The final goodbye might not be what you think it is, or when. It certainly wasn’t what I expected.
I thought the final goodbye was when I buried my loved one. Or maybe the final goodbye was the goodbye just before they died when I was saying farewell, in person, for the last time. At least in this realm.
Of course, we might not know when we talk to them the last time that it is indeed the final time. That depends on how, when and where they pass over to the other side.
My biological father died unexpectedly when I was a child. I had no concept of a ”final goodbye” at that age. I presumed he would live forever.
I didn’t get to attend his funeral either – so there was no closure at all until I was an adult. In other words, there was no final goodbye other than the last time I saw him which I thought was a “normal” goodbye. Maybe we are all better off that way.
Final, when we do know, just seems so…well…final. So much left unsaid – so many feelings we just can’t put into the right words. Feeling the need to say everything we can think of that maybe we should have already said. After all, we know we’re not going to get another chance.
Sometimes We Know
I definitely knew the last time I saw my older brother, John, that it was the last time. He was suffering from end-stage cancer. He, however, had not accepted that he was approaching death – so for him it was definitely NOT the final goodbye. And because he was still fighting, I couldn’t exactly say goodbye either. I certainly wasn’t going to steal his hope, but I knew nonetheless.
My brother, Dave, died just a few months before John. That goodbye was torture. We BOTH knew – and our time together had been so short. We had only found each other as adults and had grown extremely close – only to be ripped apart by death.
I wanted that discussion to be anything BUT goodbye – yet there we were. He was fighting a losing battle and knew it. We spoke words of gentle love one final time. I assured him that I would see to it that he did not suffer. Trust me, you did not want to be the people who tried to stand in the way of that promise.
The Grim Reaper Knows No Justice
My brave sister, Edna, had survived breast cancer, complete with a double mastectomy and multiple rounds of debilitating chemo. We thought she was finally in the clear and then the sucker punch happened.
A heart attack followed by her death about 24 hours later. Edna and I had never said “goodbye” but she was no fool and realized as she endured her cancer therapy that chances weren’t good that she would survive. So while we tiptoed gingerly around the topic, we both knew what was going on.
Finally, finally, ever so tenuously we celebrated reports that Edna was cancer-free. We both began to breathe again. Edna and her husband decided to move to the mountains. Their life was back on track, or so we thought.
Edna was a realist.
Edna had just visited the doctor for a checkup again when she came home and insisted that they needed a vacation. Not later – now. Edna knew something she wasn’t sharing with the rest of us.
In a small Arizona mountain town, a few days later, Edna had a heart attack. Cancer is known to cause blood clots.
She died the next morning.
I never made it to Arizona in time to say goodbye, yet I knew when she passed. And I mean exactly when. I was on the phone with the nurse, because I knew something was very wrong. Then she coded. I literally sat there listening to the hubbub at the nurse’s station as they tried to revive her.
I knew she was gone.
While Edna and I left life unlived, we hadn’t left things unsaid.
I didn’t want to see Edna suffer from more cancer treatments. When I found out that her cancer had recurred, I knew that Edna’s exit was timely and exactly what she would have wanted.
Laughter as the Last Memory
The last memory of my mother before her stroke was laughing.
I called Mom often as I drove home from work (hands free, with headset.) That spring day, I had stopped in the road to shepherd a mother goose and her goslings out of the road.
I quickly told Mom I was stopping and why. She admonished me to be careful and said she knew I would rescue the vulnerable and helpless, no matter what. She heard me “shooing” them because I left the cell phone laying on the seat of the car. I also realized later that if something “bad” had happened, she would have heard that too.
But the “bad” thing didn’t happen to me – it happened to her.
The next morning I received a call from my sister-in-law, Karen, that Mom had fallen. In reality, Mom fell because she had experienced a stroke, but we didn’t know that yet. Karen stopped to check on Mom and found her on the floor.
That’s the call no one ever wants to receive. I left work immediately, quickly packed a bag, and left for the hospital.
Hours and hundreds of miles later, Mom could still squeeze my hand, slightly, I think. I realized when she opened her eyes reflexively that she was blind. She couldn’t speak nor could she move. Then, Mom lapsed into a deeper coma. Two miserable weeks later, she FINALLY transitioned. So yes, I got to say many words of goodbye, but I doubt she heard them – at least not with her earthly ears. And if she did, her brain probably couldn’t process them.
Looking back, I’m so incredibly grateful that our last communication before that fateful call was us laughing at the goose escapade.
A Loving Transition
My wonderful step-father, Dad, knew he was ready and wanted to go on. We both knew he was leaving soon, a result of worsening chronic disease.
