Learning to Say Goodbye

So today was JP’s final Sunday at home before leaving for Freshman Year at UVA on Wednesday. I decided it would be a nice idea to have some kind of family send off. Something special, intentional, honest. Vulnerable. 

We began with a Sunday time of prayer that we sometimes do. A few readings from the Bible, including a psalm. Then we each shared a comment about something from the readings that struck us.

This set the stage. We were all present, seated in a circle, having just heard Paul describe the cloud of witnesses that invisibly surround us (Hebrews 12:1), having heard the psalmist pray for God’s blessing (Psalm 66) and having heard Jesus say that he welcomes children wholeheartedly into his presence for a blessing (Mt. 19:13-15). The prayer time went like it often goes. Kids were respectful. Listening. Participating. But there were no breakthroughs from heaven or descending tongues of fire.

Then we moved to the send-off part. With tears starting to moisten my eyes and my voice cracking, I explained that this was to be our last Sunday gathering before JP leaves home. That we would take some time this day to send him off with our love and prayers. That each person could take a turn to say either something recent about JP that they are grateful for, or something they will miss about him. 

There was a brief pause.

Then Ellie went first. She turned toward her brother. “I’m thankful for the way you would always include Maddie and me in your time with Gwen when she came over. That you would spend time with us together, not just spend time with Gwen. That made me feel valued.” 

There was a pause. I looked at Maddie, who is always ready to share during family time. 12 year old Maddie and JP were close. They had a secret handshake they called the BB that ended with a leaping belly to belly bump (hence the BB). Maddie sat up a little bit. “I’m grateful for the times we spent together with you and Gwen. For that one time when we didn’t have anything to do and you took us out to the movies together and…” here she bowed her head. Tears filled her eyes. She draped her face with her hair and hid her tears. We heard her quiet sniffles. She was not yet ready to share this kind of sadness and vulnerability. We let her cry quietly, her remarks unfinished. 

Katie went next. “I’m grateful for the relationships you have built with your siblings and each member of the family…” She began to cry as she gave examples of what she had seen. She kept speaking through the tears.

Next, without prompting, 16 year old Alexander spoke. He was moved with emotion from the first word. “I’m grateful…” he began as tears welled in his eyes. His voice cracked, his lips quivered. He covered his eyes with his hand, unaccustomed to revealing this kind of emotion, this kind of vulnerability. Alexander is our stoic child. He always hides what he is feeling. But not today. 

“I’m grateful for the ways that you included me on weekend nights, making sure I had plans. And if I didn’t you would invite me into to come hang out with your friends. Thank you for making me feel loved that way.” His tears flowed, though he kept them hidden behind his right hand. A hush fell in the room at such a raw display of love between two brothers. 

It was my turn. I began: “I’m grateful…” My voice broke, my breathing got heavy, tears pooled in my eyes and trickled down my face. “I’m grateful for the way you and I got to bond over your job at Cutco, the way you often came to me with questions as you faced new situations…I’m grateful for the way you have bonded with each of your siblings this year…for the role you have taken in Young Life over the years…for the leadership you have shown. I feel sadness now but also happiness for the opportunity you have ahead.” 

Words to that effect. I then put on one of our family’s favorite songs. The Blessing, by Elevation Worship. We all rose and stood in a circle around JP. I in front of JP. Katie behind him. Maddie to my left. Ellie and Alexander to my right. We each put our hand on him in blessing. I with my right hand on his heart. And I said:

“Father in heaven, with all the authority that is given to us as John Paul’s parents. . .” 

And then I lost it. The sense of loss. The sense of the unknown. The change that was coming to our family. Waves of tears flooded over me. Waves. Sobs. I let it happen. I waited until I could pray through it. I let them move and pass though me, until I could continue: 

“We pray a blessing over you, JP. I pray that as you go out alone into the world that you would discover the cloud of witnesses Paul spoke about in the reading from Hebrews today. The living, invisible church in heaven. The invisible church around you… The church of brothers and sisters above to pray for you and guide you. I pray for you that you receive the gift of good friends to journey with. I pray for Alexander as he steps into his role as oldest brother.”

Katie added her own prayer. As she did, the song that was playing in the background sang of the way God’s blessing descends down from generation to generation on those who love him. We saw this as an echo of the cloud of witness we had just prayed about. And it was sweet.

