one!

At the time it was difficult to process. At first the doctors gave her about six months, maybe less, but there was no reason for pessimism. I had another six weeks of work to do, so no reason to rush home. We spoke almost daily on the phone about how much we were looking forward to hugging each other. I had plans for how we'd finally eat M&Ms off a spoon covered in peanut butter, like we'd always joked about since I was a little kid.

Then it became clear that six months was a slightly high estimate. She was on hospice at home but more-or-less her regular old self. To be on the safe side, I made arrangements to return home a few weeks early, throwing aside my carefully justified plans for April in order to be home for Easter and have some quality time together. Meanwhile, I was scrambling to finish some of my work here (a trail that was inaugurated yesterday, of all days) and assuming she'd hold on.

It turns out melanoma was either unaware or indifferent to the plans we had.

Today I said goodbye to her over the phone. 810 days here, and I missed her by just five.

It was her time to go. She had been semi-unconscious for the past two days and went peacefully today at 1:30 pm, surrounded by family and friends. Our last interaction was her slight moan over the phone as I thanked her, told her it was okay for her to go, told her I loved her and would see her soon.

This was one last lesson that Guatemala had in store for me. And after endless lessons here in humility, flexibility, the futility of perfectionism, it was the most important lesson of all.

The moments we have with others are the most precious thing we have.

It sounds corny, but you need to experience it to understand. The moments we have now. Not tomorrow. Not some indeterminate Future with a capital f. It's comforting to leave things for later, as it allows us to remain indecisive, avoiding making mistakes, be lazy, just a little longer. The problem is we just don't know what the future holds.

After visiting home in October, I had made a list of goals. Run a 5k, learn German, improve my relationships with my dad and grandma. It seemed like I had a long time to work toward those goals. It seemed like grandma would live to 100. And so I somehow never got around to making daily calls or convincing her to get on Skype. When we did talk, it seemed it would take more energy than I had to find much to say that was both credible and genuine. I would let my mind wander and repeat things and leave her to do the talking.

But in the end, today, I had to be present when I said goodbye. There was no putting it off. There would be no chance for re-do in the future.

Grams didn't need any re-dos, because she never forgot that each moment was precious. She never missed an opportunity to hug us, to tell us she loved us, to tell us how raising us had brought new light into her life. She rarely bickered and made a point to slip us an extra cookie and spoil us and chat when we sat and watched TV.

After today, I understand the essence of goodbye a little better; that a real goodbye is an act, like the many Grams gave us, of love and most concentrated presence in the moment. I'll be saying goodbye many times over again to friends and acquaintances in the next few days. And now, I´ll surely be more present for each one. I´ll hug a little harder, be more honest in my gratitude, and spoil everyone just a little bit more.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Grams.

Here concludes my official log as a volunteer in Guatemala, as I expect I'll be busy in the next three days with packing and goodbye celebrations. Catch you on the other side of the border, where I'm sure many more thoughts will surface about the beautiful, mundane, and absurd of this crazy 27-month ride.

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