The Hellos, Too

Airplane GoodbyeI lost my grandfather last week. He was a quiet man, gentle and calm. He worked with his hands, and he could fix just about anything, from a leaky radiator to a hole in the wall (like the one put in his basement paneling by yours truly 27 years ago). The last time I saw Grandpa, he was stooped low, the weight of years on his frail shoulders. Even with pain and age shadowing his face, he looked so much like my dad that it stole my breath. Just for a second, even as I was saying one last goodbye to my grandfather, my mind fast forwarded to a time in the future when my dad will be the one stooped and white. One goodbye hanging like a cloud over the other.

That’s the thing about goodbyes. They never stand alone. They resurrect past farewells and herald the ones to come.

No wonder they leave us feeling restless and uncovered, like time is a blanket that’s just a little too small.

We left the Philippines permanently when I was fourteen. I was sick (part of a longer story, one I might share sometime), and I was laid flat in the back seat of a Toyota Hilux, so that all I could see were the tops of trees going past the windows. I knew them all. And every curve and bump in the road. I knew them with the same surety that I knew I would never see them again. The tears ran hot, and I remember the feeling of them puddling in my ears. I also remember the sound of a small plane taking off, and I could see in my mind the little group of people gathered to wave farewell to the passengers.

Planes have always sounded like goodbye to me.

This morning I stood at our bay window and watched the first scheduled flight of the morning take off over the misty mountains. This particular plane carried away one of our newly graduated seniors and his family, people who aren’t sure they’re coming back to Papua New Guinea. This family would have been our next door neighbors, but they were moving out of their house the same day we moved into ours. Even though we weren’t extremely close to them, the weight of another goodbye laid itself down on my chest, bringing with it all of the goodbyes I said to students and friends in the past weeks, and for a minute I wanted to plug my ears against the fading sound of the engine.

Instead I took a deep breath, put down my coffee, and picked up my phone to read a message from my good friend Sara.

Sara is in the middle of her own goodbyes, and hers are much harder than mine right now. In two weeks, she’ll be leaving her two oldest girls in the U.S. to attend college, and she and her husband and their younger girls will return to PNG. And she will cry. She will grieve. And she will grow. This is the hardest thing Sara has ever done. But she’s doing it because she knows there is life in these goodbyes – life for her grown-up girls and her whole family. She is obeying God’s calling, and there is always life in obedience.

Another friend told me recently, “It’s silly to say that missionaries go through transition. Going through it would mean it comes to an end, and it doesn’t. Transition is where we live!” She’s absolutely right. (By the way, this friend leaves next week for a year…) Life on the mission field is a revolving door of people coming and going. Sometimes the going overshadows the coming.

But there is the coming. There are the hellos, too.

In a couple weeks, the plane I hear will land, and Sara will step out, and I will hug her weary, teary self. And we will say hello and smile and laugh and remember that this, too, is part of this life.

And someday when life is swallowed up in Life – something Grandpa is seeing with his own eyes – the hellos will be all that is left.

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