Yesterday I said goodbye to my international student friends from Hong Kong. They came to University of Hawaii at Manoa for an exchange program for the Spring semester. Even though it was only four months, they made their way into my heart and it was hard to see them go. As I pulled away from the Air China curb, I looked over my shoulder to see the small group of students and their pile of suitcases, taking one last group selfie in Hawaii. It felt too abrupt to just leave them like that, as if I was violating some instinctive need to stay connected. Yeah, sure we have global chat apps like Whats App and Line, and they sent me a picture today of their layover in Beijing, but that doesn’t make up for their physical presence.
I don’t think we were made to say goodbye… I think we were meant to just keep enjoying each other for all time. I guess that’s what heaven is for. When I say goodbye to another follower of Jesus, it’s merely a “see you later” even if I never see them on earth. I think to myself, “I’ll see you on this side of heaven or the other.” But it’s not the same with friends who aren’t part of the global family of believers; for us this might truly be the last goodbye…
But there’s something about the abruptness of airplane travel that makes goodbyes even more difficult and jarring. I just leave them on the curb and drive away… 12 hours later their walking out of customs to meet their parents. I think back to the days when airplane travel was just “taking off” so to speak. People still took ships and it took a few weeks to crossed oceans, rather than one night. There was no jet lag, just a gradual, imperceptible change of sunrise and sunset and a shifting of constellations. Folks on the ships had weeks to process their transition from one culture to another while nowadays we usually have less than 24 hours. I always make it a point to journal on the airplane–to process what I’m leaving behind and where I’m going. There’s something about writing at 40,000 feet above the earth that brings perspective… like my soul has a birds-eye view.
Back to the ships of old, there’s a wonderful tradition of holding crepe paper ribbons. Those embarking on their voyage would hold one end of a ribbon while folks on the dock held the other. There was a lot of time to look at each other and tug on the ribbon while the vessel prepared itself to launch. Then, as the ship slowly inched away from the dock and toward the horizon, the paper ribbon would stretch and eventually snap, a metaphor of departure. I imagine there was a sense of completion or fulfillment in this tactile way of saying goodbye. And then with paper shreds in hand the friends, family members, or lovers, would hold eye contact as the distance between them became greater and greater and one could no longer make out his significant other in the group. The next contact would be a hand-written letter, a telegram, or an expensive overseas phone call.
I suppose today our goodbyes are more like, “See you on skype, google hangout, face time, or [insert name of chat app].” Our wired and wireless world makes goodbyes seem almost irrelevant. And yet, no technology can replace the experience of being in someone’s presence, sharing the same 3D space, breathing the same air. I’m thankful I can send a “Whats App” message to my friends in HK… it takes the sting out of the parting. Yet, some part of me longs of the experience of the ship and the crepe paper ribbons to say a proper goodbye.