Nonfiction

Serendipity, photograph by Elsa Lichman

Hello and Goodbye

“I’m ready to go.” Connie says, her voice raspy, “Life is hello and goodbye. “

 

Something slides open inside me; something else resists the opening.

 

“I’m sure dying will be a great adventure,” she continues in the confident tone of the school counselor she once was. I wish for such matter-of-fact belief.

“But it’s so hard to say goodbye to my children, grandchildren, friends—everything I’ve ever known and loved.” Quiet tears fill her eyes. My throat tightens.

She is 90. In her chair she doesn’t look so different. But when she stands her body torques, right shoulder far below left. I know she is in pain. She’s so thin I can feel her bones through a thin layer of flesh as we turn our heads away from each other to hug, although we are both wearing masks. Yet she still does a little jig, humming “Off we go into the wild blue yonder” when we are again face to face.

Her wrinkled face, with hooded eyes that light up when she smiles, is not so changed from the face I first encountered twenty-seven years earlier. I waited at the foot of an escalator in Dulles airport for over an hour, scanning the features of strangers as they appeared on the moving steps, looking for someone I had never met. In the pre-cellphone era, there was no way to find out if I had missed her at our appointed meeting place, other than to leave and have her paged. I kept telling myself to wait just a few more minutes, and then another few. Finally she came down the escalator, walked right up to me, and without a moment’s hesitation said, “Hi Roz, I’m Connie.” A memorable hello.

We worked together, we laughed together. Every year we gathered with former colleagues who had become friends. At an early gathering of this group, I was walking to dinner with Connie on a dimly lit dirt path in a rustic camp in Maine.

“I had no idea what people felt when they talked about not wanting to go to a party,” she said, “I always assumed that I would like people and they would like me.” Oh boy, I thought, did we arrive from different planets.  “Then I was invited to this get-together and I felt nervous, like I didn’t know what to say. It was awful. And I realized that people feel that way all the time, but I never understood how it felt.”

“I’m still never really sure whether I belong, even here,” I said, “whether I have anything to offer that people will want. And I’m a lot better than I used to be.”

“Roz.” She stopped in the spotlight made by a lone lamppost and looked directly into my eyes. “I always want to see you. I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to.”

What amazed me was that I believed her.

And now I believe that she is ready to go. But that doesn’t erase my sadness about her going.

“I’ve had a good life,” she says. “Yes, some hard things happened. I had a child that died.  My husband lost his legs.” Her voice is strong. She looks down. “We went to church on Christmas and afterwards he said, ‘What a beautiful service!’ and then had a heart attack. All the children got there to say goodbye and then he went. My children wanted to get me a new bed, but I still reach over to his side.” She looks around, then sits up straighter.

“I have this document that I carry everywhere, signed by my children and my doctor, that says, ‘Do not resuscitate.’ Hello and goodbye,” she repeats quietly.

***

Heron Island is on the other side of the world, off the eastern coast of Australia, accessed by car, then planes, then shuttle, then ferry, in an entire day of travel on that continent. Lee and I, our much younger friends Ben and Anna, and their almost two-year-old daughter Madeleine arrive tired and cranky. But we’re stunned by the beauty, the isolation, the 200,000 birds coming and going.

The next day I babysit for Madeleine while her parents and Lee go snorkeling. While she naps I hear crying. I check on her. She is sleeping peacefully. I am hearing vocalizations of the mutton bird, which flies halfway around the world to raise a single chick, returning every year to the same burrow in the sand to lay eggs.

Madeleine wakes up and asks, “Where’s Mama?” This is something she needs to know many times a day. She has several little books with her about mama and baby tigers, mama and baby giraffes, with the moral that mama always returns. I remind her that mama is on a boat, and we look at one of these books.

We decide to take a walk.

Thick humid heat envelopes us, but is bearable in the dappled shade of the Pisonia trees. The scent of these trees lures a migrating species of tern known as noddy birds to build their nests in its branches. Their guano provides nutrients for the trees. But in some terrible evolutionary error, the seeds of these trees often stick to the birds’ wings, weighing them down so they are no longer able to fly. Many fall to the ground and starve to death. We’ve been warned not to try to help the fallen birds, as we might injure them more severely.

Madeleine, of course, does not have these facts. I look at her, then at the sick and dying birds that litter the ground around the trees. I turn away from them and wonder if the sight will upset her.

I look down at her cap of red hair. She points up at a tree. She has always looked up, even as a baby, pointing at planes in the sky. When we rode in the car, she noticed building cranes on the horizon. “Mama crane and baby crane,” she said. Now I lift her up so she can see the many white-crowned, black-feathered, placid birds sitting on their nests in the tree. They have no fear of humans. Do they fear the seeds of the tree? “Mama bird,” she says.

We arrive at the cottage where Lee and I are staying, and Madeleine asks, “Where’s LeeLee?” In addition to Mama, she tracks the whereabouts of everyone she is with. “With Mama, on the boat” I say. “They’ll be back soon.” A three-foot-tall wispy feathered white heron lives right behind our cottage. Madeleine says hello.

We walk on until we reach the beach. The previous evening Lee and I walked here quietly in the dark, without flashlights, as we had been instructed. Suddenly they emerged from the water, hauled their shells onto the beach: huge green sea turtles, crawling through sand, selecting their spots, tirelessly flapping their rear flippers to make a hole large enough to hold the eggs they would soon lay: more than 100 eggs each. I almost held my breath for fear of disturbing them. They would turn and go back to the water if they sensed danger to their nesting site. Today turtle tracks crisscross the sand, turtle eggs rest beneath it, the turtles are gone.