At that time, my life was a total MESS, in all caps, with my (former) husband having experienced a massive, debilitating stroke at age 47. Needless to say, I found myself in a position as complete bread-winner with extreme medical bills following his 6-month hospital stay, caregiver to a paralyzed man with neurological deficits, and a parent with two children who were suffering terribly in their own right. I was only able to get away one time for a few hours to visit Dad. There was no help on my end and we lived 6 hours apart.
Dad smiled broadly when I entered the hospital room. As ill as he was, love and joy radiated from his face when he saw me. He had a tracheostomy and could talk, at least a little. We both knew time was short.
We shared with each other how lucky we both were to have found each other as family, and how much we loved each other. Dad has never left me, even though he left this earth.
His son, Gary, my step-brother, died unexpectedly in very difficult circumstances the day after Thanksgiving six years after Dad passed away.
His death was so horrible that I’m not sharing the details with you. The only thing worse than getting “that call” at 5 in the morning is for “that call” to be “that kind” of death.
My step-brother’s death was entirely unexpected and there were no goodbyes at all other than standing in shock, graveside, as something containing the words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” was read. I have blocked much of that week from my mind.
As much as I thought these were all final goodbyes, they really weren’t.
The Final Resting Place
Of those people I just mentioned, three, my Mom, step-Dad and step-brother are all buried within sight of each other in the quaint country cemetery down the road a few miles from the farm. I attended all of their funerals and said goodbye, sobbing, sitting on white folding chairs under a make-shift tent in the cemetery.
There is no comfort in funerals for me.
I said goodbye to John graveside as we buried him in a cemetery near where he lived, just a week or so after we didn’t say goodbye in his room at “rehab” that was really hospice.
My biological Dad is buried near the house in Dunkirk, Indiana where he lived with my step-mother. The process of filling in the blanks in his life, setting his gravestone and finally, just 4 years ago, visiting his grave accompanied by a supportive friend provided the closure I had never achieved previously.
One stiflingly hot summer June day in 1990, I stood by my sister, Edna’s grave at her service and tried to read a poem. It took three of us, me plus two of her grandchildren to get all the way through that reading. We would read until we couldn’t anymore, then pass it to the person beside us.
The poem, “A Little Step Away” (by O. J. Hanson) was found in Edna’s Bible and she had read it at her son-in-law’s funeral a few years before.
I found some modicum of comfort in the closing stanza:
It cannot be, for they live on
A little step away.
The soul, in everlasting life,
Has found a better day.
Today, Edna’s granddaughter lives across the road and other family members are close by, so I know she’s not alone.
That goodbye seemed so unfair. It was a cruel joke for her to suffer so, believe she was cancer-free, and then be gone so soon.
I said goodbye to my wonderful brother Dave when the preacher didn’t show up at his funeral and I unexpectedly gave an impromptu eulogy. I still laugh at that and Dave would have too.
Dave was cremated and never buried, so there is no “place” to visit to commune with him. There may have been ashes to ashes but those ashes are still transitory someplace. I just talk to him from time to time.
Dave took this photo through his semi-truck window someplace on the road on one of his last runs. To me, this is where Dave “is,” aside from watching over me.
For my daughter, Rachel, who was born prematurely, died a few hours after birth and was “disposed of” by hospital personnel, there will never be closure. As part of me, she accompanies me wherever I go. Like Dave, there is no “place” to say goodbye or visit – so she just travels along in my heart.
While funerals don’t bring me comfort, the cemetery is at least a place to go to reflect, honor, and sometimes to talk to our departed family members.
It’s a place to visit after that “final” goodbye. Even though we know the essence of who they “were” isn’t “there” anymore – we go anyway. For them. For us. To grieve. To honor their life. To take flowers. To perform whatever loving maintenance we can do for them. Pull a weed or two. Plant something. Anything.
To tell them we are so sorry they aren’t here with us any longer in the flesh and that we had to say that goodbye in whatever form it manifested.
But those…those were not the final goodbyes – even though I thought they were at the time. In fact, I thought they were right up until this summer.
There is ying and yang to everything in life.
A grave and tombstone marks the location of the last remains of our loved ones. We can stand or sit on the grave and be just 5 or 6 vertical feet away. We purchase a marker in tribute so our family members will never be forgotten. Our last “thing” to do for them – something intransient that remains with them forever, or at least until the ravages of time erode their names on those stones.
Of course, that’s just for graves in cultures where gravesites are not reused. For those whose graves are later shared with another, who are cremated or never buried for some reason, we have to adjust our thinking to something else. Find another way to memorialize and honor both their lives and absence. There won’t be any place for their descendants, if they have any, to search for, find and visit in another hundred years, or two. There is no tombstone which gives us at least the illusion of permanence.