As we closed our prayer, I said: “Hugs are acceptable.”

Maddie approached first, sniffling quietly as she buried face in her brother’s chest. Then Ellie, then Katie (deep tears) then a long hug to Alexander – the longest, tenderest hug I have ever seen two brothers give to one another. This scene: a younger brother weeping in his older brother’s arms was like a Rembrandt painting, all stillness, eloquence and beauty. That moment is frozen in my memory like a pearl glistening in an open oyster. The pearl of two brothers’ love blossoming in the heart of a family. One of the greatest joys I have ever had as a father. 

JP turned lastly to me. He walked over to me. This young man who now stands shoulder to shoulder with me. Eye to eye. We embraced. Our hearts beat next to each other. I placed my left hand behind his back, between the scapula. I raised my right hand to the back of his head, holding it next to my own. I took a breath as my breath was almost taken from me. JP burst into deep sobs, deep sobs from the center of his soul. Sobs that seemed to reach back into the earliest years when he was a fragile soul and all the way forward to now. My 18 year old son sobbing like an infant in my arms. I was taken back in memory to the 7 yr old boy in Cleveland who ran into my arms after he lost his first tournament squash match. I thought of the 10 year boy at Nationals who had just hit a forehand drop to win his first US National Championship, then ran off court to leap into my arms. We stood there for about a minute. The family was silent, moved by how JP was moved. 

Finally, I pulled back. I held his head between both of my hands. I look at him squarely in the eye. He was looking away, tears in his eyes, not wanting to be seen, eye to eye, with that kind of vulnerability. I waited until he looked at me: “You are ready, JP. You are ready. I believe in you. I am happy for you. You are ready for this.” 

I stepped away. We all stepped away. We all sensed we were in the presence of something holy. We left the room. JP sat down in a chair, alone. No one spoke for about 10 minutes. Silence filled the house. We left JP the space to gradually recover, before gathering at the table for our final Sunday brunch, subdued but happy. 

Three days later, the date of his actual departure was upon us. I had finished packing the minivan; I had made use of every available nook and cranny. Katie was going to drive him to UVA while I stayed back with the other three kids, as they had returned to school on Tuesday. 

It was time to leave. I said I had a few things I wanted to say to JP. We sat down in two chairs on the patio. I reminded him that in a State school he would often run up against an atmosphere that was hostile to faith. That he would need to strengthen himself, to build up an immunity to the kind of messaging he would hear. I reminded him he would need to learn to take care of his things. That if he lost stuff he would be responsible for replacing them. I told him he could call me at any time. As I was in the past, I said, I would in the future always be ready to take his call. 

Then we walked to the car. As he reached it, he turned and looked at me. He had said the day before that he was done crying, that he had said all his goodbyes and was done crying. I figured our farewell would be business-like. He extended his right hand. I said, “I don’t want that,” and opened wide my arms. He came close. Chest to chest. He did not pull away. I put my right hand behind his head again; my left hand high, behind his upper back. For a moment not a word was spoken. Two grown men, equal in height, in a slow embrace. 

I didn’t prepare any words for this moment because I had not envisioned it happening. But words came: 

“I’ll always love you.” I said. “I’ll always remember the good times we had. And I will look forward to the next one.” 

I struggled through tears as I spoke. We stood there, like that, for a long moment. 

Then I stepped away. Neither of us looked the other in the eye. He went to the passenger side of the car and got in. My wife was already in the driver’s side. It occurred to me that I needed a photograph of this moment: the moment JP left for college. I got my phone, opened it up, pushed the camera app and hustled back over to the passenger side. JP rolled down his window. 

Tears were streaming down his face.  His eyes were slightly red. He looked moved, frail, vulnerable. I put the phone away. 

“I don’t need a photo,” I said. 

This was not a moment to record in a photograph. It was too precious. Too holy. JP needed to be left alone with these emotions. 

I looked at him, at his sad eyes. Tears ran down his cheeks. He was looking away, eyes downward and to the left. I put my hand on his chest, in a gesture of blessing, though I said no words of blessing. I left it there for a few seconds, then said “love you,” and backed away. 

As the minivan drove off, carrying my oldest son to college, I jogged after it, down the driveway, waving. Wishing in the moment that this moment need not be whisked away. But away it went, rolling on like the car that drove slowly down the road. 

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