All around us, beneath aqua water sparkling near shore and deeper blue further out, lies the great barrier reef:  hard brain coral; staghorn, smooth-tentacled like trees; soft coral, swaying feathers and fans; pink, purple, golden brown, orange, green, blue.  Bleached-white dead coral now accompanies the living.

Slimy sea cucumbers produce waste to sustain the plants that nourish the bright fish. Fifteen hundred species: orange and white clown fish, neon-blue damsel fish, striped pouty-mouthed trigger fish, long-nosed black-and-yellow-patterned butterfly fish who mate for life, turquoise and purple parrot fish, tiny yellow gobies, massive tiger sharks. Mollusks, whales, dolphins, shrimp, spiny urchins, translucent jelly fish. A whole non-verbal world.

(Are humans, who have heated and acidified the ocean, another evolutionary error?)

“Ocean,” says Madeleine. “Boat” – she points in the distance.  “Mama.”

“Yes,” I say, “Dada and LeeLee too.”

We turn and retrace our steps. Madeleine’s small hand fits in mine. Our palms grow sweaty; she holds my index finger. Her strides are long, mine small; we walk slowly, leave footprints in the sandy soil. My muscles are as loose and liquid as the air and water around us. We pass the noddy birds, dying on the ground, roosting in the trees.

We are also creatures of this world that we will continue to learn about, try and fail to comprehend what we learned, and then forget what we learned. Madeleine will not remember this walk, but I will, until I forget or am no longer here to remember. Does memory change the value of the moment?

***

In the four-room apartment in Manhattan where I grew up surrounded by Jewish refugees, I could not imagine the life in which I met Connie, a New England WASP with Quaker leanings, and walked on a remote island in Australia with Madeleine, a child not related to me by blood. The moments I shared with them, like every other moment, hold something important.  Each moment is all we have. We are our own universe and a speck in the larger universe. Randomness rules our lives, as it does those of the noddy birds, some of whom bring their babies into the world while others are brought down by sticky seeds. We are all part of a vast, interconnected mystery.

Everything changes. Yet I resist change. No matter. Connie will go, I will go, Madeleine will go, after experiencing a life in a world I try still to imagine with hope rather than terror.

Ascribing meaning is a fool’s errand. The only meaning, I tell myself, is the one we create for ourselves. Yet I also tell myself that each moment matters: all the hello moments, most of which we barely notice; the goodbye moments that sweep us up in drama and sadness; and all the moments in between, if only I could pay attention to them.

Give hello its due, try not to fear goodbye.

 

September 12
by Andrea Carter Brown
  On 9/11, Andrea Carter Brown was a resident of downtown Manhattan living just a block from the World Trade Center. September 12 chronicles her up close and all too personal experience of the attack, but, even more, the continuing horror and eventual healing of the months and years afterward. September 12 won the 2022 IPPY Silver Medal in Poetry, the James Dickey Prize from Five Points, the River Styx International Poetry Prize, the Puddinghouse Press Chapbook Competition, The MacGuffin National Poet Hunt, and is cited in the Library of Congress Online Research Guide to the Poetry of 9/11. “A more haunting memorial to 9/11 than this book will be hard to find. Reading September 12 is a wrenching but restorative experience you won't soon forget".  — Martha Collins, poet, author of Casualty Reports and Blue Front "... detail by detail, we watch the process of innocence captured by absolutely unpredicted trauma, and how the experience lives on and on, through shock and terror, through the kindness of strangers, through the heart of a beloved, through grief and elegy, through normality that will never again be normal."  — Alicia Ostriker, New York State Poet Laureate "This brave book documents great loss, but also hard-won psychic resilience in poems of astonishing beauty and wisdom. September 12 is necessary poetry." — Cynthia Hogue, Poetry Editor, Persimmon Tree
Available from Amazon and Word Works.

Bios

Before she retired, Roz Leiser worked as a grief counselor, RN, nonprofit director, and staff member for Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. In recent years she has co-developed and co-facilitated workshops for Black and white people called Reckoning with Racism and Reconciliation. Her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Persimmon Tree, Common Ties, The Sun, The Noe Valley Voice, Blue Lyra Review, Moment Magazine and Exist Otherwise. She lives in San Francisco.



Elsa Lichman, MSW, LICSW, retired after 43 years as a social worker. In retirement she turned to the arts: she became a newspaper columnist, poet. solo singer, choral singer, and photographer. Her love of nature has taken her on many magical adventures.

6 Comments

  1. Roz, I think you are an amazing writer. I’m SO proud to know you…and I could “see” Connie as you wrote about her and hear your voices. Thank you and, hello and hugs to you and Lee.

  2. Roz, I truly loved this piece, especially the juxtaposition of the hello and goodbye. Thanks so much for including me! Love to you and please keep writing!

  3. Dear Roz, I really loved this piece. Among many parts, the line, “Does memory change the value of the moment?” spoke to me. Thank you for writing it. And for sharing it. Ruth

  4. This piece is full of color—and so much life. I hope that when I am dying, I will remember, remember, remember all of the life in its multiple forms that I have been blessed to witness. Reading this felt painful and optimistic at the same time—but mostly optimistic. Thank you!

  5. Elsa, I love this photograph – I couldn’t have picked something more perfect to go with my piece – thank you!

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