There’s an old country song by Dan Hicks, “How can I miss you when you won’t go away?” To me, that’s 2020 in a nutshell.
At the theatre, we are in the middle of a two-week run of The Sound of Music – a socially-distanced performance, playing to patchwork crowds in carefully-choreographed six-foot patterns. On stage, the children sing delightfully – so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye. They kick each other playfully into the wings, and then the whole family slips away into the night. Just like that. Flipping off fascism as a family, the von Trapps make this leaving business look so easy. It’s not fair, I think. Saying goodbye is hard.
In contrast to the von Trapps, my home life this year has just felt like being plain Trapped – caught, as if in an elevator stuck between floors. Since March, all three adult children have been back home, crammed back into their childhood surroundings, prisoners of pandemic and politics. None of them signed up to repeat their teenage patterns in adult bodies. It’s been good natured, but good grief…
This month, finally some good news. The first of the three is able to move on. My oldest has at last received his visa to move to France, where he’ll be teaching English in schools. And so the farewells begin.
In preparation for his departure, we make a deep dive into the basement. For twenty years, I have been saving mementos for each of our kids - pictures, trophies, certificates from their various activities, clothing that doesn’t fit, and pictures – lots of pictures. When we sit down with the box for my oldest, it becomes clear that he wants almost nothing of this jumble. Of course, such trophies are more significant to a parent than a child. And fair enough: What right-minded adult really wants a handprint turkey from their kindergarten days? Chagrined, I realize it’s time to let go of it all. This collection has been more about me than him. We consign everything to the trash, except for a middle school certificate of merit in weightlifting, for comic value. I promise to have it framed in his honor.
We go through his keys, gradually removing each one from its skinny blue lanyard – home, car, one we can’t identify, leaving just a Kroger card and a well-worn bottle opener.
The final night before he leaves, we all sit out behind the house and try to make a fire. The wood is wet and all we get is a huge grey cloud of acrid smoke. We retreat, coughing, to the house and sit on the kitchen floor, heads propped against the various kitchen cabinets, like we have done a thousand times. We argue over nothing, taking turns picking on each other. This is probably the last time we’ll all be together like this in our home. After 2020, none of the three kids ever want to live here again. We agree, somewhat ruefully, that the next time we’re all together will probably be for a funeral. Most likely mine they tell me with a smile.
In the end, there are no great revelations, no stirring speeches, no confessions of undying love. Whatever needed to be said has been said already. Or is simply unutterable. We all retreat to our phones and watch the clock, just marking time in this unyielding bubble. The dog starts to lick the oven door. We laugh, and one by one go to bed.
In the morning, I drive my son to the Goodwill and deliver bags of clothes and childhood possessions. We swing by the grandparents’ houses to deliver groceries. Then we head to the airport.
In South Bend, we hug, masked up, in the drop-off zone. I’m proud of you, I start to mumble into his shoulder. But a car behind us honks its horn, ruining the moment. And then he’s gone. And I know this time it’s for good.
Back in the car, he’s left the blue lanyard coiled neatly on the passenger seat. I stare at it, stupidly, while taxis pull around me, and travelers yell, and all I can think is: He’s cut the cord.
Music: "So Long, Farewell" (Reprise) from The Sound of Music (1965)