Of course, sooner than later, their tombstone, or lack thereof, will be irrelevant to us. We’ll have joined them. Maybe it’s not just the funeral that’s for the living, but the grave too.
The Final, Really, Really Final Goodbye
I hadn’t been back to Mom and Dad’s graves in two or three years. They aren’t exactly on the way to anyplace. The last time I visited, I told them I didn’t know when I’d be back again.
Clearly, that was with the expectation that I would return. I did, a few weeks ago, but this time was very different.
This time is the final, really, really final goodbye.
I know I’m likely never returning. I know better than to say “never” in the absolute sense. Why would I never return to my parents’ and brother’s graves?
One of three things:
- My own time is limited
- I’m unable to return for some reason
- I’m moving even further away with nothing to bring me back
I’m fine. It’s number 3.
I’m excited for this new chapter to begin, but I never, ever expected the emotional response of that the final really, really final goodbye.
That Last Visit
I needed to make a final trip to Indiana and decided to take Mom and Dad a special bouquet of flowers this time. Normally, I purchase bouquets of live flowers, but I wanted something to last a little longer – even though I know they will be thrown away a few months from now.
Two bouquets of silk flowers have lived in my house for years. My favorites. My daughter gave me a hand-made gift a year or so ago that was gifted in a basket. I arranged the silk flowers for my mother in the basket as I didn’t want to leave a glass container in the cemetery.
I knew my daughter would want to be included.
When Mom was so ill, my daughter took off work, which she could ill-afford at the time and stayed with me at Mom’s side those final incredibly difficult days waiting for Mom to pass. I was extremely grateful and I know Mom, somehow, knew she was there.
The day that I went to the cemetery the last time was part of an emotion-filled weekend with multiple goodbyes in different ways.
- One decades-delayed goodbye was to Robert Vernon Estes at the Indiana War Memorial POW/MIA ceremony.
- The second goodbye was gut-wrenching with a close family member in a situation I can’t discuss.
- The third was this final visit to the cemetery.
By the end of the weekend, I felt I had been put through the emotional shredder.
Back Roads and Corn Fields
It had been three years since I had returned to Galveston, a tiny crossroads village with a 4-way flasher on the way to exactly no place.
I made my way across the back roads of Indiana and realized that the corn is as tall as me, or taller. A tractor was mowing hay. Kids were playing in the sprinklers in yards. It smelled like summer.
An old gas station was frozen in time at an even tinier intersection with maybe 10 houses.
Nothing much had changed. The hazy mid-summer Hoosier countryside is timeless.
While the real estate market in the rest of the country is smoking-hot right now, not so in rural Indiana. For sale signs that have clearly been planted in the front yard for months based on the unmowed grass around the signs and the washed-out words tell the tale that no one wants to move there.
The center lines of the small roads are worn off by years of local traffic. Many intersections have crosses and flowers strapped to the posts of stop signs – signaling a fatal accident took place there.
I remembered my own accident at one of those crossroads when another driver ran the stop sign. The corn was too high to see them approaching and I only caught the briefest glimpse of them before that horrible crash some 40 years ago.
On this particularly hot summer day, I was glad to finally arrive at the cemetery – as a visitor.
The cemetery where Mom rests used to be a cornfield and is two or three blocks long and maybe half as wide. Those are city blocks, not country blocks😊
I have a permanent note in my phone so I can locate exactly where Mom and Dad are buried without driving around and feeling like an idiot. I can always get close but never seem to remember exactly.
The note didn’t matter much this time. It’s unfair to cut trees down in a cemetery.
I realized as I was updating that note that I really didn’t need to do that because this was my last visit. But I did it anyway, just in case. Never say never.
My Mom is buried just to the right of Dad with her own gravestone. His first wife is buried on the other side, and beside both of them, his daughter, Linda, with a tiny baby-sized tombstone.
Linda would have been my step-sister, but she died as an infant, right after Christmas. She’s still my step-sister, technically, but I never knew her.
I always remember her for Dad, since he can’t anymore. And his first wife, Martha, gets to share his flowers too.
I pulled into the grass near the hand pump for water, opened the back of the car, and arranged the bouquets.
It was beastly hot and humid with the sun beating down. Just like I remembered life on the farm. You started to sweat the minute you moved and you were sticky within about a minute. Drenched within 10.
I stayed an hour or maybe more. I lost track of time.
I needed to talk to my parents – to fill them in about a few things.
And yes, I mean talking out loud.
