We were chasing each other through the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, laughing. We hid behind trees, sprinted into open spaces, and ran open-armed down an endless hill, where we caught the wind and closed our eyes; flying with our feet on the ground.
There are 30 years between my nephew and me, and the joy of auntie life is becoming a kid again. Piggybacks and wrestling, fort building, and hide-and-seek, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, water gun fights, and Bluey. And after twirling him around a few times, he ran off, dizzily, to the park bench 50 yards away, without looking back and without stopping. Impressed at the endurance, I ran after him, slowing as I grew near, watching him sit there and catch his breath with a far-off-look in his eyes, as if contemplating something deep. His gaze broke when I sat down, when he looked at me and smiled.
“You can really run,” I said. “And you’re really fun. I like you, you’ve got good spirit.”
He took my hand and held it, and I could feel the gravity of whatever he was feeling. “I love you, Auntie K.”
“I love you too!” I said, squeezing his hand as my heart squeezed itself tighter, trying to hold on to the love that was now bursting from it. We sat in silence for a few breathes, each of us soaking in our togetherness.
And then I sighed, knowing I was about to break this moment, as well as our full hearts. “I’m so happy I got to hang out with you this week! But you know, I have some sad news: I have to go back to Colorado tomorrow.”
“You do?” he said, looking up at me.
“Yeah, I do. I’m really sad about it. I’m going to miss you so much.”
I gave his hand another squeeze but he let go and stared down at his feet, which were now swinging slowly, faster, as if he was trying to kick the dirt but his legs weren’t long enough. He sighed heavily and stopped, shoulders slumped.
This is the worst feeling in the world, I thought, and immediately regretted sharing a hard truth. There was no amount of “I love you’s” that would make him feel better. Not only had I just ruined a happy moment, I ended the idea that this happiness could continue in the future, after tomorrow. I watched him realize that I was an impermanent presence in his life, and I was gutted. But this wouldn’t be the only time I did this in 2021.
I said goodbye to people and places that I cared about, disconnecting before anyone was really ready. Even if I knew I was on to the next – I was not prepared for the good grief that moving on created, like a chest tightening right before running a race. It gave me pause, my heart, telling me just how deeply I felt.
I said goodbye to dead relatives in dreams only to wake up weeping. In those instances, I mourned the inability to hug them, and be hugged by them – because that’s what we were doing before I woke up: holding each other. And even though it’s been 20 years, that feeling felt more real now than ever.
I also said goodbye to old versions of people – perhaps even before they were ready – helping the letting go process along; away from ways that no longer served and instead began to cause suffering. I learned how to hold space, and even though I started off more critical than I would have liked, being witness to someone else’s transformative journey helped me discover a softer, more compassionate side. Yes, I can give you time and space. Return anytime, welcomed as you are.
Every time I said goodbye in 2021, I grew more compassionate; that is, I felt a strong desire to end the pain that I had caused in the separation. Even if I was walking away, I found myself looking back – not swept up in nostalgia, but in the clear recognition that we had all changed – at what had been and yet, completely unsure of what was next.
“I was on the edge, between the inhale and the exhale. I had not quite left, and had certainly not arrived,” Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche writes in In Love with The World. “I am in the bardo of becoming, traversing different realms…Mind the gap.”
Most profoundly, I said goodbye to a narrative that was on repeat since adolescence, and with it, all the identities I had grasped over time, clinging to them as if who I am is the work I do, and the way I perform in the role I play. Giving up the work showed me exactly who I am and how I relate, and for this, I am grateful to have seen myself reflected back in the very relationships I was saying goodbye to, until next time. I could feel how much I meant – who I was to them – in the hand holds, dream hugs, virtual happy hours, airport embraces, phone calls, and FaceTime tears. “When I think of you, I think of pure joy,” my mom told me, and I have never been happier to be distilled so clearly. This is what I offer.
See you in 2022.