Goodbye has always been a staple word in my vocabulary. During my childhood, I lived 500 miles from my grandparents; twice a year I never said the word goodbye more painfully than as I waved to them from the van window. Years later, I attended college in Florida, 400 miles from home in South Carolina. At the beginning of each semester, I said goodbye to my parents; at the end, I said goodbye to friends. After graduation, when I stayed in Florida, I continued making frequent use of the farewell as my friends moved on.
Lots of people struggle with saying the word. A classmate in my MFA program slipped off on the closing evening of our residencies without saying goodbye, unable to face the sadness of separation.
Each time my best friend Laura leaves me for vacation or for a visit with family, she mourns our coming separation for weeks, then squeezes me bug-eyed and wipes tears all the way to the airport terminal.
Even my seven-year-old nephew hides his face and ignores me when it’s time for me to leave him at the end of vacation. Once, my sister explained, “He just doesn’t want to say goodbye.”
What is good about goodbye?
Though I hated the separation that they represented, I dreaded goodbyes mostly because they never turned out right. Though I practiced them enough to be fluent, come performance time I sputtered, forgetting all my well-planned sentiments and failing to work up an acceptable display of drama. Unlike Hollywood’s well-scripted airport or bus station farewells, my departures lacked a certain memorableness. I had no screenwriter, no soundtrack, no acting coach to make them perfect. And usually, despite the touching script composed in my mind, I somehow forgot all the lines and settled for encapsulating my emotions in that one word, goodbye.
Goodbye—that overused, generic expression—always seemed an inadequate substitute for my wishes of well-being and hope for my loved ones’ happiness. Really, it’s no wonder that I disliked the word so much; in a double gut punch, goodbye not only represented the painful separation from my loved ones, but it also revealed my struggle at articulation. Several years ago I started wondering, what is good about goodbye?
I enjoy dissecting words to inspect their parts as I do a crayfish from the Chinese buffet. With no intention of eating the steamed crustacean, I set it on the side of my plate where it stares at me with shiny black eyes. After my rice and egg rolls, crab Rangoon and lo mein are gone, I split the creature down its middle, peeling back the shell to examine its yellow insides. In much the same way, I select a word, usually an unfamiliar one, and dismember it. Parsing it at the prefixes and suffixes, inspecting the roots, I cobble together a guess at its definition before consulting the dictionary to check my work.
I assumed that inspecting goodbye would be easy since it’s constructed of only two common words—good and bye. Good readily revealed its meaning, but bye clung to ambiguity. A bye, I guessed, was like a way, a trail, a direction. It seemed reasonable to think that goodbye was the equivalent of wishing someone “happy trails.” But the dictionary offered no definition of bye which adequately fit that piece of the farewell’s anatomy. Though baffled, I refused to look ahead at goodbye‘s definition, sure that one day I’d figure it out on my own.
A few months later, while plowing my finger down the rows of A words in the dictionary, I passed over the definition of adieu, the French farewell meaning “commend you to God.” A little further down the page, the Spanish farewell adios appeared beside the almost identical definition “to God.” Positive that English wouldn’t be bested for some sort of spirituality in its farewell, I succumbed to my curiosity and turned to the etymology of goodbye. Sure enough, the meaning, compressed through centuries of dialect shifts and mispronunciations, lay there on the page: “God be with ye.”
Goodbye was easier for me to say after I realized it’s all there—all I needed to say in those parting moments when I feel the chafe of a loved one being torn away before I’m ready to release. All I wanted to express is encapsulated in that one word that isn’t really a farewell but a blessing, commending my loved ones into the care of God—the good part of goodbye.
This post was originally published on Dry Bones, Sing and, more recently, on Sarah’s blog, The View from Goose Hill.