I don’t recall the moment I learned my family’s most important ritual, how old I was or how long it took me to learn it.
All I know is that whenever I hang up or wave goodbye to a close family member, I almost always tell them that I love them.
“Bye, Dad. Love you.”
“Yes, Mom. You got it. Love you.”
“Fine, I’ll do it. Love you.”
No matter how elated or enraged I am, I end my conversations the same way. I’ll never know, my parents explained, when I’ll tell someone I love them for the last time.
I’m discovering this ritual, which I sometimes saw as repetitive, helped teach me about unexpected endings. We often don’t get to choose when or how they occur.
COVID-19 is providing us with that same lesson, as many of our goodbyes were taken from us. There are the high school seniors who won’t get one final sports season with their teammates. There are diligent workers furloughed from dream jobs. The grandparents who didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones. COVID-19 has spared few when it comes to snatching away goodbyes and planned endings.
I know I’ve already lost my fair share of endings as a senior in college, and there are sure to be more losses.
It’s not like I didn’t know the goodbyes were coming. I’ve been bracing for the emotional impact since January. But I didn’t expect them to happen so soon, or to not happen at all.
I walked out of Dumas Apartments on Hitt Street on March 10, unknowingly for the last time, right before the virus sent us back to our far-flung hometowns and away from our friends. That night, I didn’t realize I was forever leaving the closest thing I’ve had to the Friends Central Perk couch. The kind of place where, no matter what happened that day, that week, that month or even that year, I could return and belly laugh.
I didn’t live there, but Dumas is home for three of my friends, and it became a base for about 10 of us where we played too many games and watched too many movies to count.
It has a $10 pink velvet couch with frayed corners and ill-fitting cushions, a radiator that always hisses and a wooden bathroom door that never fully shuts. I tried to shut it many times. I even told my friends I would find a way to close it before I graduated. They eventually taped a sign on it that read, “The door won’t shut, Nick. Don’t even try.”
It probably wouldn’t have worked, but now I’ll never know. I won’t get one last try.
Throughout our lives, we’re taught so much about how to handle beginnings. “Here’s how to start the new year fresh.” Or, “Here’s how to take on the rest of your life.” The main function of school is to prepare us for the next level of education or a new job. All beginnings.
We’re never really taught how to handle endings.
Ever since students at the University of Missouri received the email notifying us that the rest of the semester was moving online, I’ve been grieving. I think that’s the best word for it. I’ve hesitated to use it in conversation because it’s a word most often associated with death.
I’m blessed that I, along with my family and friends, have not experienced death due to COVID-19, but I think we are permitted to grieve the things we have lost, no matter the level of suffering.
As researcher Brené Brown recently said in her podcast Unlocking Us, “hurt is hurt, and every time we honor our struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy, the healing that results affects us all.” So, I think grieving is OK for all of us who experienced premature endings because of COVID-19.
I certainly am. I was counting on these traditions, such as commencement, for closure. I don’t yet know what the virtual celebration will be like, but I know it won’t be the same. These traditional endings are supposed to fill our hearts and allow us to turn the page to the next chapter. That’s what movies and social media tell us anyway.
The goodbyes have been left unsaid, and to be frank, I’m sad. In a way, it feels as if all the moments and experiences that have come to an end have been taken, too. As if the time spent at Dumas was nothing more than a pleasant daydream. The proper ending is supposed to be the culmination of what made the experiences, the moments or the friendships valuable, right?
Maybe, maybe not. I think it’s great when it can be that way, but now just isn’t one of those times.
But know this: The ending does not change what happened in the beginning or the middle. The late nights at Shakespeare’s, the muddy touch football games in front of the columns, the impromptu karaoke in tightly packed cars, none of it disappears. The moment lives on when you decide to pause, close your eyes and put yourself back in it.
Endings are sad, but not because we have to say the word goodbye. The tears flow, the nose runs and the throat tightens because of all that preceded the goodbyes.
COVID-19 can and will take many things from us, but it cannot and will not take memories. What came before the goodbye — or the lack of one — is ours to cherish forever.