Mental Snapshots & Good Goodbyes
Important moments of life are often overrun with busyness, planning, stress, and “must-dos.” And the big “goodbyes” of life are often overshadowed by sorrow, a busy schedule, and stresses like packing, funeral planning, or travel plans. The expression of genuine emotion gets overlooked, stuffed down, or put off for a “later” that never arrives.
Here are some ways I push back against those tendencies.
Back when Doug and I were on the cusp of our wedding, one of our professors gave me his best piece of wedding advice.
He said, “it’s very easy to get lost in all the busyness and everyone telling you where you need to be. So make sure at some point when you’re standing up at the altar, you really set aside all your other thoughts, and take a good mental snapshot. Look at how he’s smiling at you and what it feels like to hold his hands in this moment. Then, you’ll have that memory to think back on for the rest of your life as what your wedding felt like. Otherwise, you run the risk of having a bunch of pretty pictures in a book, and over time your perspective will shift away from your own actual experience of your wedding, to the outsiders’ perspective of what the view was from behind the camera lens. You will start to lose the memory of what it was like to be in your wedding and all the other pictures taken from other vantage points will become your sole ability to reflect back on what it was like to be in that day.”
I’ve always been grateful for his advice. I did that, and it was particularly important because we also were dealing with my father-in-law in the hospital in critical condition at the very same moment that we took those vows, and it would have been easy to lose the memory of our actual perspective in that moment, amidst all the stress and swirling thoughts and concerns.
Instead, in addition to the photos of that day, I have a clear memory of Doug’s watery eyes smiling at me and squeezing my hand while my now-deceased friend Allison’s voice soared.
Ever since then, at times when there is great emotional importance, I try to do this same thing– take a mental snapshot when I’m holding my newborn, take a mental snapshot of what a special day feels like.
I like being able to think back through my life and still these things happening from my own perspective, rather than through the perspective of the photos we have.
There’s this woman I want to tell you about.
When I first met her, she was in her 70s, and had spent the last few years taking adventure trips around the world. She had taken trips to Egypt, to southeast Asia, to the Mediterranean, and even yes even in her 70s, had taken a small boat into the back channels of the Amazon. She was my husband’s great aunt, and she was a godly woman who had lived an incredible life. She served in the Navy as a young woman, served her local community as a physician for more than four decades. Though she never married, she still had a hand bringing children into the world. Thousands of babies were delivered by her (sometimes multiple generations in the same families!!). She was the first female physician in her area, and attained many professional accolades.
But one of my favorite things about Aunt Doc, was her affinity for the plain old truth. She would speak what she really thought and you could count on her to do it. If she thought someone was a cad, she might not say it out right but you’d know that that’s what she thought. If someone had been irresponsible, she wouldn’t hold back from intimating that truth. If she believed there was nuance to a situation, she wouldn’t paint it as black and white.
And if she thought you were doing a great job, she would tell you. Just a few years ago, after we talked at length about what my homeschool days with the children looked like, particularly the history portion of our studies, her eyes got wide and she said, “I’d love to be in your homeschool class! That sounds fascinating.” Some of my most valued real-life encouragement as a mom came from her lips, because I knew that she was an unfailingly honest person. If she said it, you knew she really thought it.
I still have a lovely mental snapshot of the last time I saw Aunt Doc. She was standing in her pink polyester suit with a white high-neck shirt, smiling with tears in her eyes. She and another favorite aunt of Doug’s, aunt MaryAnn, were waving and smiling and sending us off as we came to Washington 2 & 1/2 years ago.
I think I even said at the time, “I feel like that is probably the last time I will see Aunt Doc. on this earth.” Sure enough, she passed away just a number of weeks ago, at the ripe old age of 94. She was in good health, but as our bodies are wont to do, age had taken its toll. And I don’t believe she would have wanted it lengthened. In her latter years, she grew increasingly eager to see her Savior and to be reunited with old friends that she had seen come and go.
Before we moved overseas, more than 10 years ago now, we spoke to as many people as we could who had lived abroad in various settings. If there were people willing to share their experiences and wisdom with us, we wanted to hear it!
One of the most memorable and useful pieces of advice that we received was, “Say good goodbyes. You might think that you are coming back to a city, but you can’t be sure. You can’t be sure that while you were gone there will not be a political uprising, that your visa will be reapproved, that the baby you are going to have won’t have some sort of medical treatment required in the US, or any number of other factors that could entirely prevent you from going back to that same place. And if you miss a chance to say it, you might never again have the chance to connect with that person. So, always leave a city as if it is the last time you will leave. Tell your friends, local and from the ex-pat community, how you really feel. Don’t hold back; be honest and tell them what they mean to you.”
Overseas, that piece of advice became very relevant to us, as we had many many transitions (expected and unexpected) in our 6 years abroad. I am not sorry for a single one of the good goodbyes I spoke during those six years. In fact, overseas life is an unending river of goodbyes because at any given moment, you’re the one leaving, or someone else is. There’s almost never a “constant” set of relationships in overseas life.
Perhaps that overseas context makes this habit of “saying good goodbyes” easier to develop. Maybe it’s harder when you rarely have reason to say “goodbye.”
The last time I spoke face-to-face with Aunt Doc was just inside the open-door of Aunt MaryAnn’s garage. The old-habit-training kicked in– I went to her and took her hands and told her exactly what she meant to me. I told her what a heritage of faith and family she’d passed on to all the generations of her family… how her love and encouragement had been a blessing to me and to Doug, and how much we loved her. I told her I was thankful for these years of close-by living, how much the kids love and look up to her, and how we’d all miss her.
She was very emotional and seemed shocked to hear these things. We hugged and expressed love and tenderness, and I headed back to the van (where I took that “mental snapshot” of her in the pink polyester suit, through my own tear-filled eyes).
We did, in fact, talk on the phone a few more times over the last two and half years, but I’m so thankful for that last, sweet, good goodbye. Especially now, I don’t have a single regret about not having said something I wish I’d said.
IN THE COMMENTS: In what ways could you implement a practice of taking “mental snapshots” and saying “good goodbyes?”
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