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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Friendships and the Pain of Farewell*

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 17, 2011
as "The only constant in life is change"

Our environment is often spoke of as nature, the sun, moon, trees, climate, all the elements of our world. But we also exist in another atmosphere; one of people, friends, loved ones, and acquaintances. They occupy our home and workplace; where we play and worship. They become a part of the very air we breathe.

In recent weeks hard times have hit home in my world. Layoffs have been in the news a lot, an unwelcome accompaniment to hard times.  

But now it’s personal. 

People…friends who have been a beloved presence in my life have gone away. It’s been a sad time, this parting.  But the most admirable thing is the courage with which they faced the coming change. They refused to be bitter or angry. They talked instead about possibilities and how they believed in themselves, refusing to surrender to self-pity. 

Above all, they spoke of faith in God. “Everything happens for a reason,” one said, “and it’s up to me to discover that reason.”

When my time comes I wonder if I can be that brave; that faithful.

These remarkable people have lived in my world these many years and their departure leaves a hole in my life. The hardest day was when we had to say goodbye. Everyone put up a brave front, but the ache we felt was real.

I value friendship. I treasure my friends. I simply could not live without them. Friendship goes beyond a pleasant conversation.  I will always need those people who will take my side when I’m right, and yet care enough to call me out when I’m wrong. Their advice, counsel, and support keeps me on track. And their effusive greetings remind me every day that I have value. As Carol Sobieski and Thomas Meehan once wrote, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

My wife and I have moved a lot in our marriage, so I’m no stranger to leaving people and places behind. That I’ve done it often, however, doesn’t make it any easier. But it is in those last moments together that the barriers come down and a priceless sharing occurs. Jean-Paul Richter wrote, “Man's feelings are always purest and most glowing in the hour of farewell.” Our culture is somewhat stilted when it comes to honest feelings. Thus, it is only in that last conversation that we feel freed to say out loud those things that have been tacitly understood.

But even for those who have been our foes, this is a time to perhaps heal a wound. I once knew a fellow with whom I had seemingly shared nothing but arguments. It had been a flinty relationship, at best, so I was surprised when I left my last job that he sought me out. After a moment’s hesitation, he extended his hand and said, “I’m sorry that we couldn’t have been friends.” As we shook hands, I felt thankful that our last words weren’t spoken in anger.

Gilda Radner, the vivacious and hilarious star of Saturday Night Live, died too early from cancer. As she neared the end of her life, she said,

“I wanted a perfect ending.
Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme,
and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Life is about not knowing, having to change,
taking the moment and making the best of it,
without knowing what's going to happen next.”

There’s no such thing as “Happily Ever After.” Every life endures continual challenge and change. How we face those unexpected trials in many ways defines us as individuals.  With each challenge met, with each change embraced, we grow stronger, more resilient.  Whether we win or lose, we are better people for the experience.

On this train ride we call life, few people will ride with us for the whole trip. Most will climb aboard, ride for a while, and disembark to continue their own journey. But in their absence, they leave a piece of themselves with us, just as they take a piece of us along with them. That gift, those memories, will live in our hearts forever; their recollection will always bring a smile and a laugh, and perhaps a tear.  We changed each other.  And neither of us will ever be the same.

Friendships don’t have to be local.  They can thrive across the barriers of miles and time.

Because they are things of the heart.  And the heart is never out of range.

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