August 2, 2007
I caught just the ending of the 1944 classic National Velvet on Turner Classic Movies yesterday morning and discovered that that sweet film contained a great deal more wisdom than I'd ever realized. When Mi (played by Mickey Rooney) decides to leave, he has a short scene telling Mr. Brown that he's not good at saying goodbye. He says, "Tell Velvet goodbye for me, would you? And Mrs. Brown?" and after a few more words he walks off into the MGM sunset.
When Velvet discovers he's left, her mother explains that it was his time to move on, and he had done so. This is a beautifully written and played scene of parental advice -- elegantly dispensed and actually being taken -- yet Velvet has one more thing to tell him, asks her mother's permission. When she gets it, the girl mounts her steed and rides off to end the film with an exciting canter and finally two silhouettes in the distance. It is a hokey landscape, but it works.
I'm not too good at goodbyes myself. Not for Mi's reason -- being a young fellow and English to boot, he couldn't stand sentimentality, and probably was more than a little uneasy about tears -- with me it's just that I don't really accept the finality. I'm always certain that departing person will always literally be a part of my life, even though I've learned that there are some people I shall never see again. I have a cocoon of denial that gets me through difficult moments, and it sometimes lasts for years. Looking at the photos of the actors from Geneva, say, or recalling some office highjinks from Fairchild Publications in the 1970's, the cast to characters of my memory are as vivid to me as if they had just stepped into the other room for a minute.
I imagine I can find their phone numbers, or look them up on Google -- and reconnect in an instant; and all the intervening years will be wiped away. In some cases I can and have done so. However, more often, although people tend to be cordial and at least give the appearance of being pleasantly surprised to hear from me, I usually soon learn that I am opening a door that may have been better left closed. In my pantheon of old friends, I have to restrain myself from the urge to embrace them all.
I love reunions, and look forward to the upcoming one in Fairhope, but before it happens I must learn to lower my expectations. I must see things from other people's side. I must move on, like Mi.
Although saying goodbye was difficult for Mi, it's the moving on part that is difficult for me. I spoke with an intimate friend of ten years ago on the phone just a few weeks back, trying to catch him up on my life and my plans. Although we occasionally -- perhaps once a year -- meet for drinks or lunch, this time he was cool, and there were background noises from his side that sounded for all the world like giggling young women. He rang off saying, "I'll call you next week." When I hung up I realized I would never hear from him. This sentence resounded in my head: That train has left the station. How long it took me to realize it I'm embarrassed to say, but maybe I learned something with that conversation. Ever since, I catch myself thinking "That train has left the station too."
There are long goodbyes and abrupt ones. The final goodbye of death is easier for me to accept (but not without the requisite stages of grief) than the reality that this person is still walking the earth, but once and for all no longer in my orbit. In my heart, those, "Have-a-nice-life" goodbyes never really happen. But I'm learning to believe in them as I learn to empathize with people who are somehow less needy for their own past.
I don't think it's a bad trait to have the ability to go forward and leave baggage behind. I just say I haven't mastered it yet.