Leaving Too Soon

Good-bye.

Good-bye.

My spiritual director thinks that I need to say ‘good-bye’. I prefer ‘See you later’. But he’s closer to the truth, and I really hate to admit that.

I’m leaving again soon. I’m finishing an MSW at Loyola University Chicago, closing another chapter of Jesuit life, excitedly trading it for the next. The Jesuits in my community I’ll probably see again, but this isn’t about them. This is about the relationships I’m leaving behind, the relationships with people who won’t be leaving Chicago anytime soon, with people who don’t have the privilege of Masters-degree-hopping or vocational globetrotting. I’m talking about three West African brothers living two miles away, the Burmese parents and their adorable children, the refugees of Rogers Park that in my social work internships have become clients, have become companions on journeys of hope and healing. Journeys of healing that I’m leaving while making my own way in the name of profession, education, Jesuit formation and idealism. I’m leaving again, and I just feel like I’m leaving again too soon.

***

Ever since high school, where I started studying Spanish and got my first road-trip CD from a service immersion in Appalachia, I’ve had the itch to “go” – in fact, domestic and international service opportunities were my chief draw to Marquette University back in 2005. And truly, these immersion trips to Belize, Baltimore, New Orleans, Virginia and Ecuador have done exactly what they aimed to do and more: they opened my eyes, rattled my heart, and even changed the vocational trajectory of my life. No small work.

Immersion trips in the teens and twenties have their irreplaceable value. They also bear an internal tension: immersion implies de-immersion, the subsequent return to my “young adult itinerary” with its satisfyingly adventurous and winding road map: “What’s next!?” But to what extent do I emphasize “my growth” at the selfish expense of the relationships I inevitably shed- relationships that, given time and stability, could potentially be something even more?

Indeed, short trips led to longer ones and soon I found myself more fully immersed, studying abroad in El Salvador, and then serving a year with JVC Northwest in Portland, Oregon. More time and commitment brought another level of growth, but also another level of self-critique — Is this still all about me?

***

I’m leaving again soon. I am at the end of a mental health counseling practicum at the Marjorie Kovler Center, a torture treatment center for refugees in northern Chicago. Over the course of these nine months, I’ve been privileged to experience so much- learning to cook authentic Chinese potstickers with refugee clients, mis-explaining the rules of baseball in broken French at a Cubs game, hearing personal stories in Spanish about Oscar Romero, rubbing shoulders with world-renowned clinicians and dedicated volunteers, and learning more African geography by hanging map and pointed finger than I could have ever learned on Sporcle. Oh, yeah, and I’ve learned about healing. I’ve learned about psychotherapy, yes, but I’ve learned far more about survivors’ resiliency, about terror’s traps but also its transformation, about seemingly-impossible hope and healing. But none of this quickly.

“I’ve had a hard time trusting you until now,” I heard from one of my clients  …after four months of meeting. There is no place where relational stability is more important than in trauma therapy; safety and trust are crucial. But safety and trust take time — and on their clock, not mine. But five months later, I leave. Again.

***

Social work has language for this: termination. As with most social work terms, the concept is far more nuanced, intuitive, dynamic and warm than the steel-faced jargon suggests.

Termination is transparency: “This is coming to an end. Let’s talk about it.” The conversations are hard, but clinical wisdom reminds us that this too, no matter the circumstances or reasons for termination, is itself a chance for relationship and transformation-in-relationship; even difficult termination is “grist for the mill”, sparks and kindling for healing, for lively growth in helpful relationship.

People have language for this, too: good-bye. But yeah, I’m afraid of its stark closure. I’m afraid to honestly face what’s ending, to honestly face my own conflicted reasons why, and I’m afraid to own the chasm of guilt that forms between.

“Goodbye” joins “Please,” “Thank you” and especially “I love you” for Most Loaded English Phrases. So I have some options: Speaking each, how will I use it? As a throwaway pleasantry or as the gospel mustard seed? As meaningless pith or timeless truth? As a greeting card quip or as a crafted haiku — at once a poem, a practice and a prayer? With each please or thank you, the words can mean exactly what they say, no more; or they can mean exactly what they say, but also the twenty emotional leagues beneath.

How much prayer, reflection, and emotional process am I willing to muster, am I willing to place behind the words when I say goodbye? I reckon that the process of reflectively ‘loading’ each good-bye and then ritually speaking them is just as valuable as the content of these simple words.

If “I love you” can communicate poetic lifetimes of committed, in sickness and in health, heartrending love, then couldn’t goodbye do the same? Couldn’t goodbye communicate and thus integrate, somehow, both my commitment and my tension, my concern for both the other and for myself, my guilt of leaving and my gratitude for what they’ve taught me, my sense of loss but mixed excitement anyways for the future? Please?

This is hard. I know this won’t tie up every loose end, but I’ve come too far to not try. I’ve spent all day, I’ve spent all week loading this with prayer, packing in every grateful and every sorrowful emotion. Our relationship deserves such a goodbye.

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The cover image, from Flickr user Peter Kaminski can be found here.

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