It’s OK if you think I’m crazy. I embraced that years ago😊. And both of my parents already knew that – in spades – so it’s not news to them either!
I purchased a small Lunchable type snack at the local convenience store at the crossroads, spread my car quilt out on the ground, and sat down to break bread with Mom and Dad.
One last picnic together. Well, me, them, some ants and a box of Kleenex.
One last hot summer lunch with no AC and not even a fan. Just like time travel.
Yes, I could have sat in the car, but it wouldn’t have been the same. Things look different from the ground-level perspective.
Besides, I was closer to them, to the earthly loam that Dad plowed.
I could see that pesky Morning Glory that I always thought was a flower and Dad insisted was a weed. Now the Morning Glory gets to mock Dad and grow right in front of his tombstone and there’s not a doggone thing he can do about it.
I shared turkey and cheese with both Mom and Dad.
Mom didn’t like peanuts, so Dad got her share of those. That was always our special shared snack.
I explained to them that I was leaving and not coming back. For good this time. I explained that just like when I left Indiana all those years ago, I was alternating between excited, hopeful, and terrified.
Leaving everything behind that you’ve ever known is daunting, to put it mildly. There’s always the nagging voice asking if you’re SURE you’re doing the right thing or making a grievous error. I remember Dad encouraging me before when no one else did – and he would be now too.
I know that I’ll die far from their resting place and far from anyone else in the family as well.
I had a few other things to catch them up on too. It has been a while.
I asked for their help on a couple of matters if they have any agency whatsoever in that direction.
You might notice the Hershey Bar. Mom loved those and I bought that as a special treat for Mom. We found a huge one for her last Christmas. Of course, we didn’t know it was her final Christmas at the time. We gave it to her as a joke, along with a hammer and chisel, but she loved it and consumed it entirely in about 3 weeks. It might just have been the best gift she ever received!
Mom will always be remembered for Hershey Bars and her first, second and third desserts😉
I’m sure the local ant population loved everything too. It didn’t matter. I did what I needed to do.
I took a few flowers from Mom and Dad’s bouquet and placed them on Linda’s grave.
I always tell Linda how much Dad loved her and how I wish I had known her. We were close in age and would have been such good friends. Some people squander opportunities. She never had one.
I’m glad Dad is with her now. He grieved her death his entire life. His final goodbye to her was a hello, I think.
Gary is buried closer to both roads. I always take Gary a single flower, generally a rose. That’s the tradition and has been for the more than two decades since he died. Gary’s life always feels so incomplete to me – artificially cut short.
You can see Gary’s stone from Dad’s and vice versa.
I know that doesn’t make any difference either, but still, I’m glad they are buried in close proximity so that Gary is not alone. I hope Gary is at peace. He was not in this life.
They Are Free
I know their souls and spirits have all flown. I know their bodies are inanimate.
I expected that the final farewell had taken place when I said goodbye to their mortal presence, or maybe when we buried them – not years and decades later when I said my last goodbye at their grave.
I thought my grieving was done.
The final, really, really final goodbye.
Countless times I have looked back at my ancestors’ lives in awe – at what they endured and survived. I’ve often wondered how they did it. Often those women had no choice in the family decision about leaving for another location and saying that final goodbye in the cemetery.
Many, MANY women left not only their parents, grandparents, and siblings buried in unmarked graves, locations burned forever in their hearts, but they left rows of babies behind as they moved on.
One of my German ancestors buried all but one child.
Two more buried children “at sea” which means throwing the bodies overboard after they died in their arms. I can only imagine the agony of those poor mothers and the rest of the family. The crossing for new opportunities would always be marred by that memory.
Others had lost spouses that remained in another country or state. Almost everyone left living family members that they knew they would never see again in this lifetime.
Of the women, most never had the opportunity to choose or even influence their destiny. All they could do was to say their goodbyes, one way or another.
They said a grief-stricken goodbye to each family member as they drew their last breath, lovingly washed and prepared their body for burial, cried in the church at the funeral, and mourned as the dirt hit the wooden casket in the grave.
They too discovered that, as painful as that was, it wasn’t the end of grief and that there was yet one more final, really, really final goodbye to be said before the ship sailed or the heavily-laden creaking wagon rolled out for the new frontier. A piece of their soul stayed behind.
Part of me will forever rest in the cornfield in Indiana that’s now a cemetery where my family members sleep.
I’ve done what I can.
Rocks and a Penny
On the way, I found a lucky penny – a tiny message from the universe perhaps. I tucked it in. Maybe for a visitor in the future.
So is mine.
I hope that someday, someone else will put flowers on Mother’s grave.
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